Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century

21C Projects

Home  |  Summary  | Working Papers  |  Process HandbookInteresting Organizations   | PressProjects  | 

Projects at 21C








List of Research Projects and Activities for the 21st Century Initiative


Project Name: Process Handbook

 Brief Project Description: The Process Handbook is used to collect examples of how different organizations perform similar processes and organizes the examples in an on-line repository which includes the relative advantages of the alternatives. The handbook is intended to help people: (1) redesign existing organizational processes, (2) invent new organizational processes (especially ones that take advantage of information technology), (3) learn about organizations, and (4) automatically generate software to support organizational processes. 

A key element of the work is a novel theoretical approach to analyzing processes at various levels of abstraction, capturing both the details of specific processes as well as the "deep structure" of their similarities. This approach uses ideas from computer science about inheritance and from coordination theory about managing dependencies between activities. A primary advantage of the approach is that it allows people to explicitly represent the similarities and differences among related processes and to easily find or generate sensible alternatives for how a given process could be performed.

Project Leader: Professor Thomas Malone:

Project Contact: John Quimby (; (617) 258-7376)

Related Papers: "Tools for inventing organizations: Toward a handbook of organizational processes," Thomas W. Malone, Kevin Crowston, Jintae Lee, Brian Pentland, Chrysanthos Dellarocas, George Wyner, John Quimby, Charley Osborne, and Abraham Bernstein, Center for Coordination Science Working Paper No. 198, January 1997.

Top of Page

Project Name: Interesting Organizations Database

 Brief Project Description: The Interesting Organizations Database identifies and catalogs examples of companies using innovative organizational approaches or advanced technologies. We want to find and understand companies whose practices may seem unusual today but which have the potential to be commonplace in the future. This is an important foundation for inventing the organizations of the 21st Century. The Database will form a research base from which MIT faculty will examine selected companies in depth and look for unexpected possibilities for future organizations. The Database will be a link to student internships and field studies. Ideas contained in the Database may also be of direct use to industry partners. The Database may stimulate the creation of a series of scenarios of possible future organizations, which we hope to represent in the Process Handbook. 

Project Leader and Contact: Michael Scott Morton (; (617) 253-7175)

More Information: Interesting Organizations Web Page

Top of Page

Project Name: Scenarios

 Brief Project Description: To integrate 21C's multiple research efforts, we are using a tool developed for use by corporate strategy groups--scenario planning--to develop a series of coherent stories about the kinds of organizations which might emerge in the future. The scenarios are not intended as predictions, but rather, as visions of possible alternative ways of organizing work and structuring firms in the next century. The initial scenario work imagines two extremes along the organizational spectrum. The first, "Small Firms, Large Networks," describes a future in which the leading organizations are autonomous teams of one to ten workers, linked by networks, coming together in temporary, project-driven combinations. The second scenario, "Virtual Countries," envisions a future in which huge, multi-industry conglomerates emerge as the dominant way of organizing work. 

Project Leader: Professor Thomas Malone

Contact: Rob Laubacher, Research Associate (617-253-0526; email:

Related Papers: "Two Scenarios for 21st Century Organizations: Shifting Networks of Small Firms or All-Encompassing "Virtual Countries"? Robert J. Laubacher, Thomas W. Malone, and the MIT Scenario Working Group, 21st Century Initiative Working Paper Series No. 001, January 1997 and "Flexible Work Arrangements and 21st Century Workers' Guilds," Robert J. Laubacher and Thomas W. Malone, 21st Century Initiative Working Paper Series No. 004, October 1997.

Top of Page


Project Name: Internet Commerce Group

Brief Project Description: The widespread dissemination of information technology in the work place and home coupled with the increasing use of Internet and other computer networks has created a new way to conduct commerce. However, the nature of electronic commerce is still not well understood. Some of the strategies, structures and processes that were previously successful have not worked in this new business environment. To learn how businesses can successfully use electronic commerce, we have undertaken an investigation of some key questions. For instance: 

  • How should digital information be priced and packaged?
  • How will "friction-free" markets affect the optimal pricing and positioning of products and services?
  • How can and should intellectual property be protected? How can and should personal information be protected?
  • How will the potential for improved relationship management change marketing?
  • Will more efficient markets make outsourcing and partnering more attractive?
  • How will the demise of geography as a constraint affect the nature of business communities and ties?
  • What sources of competitive advantage are most important in a digital economy?
Firms have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on computers and communications equipment to create an information infrastructure that makes electronic commerce possible. By focusing our research in this area, we hope to discover how to best leverage those investments. So far, there are two current projects in this area: 
  • 1) Aggregating and Disaggregating Information Goods: Implications forBundling, Site Licensing and Micropayment Systems, Erik Brynjolfsson and Yannis Bakos. 



