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A Working Paper

From International Research Supported by
VOSS Program: Virtual Organizations as Socio-technical Systems

Dated: July 2013


Bert Painter, Independent Consulting Social Scientist, Vancouver, B.C.
Douglas R. Austrom, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University
Betty Barrett, MIT/Skotech Initiative, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Betsy Merck, Merck Consulting, San Francisco, CA
Pamela Posey, Eyes on Performance, Seattle, WA
Ron Purser, College of Business, San Francisco State University
Ramkrishnan V. Tenkasi, Dept. of Management & Organizational Behavior, Benedictine University


This paper reports on a comparative case study of three ongoing research and development (R&D) projects, each conducted virtually across multiple sites and involving varying degrees of task
uncertainty due to its stage on a continuum of the R&D process, from basic fundamental Research to
scale-up and commercial Development. The study has identified different types of coordination
mechanisms and their impact in reducing or eliminating knowledge development barriers for differing levels of task uncertainty, from the high uncertainty of basic Research to the lower uncertainty of
scale-up Development. For practitioners, one implication is to explicitly design the deliberations and coordination of virtual R&D as part of the planning and budgeting for projects such as multi-university research or global development consortia.

Socio - Technical Systems Theory -
                       Eric Trist  (1911 - 1993)  

The history, context and early development of Socio-Technical Systems theory and practice is largely expressed in the work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. These web pages provide resources for understanding and accessing that history.

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations

Foundation, History, Research and Publications

1941 - 1989

"The Social Engagement of Social Science:
A Tavistock Anthology"

Volume I - The Socio-Psychological Perspective
Volume II - The Socio-Technical Perspective
Volume III - The Socio-Ecological Perspective

Biography of Eric L.Trist (1911 - 1993)

Eric Trist was a founder member of the Tavistock Institute and chairman from 1956 - 1966. He spent his last years in the preparation of The Social Engagement of Social Science.


This website is archival. It provides a history/work of the Tavistock Institute and describes the contributions of the Tavistock to social science by reference to the publications of its members and associates.


Click  HERE for


.Blishen-Lockhart model of community evaluation

used world-wide for planning economic development and social impact analysis


Action Research(*) is a focused effort to achieve both:- (1 change/improvement in a practical (intra- or inter-organization/community/network) setting and; (2 meaningful contribution to the stock of social science knowledge/theory.

Action research relies upon an explicit collaboration between (internal or external) researcher(s) and an organization/community/network entity. Both parties need to share a real interest in the combination of "action" and "research" objectives, although their relative interest in each of these particular objectives may vary by degree.

This shared commitment to "action" and "research" relies upon a "reflective" attitude. "Research" needs to inform action, and "action" is required to ground theory and research. It is a continuous learning process with a typical cycle of four steps: plan (research), act, observe, and reflect (evaluate).

Put very simply, action research is "learning by doing".
A problem/opportunity/challenge is identified and data is collected for a careful assessment/diagnosis. This is followed by a collective postulation of possible solutions, from which a plan of action emerges and is implemented. Data on the results of the intervention are collected and analyzed, and the findings are interpreted in light of how successful the action has been. At this point, the situation is re-assessed and the process may begin another cycle.

Within organizations, action research is highly participative and a tremendous growth experience for people, so that it is often referred to as "action learning". See "Action Research at Mackenzie: Experiences of Employee Participation in Decision-Making".

What distinguishes action research from general professional practices, consulting, or daily problem-solving is the emphasis on "scientific" study, which is to say, the question is studied systematically, and much time is spent on refining methodological tools to suit the situation, and on collecting, analyzing, and presenting data on an ongoing basis.

At the same time, what distinguishes action research from other types of research is the immediacy of the researcher's interaction with, and indeed, vulnerability to the real-life complexities and unpredictable challenges in the social context of the research. See:"Action Research in an American Underground Coal Mine".

From the viewpoint of the "researcher", action research provides vital access to real-world, real-time situations that provide unique opportunities to test and develop social science hypotheses and theory, as well as to discover, often unintended, new knowledge.

From the practical standpoint of the organization or social entity, action research provides tools, methods, and an attitude for systematic inquiry that can support highly effective planned change as well as foster the capabilities and culture for a "learning" organization. See: "Action Research Design of Knowledge Work & IT: A Case Study."

(*) The term "Action-Research" originated with the German and American social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, in 1946, followed by extensive application at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, from the 1950's and on, until today, when it is a distinct approach to applied social research and organizational/community development. See:
"An Overview of the Methological Approach of Action Research".