Coordination of knowledge among organizations changing radically

November 01, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Today's remarkable new information technologies are not only changing the way people work, shop and pay bills, they also are "transforming the very structure of our social institutions by radically changing the way organizations coordinate knowledge."

That's the opinion of Noshir Contractor, a University of Illinois professor of speech communication and psychology, one of the principal investigators of a project to study these "radical changes." A $1.5 million research grant from a National Science Foundation initiative to the U. of I. departments of speech communication and psychology will support the three-year project, which just began. Researchers will explore how new information technologies are shaping communication networks and how these networks are changing the way 21st century organizations will perform. The NSF Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence Initiative for the 21st Century was established in 1997.

"This project is an important first step in explaining and gauging the implications of new forms of organizing, which historically have played an important role in any society's social and economic welfare," Contractor said.

According to Contractor, new information technologies such as "intranets" connect people with common interests and "enable them to share information and cultivate knowledge regardless of where people are located. These 'knowledge networks' generate organizational structures very different from the past. Today, the network has become the organization, yet little is known about how these new network organizations develop or what their impact will be on our lives."

The research team ­ itself a knowledge network with expertise in communication, computer science, engineering, psychology, sociology, statistics and urban planning ­ also includes Stanley Wasserman and Andrea Hollingshead from the U. of I., as well as six researchers from Carnegie-Mellon University, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.

The project team will study how knowledge networks evolve in at least a dozen organizations. In order to accommodate the increasingly global nature of network organizations, Contractor said, the project will include multinational organizations and several organizations based outside the United States. The team expects to produce "the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary test to explain and predict the evolution of knowledge networks and network organizations."

"We're thrilled to be able to launch a project all of us have been excited about for some time, and we're especially delighted that the NSF is recognizing an interdisciplinary effort in which communication research plays a key role," Contractor said.

The NSF established its initiative to create networked systems that increase the availability of information; develop a better understanding of the nature of intelligence; design new ways of advancing knowledge; and provide a fund for multidisciplinary research about knowledge investments.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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