     This project seeks to develop a unified theory for the effects of aggregation and disaggregation on pricing, profits and efficiency. Bundling can be thought of as aggregation across products, site licensing across people and subscriptions across time. The models develop indicate that the optimal degree of aggregation may be radically different when marginal reproduction and transactions costs are very low.

     2) In Search of "Friction-Free Markets": An Exploratory Analysis of Prices for Books, CDs and Software Sold on the Internet, Joseph Bailey and Erik Brynjolfsson

     We quantitatively and qualitatively examine pricing strategies for Internet commerce by examining prices for several near-commodity products from retailers on the Internet and a matched set of firms selling identical products through conventional channels. Thus far, we have collected and analyzed total of 23,789 observations from 52 Internet and conventional retailers and find that several of the common assumptions about pricing strategies in the Internet are not supported.

Project Leader: Prof. Erik Brynjolfsson

Project Contact: Erik Brynjolfsson (; (415) 725-9746)

Related papers: "Electronic Commerce and Marketing on the Internet, MIT Sloan Seminar," Erik Brynjolfsson, John Little and Tom Malone (this seminar examines a variety of topics relating to electronic commerce and marketing via presentation by faculty, industry experts and students.) 

Bakos, J.Y. and Brynjolfsson, E. "Bundling Information Goods: Pricing, Profits and Efficiency", Working Paper, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Bakos, J.Y. and Brynjolfsson, E. "Aggregation and Disaggregation of Information Goods: Implications for Bundling, Site Licensing and Micropayment Systems," Working Paper, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 More Information: The Internet Commerce Group Web Page

Top of Page

Project: Learning and Change Group

 Brief Project Description: The Learning and Change Group was formed to help build an intellectual community and infrastructure to support research on learning and change, broadly construed. Organizational and societal change has been an underlying theme of Sloan School faculty research for many years. The group, with its emphasis on changing organizational and societal work structures, is developing appropriate structures and activities around shared topics and ideas, including research projects, conferences, edited books or special issues of journals, web page communications, and course development.

 The faculty and researchers involved in the group so far include: John Carroll, Peter Senge, Lotte Bailyn, Wanda Orlikowski, Jack Rockart, Marcy Tyre, John Sterman, Nelson Repenning, George Roth, Amy Edmunson.

Project Leaders: Prof. John Carroll and Dr. Peter Senge

Project Contact: John Carroll (; (617) 253-2617)

Top of Page

Project Name: Organizational Context & The Center for Innovation in New Product Development

Brief Project Description: This project is a new undertaking to be led by Prof. Rebecca Henderson, in conjunction with the Center for Innovation in Product Development at MIT. The project focuses on the context in which new product development takes place. It looks at the "deep organizational structure ," and how that affects the way new products are developed. This structure includes four key elements: formal reporting relationships and organizational structure; organizational cultures and norms; metrics and incentives; and organizational boundaries. Another important element to this context is the competitive environment, and the question about whether there is one "best" way to do things? The key research questions for this project include: 

  • How can the elements of deep structure be optimized to support product development? 
  • How do the elements of deep structure interact with each other, both in the short term and over time? How can we use our knowledge of this interaction to support product development? 
  • How do the answers to these questions change as the competitive environment changes?
This project is Thrust 3 of the research activities in the Center for Innovation in Product Development (CIPD). CIPD is an engineering research center established by the National Science Foundation for research and education in product development. It is a joint effort of the MIT School of Engineering, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and industrial partners. By combining the best ideas and experience of industry and academia, this center seeks to advance the theory and practice of product development to enable companies to achieve the highest levels of customer satisfaction and product value and ensure long-term vitality and profitability. The research and educational activities of this center include new ways to identify market opportunities, understand customers, define, design, and deliver product portfolios and services, manage the process, and upgrade the human capability.

Project Leader and Contact: Prof. Rebecca Henderson (, (617) 253-6618)

Top of Page


Program: Center for Information Systems Research

 Brief Description: The Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) conducts field-based research on issues related to the management and use of information technology (IT) in complex organizations. Established at the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1974, our mission is to develop concepts and frameworks to help executives address the IT-related challenges of leading increasingly dynamic, global, and information-intensive organizations. The relevance of our research is ensured by the active participation of corporate sponsors from a range of industries. Research results are disseminated primarily through working papers, an annual conference, executive education, and sponsor forums. During 1999-2000 CISR research addresses three themes: the relationship between IT infrastructure and organizational processes; the use of information to manage complex organizations; and IT governance.

 Funding Amount: $40,000 per year.

 Director: Dr. John F. Rockart

 Contact: Dr. Jeanne W. Ross (; (617) 253-9461)

 Related Papers, etc.: "Linking Intra-Organizational Stakeholders: CIO Perspectives on the Use of Coordination Mechanisms", Carol V. Brown and V. Sambamurthy. 

"Horizontal Mechanisms Under Differing IS Organization Contexts", Carol V. Brown 

"Case Study‹Travelers Property Casualty Corporation: Building an Object Environment for Greater Competitiveness", Douglas M. LaBoda and Jeanne W. Ross. 

"Case Study‹Texas Instruments: Service Level Agreements and Cultural Change", Jeanne W. Ross Also a series of case studies on IT initiatives at firms like Johnson & Johnson, Texas Instruments, Dow Corning, Schneider National, and GTech.

 More Information: CISR Web Page

Program: Center for Coordination Science (CCS)

 Brief Description: The primary mission of the Center for Coordination Science is to understand how new information technologies can help people work together in new ways. Its projects have included (1) developing and studying new coordination technologies (such as groupware and electronic commerce), (2) studying how information technology affects organizations (and vice versa, and (3) developing new theories of how work can be coordinated (coordination theory).

The primary project in CCS this year is the Process Handbook project (see description above). All sponsors of CCS are members of the Process Handbook basic consortium and vice versa.

Funding Amount: $50K/year for regular sponsors. $150K/year for major sponsors (includes a special project or company employee on-site at MIT).

 Project Leader: Thomas Malone

 Project Contact: John Quimby

 More Information: CCS Web Page

Top of Page



Project Name: Virtual Organizations

 Brief Project Description: As part of her new area of research, Prof. Wanda Orlikowski is beginning a multi-year project to explore the new way of organizing work that has come to be known as "virtual." While the idea of "virtual organizations" has been around for a few years, it is still poorly defined, with as many conceptions of it as there are commentators. As a result, we have very little understanding of what it really means -- for the organization and the individual -- to "work virtually." Her objective in this research project is to conduct empirical and theoretical research to address this knowledge gap. The notion of working virtually is interesting and important for two reasons. First, virtual organizations represent a new and some argue, increasingly relevant paradigm of organizing work which is radically different from the relatively fixed and hierarchical forms of working that still dominate our corporate and conceptual landscapes. Second, current and future pressures on businesses require them to be more flexible, responsive, and networked, making "going virtual" a particularly appropriate strategic option for many firms. To the extent that working virtually becomes a more significant form of organizing work in the next century, this research project will provide important theoretical and pragmatic insights for researchers and managers.

Prof. Orlikowski expects to generate at least four kinds of knowledge from this research project. First, she intends to identify the range of organizing relationships that may be considered virtual, distinguishing different types of virtual work on a number of dimensions. Second, by generating in-depth analyses for each case studied, she will produce a rich description of the various types of virtual work identified. These individual case studies will then be analyzed comparatively to develop some generalized patterns of what it means to work virtually. This third kind of knowledge will provide a model of virtual organizing which can then be used to produce practical knowledge of what works and what doesn't in virtual settings, what organizational and technological capabilities support virtual work, and what new kinds of opportunities, problems, and challenges are raised by working and operating virtually. This fourth kind of knowledge should help managers better understand, implement, and effectively deal with virtual forms of organizing in the future.

Project Leader: Prof. Wanda Orlikowski

Project Contact: Wanda Orlikowski (617 253-0443, email:

Top of Page


Project Name: The Improvement Paradox: Designing Sustainable Quality Improvement Programs

Brief Project Description:  John Sterman is the J. Spencer Standish Professor of Management, Director of the System Dynamics Group and Chair of the Master's Program.  He is interested in why quality programs have inconsistent results.  His research focuses on the "Improvement Paradox" where quality improvement programs, after initial success, end as failures. Prof. Sterman believes this may occur because quality programs are tightly coupled with other functions such as product development, accounting, and manufacturing and gains in one can interact unfavorably with existing routines and structures in another area.  Prof. Sterman and his colleagues engage in field studies with partner firms to identify different ways improvement programs can lead to unintended side effects.  They develop theories to explain the dynamics of the improvement paradox, and tools (e.g. management flight simulators) to help assure success in improvement efforts. For a more detailed description of the research and the possibilities for collaboration, visit Prof. Sterman's site at

Project Leader: Prof. John Sterman

Project Contact: John Sterman (617)253-1951 (voice); (617)258-7579 (fax); email:

Top of Page

Project Name: Managing innovations globally: The roles of international cooperation and corporate headquarters during innovative subsidiary projects in the multinational firm.

Brief Project Description: In early stages of internationalization, innovation tends to be concentrated in the firm's home country, and thus the problem of global learning is one of the transfer of innovations from the home country to foreign operations. Increasingly, however, with the maturing of firms' international operations and the greater global dispersion of both lead users and technical capabilities, innovation opportunities emerge in many markets simultaneously, and the capabilities required to respond to these opportunities may be dispersed as well. Thus, multinational firms need firm-wide processes to manage innovations globally, in which headquarters and subsidiaries play active roles. To be effective, these processes have to detect local opportunities, assess their potential for the firm as a whole and not just for the local market in question, coordinate innovation development across borders, and facilitate the international transfer of innovations thus created.

We study such processes in multinational firms, addressing four key managerial issues:

Which factors influence how and how much a unit cooperates with foreign units while developing an innovation? 

  • How does such cooperation affect project performance and the potential of the innovation to be used in the rest of the firm?
  • How can corporate and regional headquarters influence such cooperation, and under which conditions is this influence more or less effective?
  • Which cooperation problems typically emerge, and how can they be avoided or resolved?
Our work extends previous research in this area, most recently by Bartlett, Ghoshal, Nohria and associates, Szulanski, Birkinshaw, Hansen, and Kostova and Cummings, as well as the broad literature on knowledge management. 

Project Leader: Professor Donald R. Lessard, with Professor D. Eleanor Westney

Contact: Andreas Gast, 617-253-6620; fax 617-253-2660, email

Related Papers: Andreas Gast and Donald R. Lessard, "Multi-point knowledge development processes in the multinational firm", published as Sloan School working paper #3985.

Top of Page

Project Name: Benchmarking the Fruitflies: Clockspeed-Based Strategy for Product, Process, and Supply Chain Design

Brief Project Description: This work introduces a new lens for strategic business analysis, an expanded scope for the focus of that analysis, and a new implementation framework for incorporating the resulting insights into managerial practice. The lens is that of clockspeed analysis -- harnessing the speed of industrial change for insights into the continual evolution of competitive threats and opportunities. The focus of clockspeed analysis is the chain of capabilities -- from the customer needs all the way upstream to knowledge creation and mineral extraction. Rather than focusing on individual core capabilities, clockspeed analysis examines the entire capability set embedded in the value supply chain to the final customer. The implementation framework is three-dimensional concurrent engineering, which elevates and integrates the "third dimension" of supply chain design into traditional concurrent product and process design, thereby extending strategic vision deeper into these critical business processes. 

Clockspeed-based benchmarking is a tool for wringing insights from fast-clockspeed organizations--the "fruit flies" of industry. The tool helps managers comprehend the forces driving industry control, which, in turn, enables better forecasting of these forces across a number of industries. Understanding when and how the takeover of an industry can be accomplished by a player who was once "merely a supplier" is a fundamental lesson from clockspeed-based benchmarking. Furthermore, clockspeed-based benchmarking can aid forecasting industry structure and opportunities for control. For example, the "double helix" model illustrates how industries cycle predictably back and forth between horizontal and vertical structures. Furthermore, these dynamics of industry and supply chain structure are inextricably linked to the product architectures that are evolving concurrently. Modular products beget modular supply chains and horizontal structures. Integral product architectures beget integral supply chains and vertical industry structures. The cycling between integral and modular, between horizontal and vertical, is often imperceptible in slow-clockspeed industries, but may be observed readily in faster evolving ones, providing a powerful tool for forecasting supply chain evolution for strategic positioning. 

Three-dimensional concurrent engineering (3-DCE) is a process for the simultaneous design and development of new products along with the processes and supply chains necessary to bring those products to fruition and to market. All companies that practice traditional ("two-dimensional") concurrent engineering accomplish the necessary supply chain development in some way as they go along. However, the supply chain development is typically not fully integrated into the development processes and the strategic implications of the supply chain decisions typically are not recognized in the same way as are those of the product decisions. Three-dimensional concurrent engineering (3-DCE) provides a framework and methodology to integrate strategic supply chain design with concurrent product and process design. 

Project Leader and Contact: Professor Charles H. Fine (617)253-3632; 

Project Name: Cultivating Distributed Design in Complex Organizations 

Brief Project Description: George Wyner, a doctoral student working with Prof. Thomas Malone, is exploring how to coordinate and support the distributed design of business processes. This research is motivated by the observation that process design efforts are typically highly distributed in practice, with users playing an often unrecognized role in shaping the design of the processes they bring to life. 

Mr. Wyner is using the process handbook method to construct a taxonomy of design methods in general, process design methods in particular, and even more specifically distributed process design methods. This taxonomy will be used to identify patterns of similarity and difference as well as the trade-offs among alternative design approaches. Mr. Wyner plans to extend this taxonomy with new possibilities for distributed process design, developed by using coordination theory to "recoordinate" centralized design methods. An initial application of the taxonomy will be to process design efforts in connection with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementations, with the goal being to explore the potential benefits in this arena of new approaches to distributed process design. 

Project Leader and Contact: George Wyner (617) 253-3865;

Project Name: Corporate Restructuring

Brief Project Description: The pace of corporate restructuring has accelerated since the mid 80's. The casual evidence points to benefits from increased disaggregation. As the business press and business gurus praise the virtues of flatter hierarchies, worker empowerment and focus on core competencies, hard evidence concerning the economic benefits of disaggregation remains relatively sparse. The best evidence is indirect evidence from the stock market. The unprecedented level of M&A activity during the 80's and 90's as well as the exceptional increase in Tobin's q (the ratio of a firm's market value to the replacement value of its assets), from a traditional average of about 1.0 to the current level of 3.5, strongly suggest that significant economic forces underlie the extensive restructuring that we are observing. The purpose of this project is to identify these economic forces and to study how they have played themselves out in different industries and regions. By focusing on the economic forces behind organizational change, this project aims at helping managers to separate passing organizational fads from innovations of lasting value, and most importantly, to decide which changes are relevant for a given line of business in a given set of circumstances. 

Currently, three major hypotheses are under investigation: 

    (1) After the 60's conglomerization and empire building, financial markets finally intervened to discipline management prone to excessive diversification. The increased influence of financial capital has come in part from the build-up of pension assets. 

    (2) New technologies, most importantly IT, have reduced the economic value of tangible assets relative to human assets. As human capital becomes less dependent on ownership of physical assets and of financial capital, it becomes relatively more costly and less desirable to keep diverse activities within a single firm. 

    (3) National deregulation and globalization have opened up vast new markets, allowing scarce corporate resources -- financial and human -- to be redeployed in higher value activities (core businesses). 

    These hypothesis lead to very different conclusions about the future course of industries and the appropriate actions that firms should take. They also lead to distinct research agendas. Hypothesis (1) raises questions about the role of internal capital markets relative to external markets; how far should one (and can one) decentralize corporate funding and how should one evaluate financial responsibility? Hypothesis (2) leads to a reassessment of the value of the corporation as a coordinator and how internal governance -- the information, control and incentive systems -- should be structured given the increased importance of knowledge and talent. Hypothesis (3) leads one to ask what mechanisms (alliances, joint ventures, contracts, etc) can be used to control external relationships in different circumstances. It also suggests the possibility that many of these organizational innovations are temporary and may be reversed either with changes in the regulatory climate or as the rush to enter new markets subsides. 

Project Leader and Contact: Professor Bengt Holmstrom (; (617)253-0506


Project: Automated Reading and Indexing of Legacy Information 

Brief Project Description: Many large organizations face the problem of taking information from paper to computer-accessible media. Even if all future intra-organizational and inter-organizational communications could be conducted via electronic means (which is very doubtful), one would still have to deal with the legacy information that resides on paper and other traditional media. Typically, such legacy information includes poor-quality printed and typewritten documents as well as handwritten documents.

Automated "reading" and indexing of such documents is the focus of an ongoing project at MIT. A hybrid model, based on neural networks and multi-stage normalization techniques, allows such documents to be read at high speed and accuracy. Part of the work is covered by a broad US patent awarded to members of the research group in 1997. A working prototype has been implemented to demonstrate the advantages of the automated approach to read handwritten bank checks and other types of documents. Current possibilities include: (i) licensing of patent for commercial purposes; (ii) adaptation of prototype to suit specific applications; and (iii) collaborative work with sponsor companies to leverage emerging off-the-shelf products in this arena. 

Project Leader: Dr. Amar Gupta, Co-Director, Productivity from Information Technology (PROFIT) Initiative

Project Contact: Dr. Amar Gupta, "PROFIT" Initiative (; (617) 253-8906)

Related Papers: Available at

Top of Page 

Project Name: Knowledge Management and Data Mining

Brief Project Description: The unparalleled proliferation of information available to organizations has led to a corresponding increase in difficulty in the management of such information and its effective use in decision-making processes. Data Mining and Knowledge Management are two of the new approaches that can address this growing problem. 

Data Mining offers the potential to analyze huge amounts of historical data and to achieve major improvements in organizational productivity, particularly in the areas of demand forecasting, inventory management, distribution, and trend analysis (such as trends in financial markets). A number of examples exist where neural networks that provided solutions that are far superior to ones conceived by the best domain experts. For example, members of our group have developed a neural-network data mining model which is enabling one decentralized organization to reduce its inventory from over a billion dollars to about half-a-billion dollars (reduction by 50 percent), without adversely impacting the probability of finding in-stock any random item on any random day. 

 Based on a state-of-the-art survey of commercial data warehousing and data mining software products, we are exploring new mechanisms that leverage these products to provide effective "Knowledge Management" capabilities. The work is being performed using real data and applications from commercial and government organizations. 

Project Leader: Dr. Amar Gupta, Co-Director, Productivity from Information Technology (PROFIT) Initiative

Project Contact: Dr. Amar Gupta, "PROFIT" Initiative (; (617) 253-8906)

 Related Papers: Available at

Top of Page

Project Name: Adaptive Systems and Evolutionary Software 

Brief Project Description: A key prerequisite for business processes in modern enterprises is that they be able to adapt to the exceptions (execution errors, changes in requirements or resources etc) that occur all too frequently in today's volatile and uncertain work environments. Current information technology, however, does little to support this adaptability, forcing the designers of these business process and associated information system to anticipate every possible exception up front, a painstaking and error-prone process at best. 

The Adaptive Systems and Evolutionary Software (ASES) Research Group is developing novel software technologies to address these challenges, by exploring the use of exception handling, adaptation and learning mechanisms for coping with sudden environmental changes, design flaws and other traditional causes for software systems failure. We are currently pursuing projects in the areas of multi-agent systems, workflow and software domain architectures. In the near future we plan to apply our technologies to the design of adaptive business processes. 

We are an interdisciplinary research group, uniquely positioned to tackle the complex technical issues implied by this line of work. Our group includes members of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Department of Civil Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management, all at MIT. Our members have backgrounds in Software Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Information Technology, Industrial Engineering and Organization Design. 

Project Leader: Prof. Chris Dellarocas, Dr. Mark Klein 

Project Contact: Chris Dellarocas (, 258-8115), Mark Klein (, 253-6796) 

Related Papers: See the ASES (Adaptive Systems and Evolutionary Software) Web Site for papers and further descriptions of our goals, approach, and current projects (

Top of Page

Project Name: Leveraging Web Technologies to Transform Organizational Processes

Brief Project Description: This project examines the use of intranets and extranets to enable new organizational processes. Organizational intranets are making more data available to more people within organizations, while extranets can cement relationships with suppliers, customers, and strategic partners. The volume and velocity of information sharing in and across organizations present new opportunities for doing business and new challenges for managing the information flows and underlying technologies. This project will examine key applications of intranets and extranets and identify accompanying organizational changes. 

Specifically, the study will examine the following questions: 

    1. How are internal Web applications initiated, designed, implemented, and supported in organizations? 

    2. What key processes are intranets and extranets supporting in organizations? 

    3. What are the potential impacts of intranet and extranet applications on existing processes, roles, structures, and cultures? 

The first phase of this study involves interviews with intranet/extranet managers at approximately twelve firms to identify the range of issues that firms are addressing in the design and use of their web-based networks. It will result in a white paper that summarizes key findings. The second phase of the project will involve in-depth case studies of 3-6 firms to describe the applications and their impacts at leading-edge firms. Study sponsors will help identify issues and may participate as research sites in either or both phases of the project. 

Project Leader: Jeanne Ross

Project Contact: Jeanne Ross (617-253-9461;

Related papers: Ross, Jeanne, "IT Infrastructure as Enabler of New Organizational Processes," CISR Working Paper No. 302, October 1997.

Top of Page

Project Name: Extracting Value from Enterprise Resource Planning Systems 

Project Description: Implementation of an ERP consumes vast amounts of organizational attention and resources. While ERPs are expected to enable global processes, address Y2k concerns, and replace outdated legacy systems, the implementation process can be wrenching because of forced changes in organizational processes. In addition, firms looking for a payback on their ERP investments have found that implementation typically marks the beginning rather than the end of organizational process redesign. This research will rely on case studies of firms implementing ERPs to examine the following questions: 

    1. What is the relationship between ERP implementation and global process redesign? 

    2. How do firms generate competitive advantage through packaged software? 

    3. How are firms supporting ERPs and managing new versions? 

Case studies will follow firms that have implemented ERPs or are in the process of doing so. They will discuss the business objectives, the metrics the firm applies to its outcomes, and the changes in organizational processes and structures that follow their implementations. Project sponsors may participate as case sites or may participate in one-day workshops in which participating firms and sponsors discuss their experiences and identify important research issues. 

Project Leader: Jeanne Ross

Project Contact: Jeanne Ross (617-253-9461;

Related papers: Ross, Jeanne, "Dow Corning: Business Processes and Information Technology," CISR Working Paper No. 298, May, 1997. 

Top of Page

Project Name: The COntext INterchange (COIN) Project -- Development of Integrated Applications / Global Data Warehouses and the Challenge of Large-Scale Semantic Heterogeneity 

Brief Project Description: The popularity and growth of the "Information SuperHighway" have dramatically increased the number of information sources available for use and the opportunity for important new information-intensive applications (e.g., massive data warehouses, integrated supply chain management, global risk management, in-transit visibility). Unfortunately, there are significant challenges to be overcome regarding data extraction and data interpretation in order for this opportunity to be realized.

Data Extraction: One problem is the difficulty in easily and automatically extracting very specific data elements from web sites for use by operational systems. As an example solution, we have developed a theory and technology for Automatic Web Wrapping. 

Data Interpretation: Another serious problem is the existence of heterogeneous contexts, whereby each source of information and potential receiver of that information may operate with a different context, leading to large-scale semantic heterogeneity. A context is the collection of implicit assumptions about the context definition (i.e., meaning) and context characteristics (i.e., quality) of the information. As a simple example, whereas most US universities grade on a 4.0 scale, MIT uses a 5.0 scale. We have investigated the existence of and reasons behind various forms of context challenges and have developed a theory and technology for representing context knowledge and a Context Mediation engine for mitigating the problem. 

Recent sponsors of this research include: the DoD Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Merrill Lynch, Price Waterhouse, and PRIMARK. 

Project Leaders: Professor Stuart Madnick and Dr. Michael Siegel 

Project Contact: Professor Stuart Madnick (; 617/253-6671) 

Related Papers: Visit web site at

Top of Page

Project Name: Using Electronic Media in Organizations

Brief Project Description: Professors Yates and Orlikowski have been collaborating for a number of years on the role and effectiveness of contemporary electronic media in organizations and work groups. Their research has examined a range of electronic media such as electronic mail, computer conferencing, Team Room groupware by Lotus, and intranets, and has been conducted in a variety of organizational and occupational settings. These research studies have focused particularly on how organizations and work groups can create shared norms and conventions for effective electronic communication.

In this work, Professors Yates and Orlikowski begin by recognizing that just as there exist well-established and easily-recognizable genres or types of literary works such as novels and poems, there also exist well-established and easily-recognizable genres of organizational communication, such as memos, reports, meetings, and seminars. Knowledge and use of these genres create expectations and protocols of communicative purpose and form that aid in the creation and comprehension of effective communication. Traditionally, these well-known and widely-used organizational genres tend to exist in media such as paper, telephone, or face-to-face. As organizations adopt new electronic media such as groupware and intranets, we need to understand what genres of communication are likely to be transferred into such new media, how they are likely to evolve over time, and how effective they will be in such new media.

Professors Yates and Orlikowski have found that groups communicate most effectively in an electronic medium if there is shared understanding and acceptance of the genres of communication being used (the group's genre repertoire). Shared understanding avoids situations of "genre ambiguity" which may arise, for example, when one person sends out an e-mail to initiate a discussion and others misinterpret this as simply a one-way posting of information. A shared understanding and acceptance of genres in a group may arise implicitly if group members have a prior history of communicating together. Where such shared communication experience is lacking, as happens in many newly formed cross-functional teams, shared understanding of group genres can be explicitly and usefully established through discussion and negotiation.

Professors Yates and Orlikowski believe that explicit discussion and guidelines for the use of genres in new media can play a crucial role in accelerating effective adoption and use of such new media. They suggest that putting individuals and groups in roles of facilitating and guiding the discussion and adoption of group genres can significantly enhance communication and help overcome inhibiting communication habits developed from previous organizational settings or media.

Current and future work by Professors Yates and Orlikowski continues this line of research in two ways: (1) One stream examines the role of interdependent genres (e.g., draft of co-authored document, comments to co-authored document, revised draft, final draft, and co-authored document) in supporting collaboration within electronic media. Professors Yates and Orlikowski believe these "genre systems" may serve as an effective mechanism for coordinating multi-person activity over time and space by providing shared expectations and norms for the purpose, content, and timing of communication among participants. They are currently exploring such genre systems in a number of teams within a single organization, and are interested in conducting further empirical studies of teams using electronic technologies.

(2) The second stream examines the nature of genres that emerge in newly formed or non-traditional organizations, which have been variously labeled networked, virtual, or distributed. In particular, they are interested in such questions as whether the genre repertoire of such non-traditional groups and organizations reflects the alternative nature of their activities, i.e., networked, distributed, etc. Genres often provide stability and a commonality of norms that allows work to be done, but they may also constrain the development of new ways of working. That raises the related question of whether flexible organizations need more flexible genres and genre repertoires. In examining these questions, they seek further sites as well as research support.

There are a number of ways that this type of research can be useful and interesting to organizations, including helping them to understand more effective ways to implement, utilize, and adapt new media over time. 

Project Leaders: Profs. JoAnne Yates and Wanda Orlikowski

Project Contact: JoAnne Yates (617 253-7157, email: or Wanda Orlikowski (617 253-0443, email: )

Related Papers:

Orlikowski, W.J., Yates, J., Okamura, K. and Fujimoto, M. "Shaping Electronic Communication: The Metastructuring of Technology in Use," Organization Science, vol. 6, no. 4, July-August 1995: 423-444.

Yates, J., Orlikowski, W.J., and Okamura, K. "Constituting Genre Repertoires: Deliberate and Emergent Patterns of Electronic Media Use," Academy of Management Best Papers Proceedings, 55th Annual Meeting, Vancouver, Canada: August 1995, 353-357.

Yates, J., Orlikowski, W.J., and Rennecker, J. "Collaborative Genres for Collaboration: Genre Systems in Digital Media, Proceedings of the Thirtieth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii: January 1997.

Yates, J., Orlikowski, W.J., and Okamura, K. "Explicit and Implicit Structuring of Genres: Electronic Communication in a Japanese R&D Organization," Forthcoming in Organization Science.

Top of Page

Project Name: Ecology of Leadership 

Brief Project Description: "Ecology of Leadership" is a research effort which focuses on understanding the interdependencies between three different types of leaders (executive leaders, local line leaders and internal networkers) in sustaining profound change process. 

Premises: Leaders are builders, as contrasted with management which is more concerned with operating than building. The particular focus of this research is on the roles and functions of leaders in building organizations more capable of continual learning (enhanced capabilities of organizations to adapt, re-invent themselves, and generate and diffuse knowledge). Leadership in such change processes is necessarily a distributed phenomenon: many people lead in many different ways. Leadership is also situated: what leaders do and why it works or not cannot be separated from the particular challenges people confront in initiating and sustaining change. 

Methodology: Understanding the interdependency between different types of leaders requires a framework for thinking about interdependencies and a categorization scheme for identifying different types of leaders. System dynamics CLDs provide the tool for the former; three types of leaders (executives, local line managers, internal networkers) provides an initial set of distinctions for the latter. Our researchers will use different sources of data: existing Learning Histories, research on organizational learning, leadership theory and network theory to formulate a preliminary set of hypothesis; Email Journals written by the practitioners; forums; internet café or "chat room"; and site visits 

Overall Goals: 

    1. Better understand interdependencies between different types of leaders in building enhanced organizational learning capabilities.

    2. Enhance capacities, including research capacities, of leadership communities involved in research, and thereby study how such leadership communities can grow. 

    3. Develop a language of competency (Fletcher, 1998) which provides researchers and practitioners with a vocabulary to name the invisible or unknown aspects of leadership especially of the work network leaders do. A language of competency questions value propositions of notions.

Researchers: Joyce Fletcher, Associate Professor of Cooperative Education, Northeastern University 

Katrin Kaeufer, Visiting Scholar, MIT Sloan School of Management 

Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer MIT Sloan School of Management, Chairperson Society of Organizational Learning

Senior Research Advisor: John Carroll, Professor of Behavioral and Policy Science, MIT Sloan School of Management 

Contact: Katrin Kaeufer (kaeufer@MIT.EDU phone: 617-492-4291, fax 617-876-0191)

Related Papers: see bibliography of Senge, P. Towards an Ecology of Leadership, SoL Working paper, 1996b

Top of Page

Project Name: Learning from Collective Experience 

Purpose:To develop people's and organizations' capabilities for effective organizational change through diffusing managerial innovations beyond initial or pilot groups. It is likely that most people and organizations have witnessed or experienced great teams being able to develop and implement significant managerial innovations which lead to high performance, high quality results. It is equally likely that most people and organizations have also witnessed or experienced dilemmas and frustration in diffusing these innovation and achieving outstanding results beyond those initial teams. This research proposes working with organizations to develop and test capabilities for broadly diffusing new innovations within and across organizations.

Learning Histories:A "learning history" is a new approach for helping an organization learn from the experience and implications of its own innovations. A learning history is: 1) a document that is disseminated to help an organization become better aware of its own learning and change efforts; 2) its contents come from the people who initiated, implemented and participated in the original efforts, as well as non-participants who were affected by them; 3) it presents the experiences and understandings of the groups of people who have gone through a learning effort, in their own words, in ways that helps the rest of the organization move forward, without having to "re-invent" what a small group of learners have already discovered; and 4) the learning history creates a context for a conversation, that the organization wouldn't be able to have otherwise, which develops individuals' insights for effectively adapting others' innovations to their actions.

Methodology:The learning history draws upon theories, techniques, and skills from action science intervention, oral history, anthropology, sociology, literature and theater. The integration of these theories and techniques, using a philosophy consistent with organizational learning principles, makes this approach unique. The learning history work is a critical element in developing an organizational infrastructure to support learning and the research materials upon which to study how organizations change through learning. 

Project Leader and Contact: George Roth (; (617)253-8407) 

Additional Resources and Papers:See ìHow to Make Experience Your Company's Best Teacher," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 75, No. 5, September-October 1997, page 172-177. 

The following are web-accessible references for research on diffusing learning and learning histories: 


Home  |  Summary  |   Working Papers  |  Process HandbookInteresting Organizations   | PressProjects  | 


Comments to webmaster