|Associate Professor, Brian Butler|
Saturday, January 21, 2012
Brian Butler: Seeing the Unseen through Online Social Systems
Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research, iSchoolWith the start of a new spring semester, the iSchool not only welcomes our students back to campus, but we also get to welcome new faculty to our college. Next week Associate Professor Brian Butler joins the iSchool to lead research on policy formation and application in Wikipedia, technology use in local food systems, and the design of social networking systems for supporting health science research and healthcare provision. Previously, he was an Associate Professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business at University of Pittsburgh.
I recently had the good fortune to enjoy some virtual interview time with Brian before this semester began.
[Allison] Since you just moved to Maryland, can you tell us what most surprises you about becoming a faculty member here?
[Brian] The high level of intellectual energy and activity. A lot is going on. People are engaged and proud of what they are doing. This is something I had hoped for, but I wasn't sure what to expect -- so it is a pleasant "surprise".
[Allison] What do you most look forward to doing when you are officially here at the University of Maryland full time?
[Brian] Driving less. More substantively, I'm looking forward to starting research projects, teaching courses, and developing programs that build on (and expand) my knowledge how organizations, technology, and information interact to shape individuals' experiences and opportunities. mmm... That sounds very pretentious -- I'm really looking forward to investigating complicated problems with smart people.
[Allison] As far as your research goes, can you tell me why you study people in Wikipedia?
[Brian] Well, first it's worth noting that I'm not particularly interested in the "people" in Wikipedia. What I find fascinating about Wikipedia is the way that policies, structures, and technology have evolved. What triggers change (and what doesn't)? When does conflict and debate result in useful improvements (and when does it result in a jumbled mess)? How does the highly distributed socio-technical system learn and adapt (and what are the limits of that adaptation)?
[Brian] More generally, Wikipedia and other online social systems are interesting to study because they allow us to see things about organizations and organizing which are often invisible (either because they are transient or deliberately hidden). Ironically, Wikipedia is a more "tangible" organization than most traditional organizations. This allows us to consider questions about how it works which would be almost impossible to consider in "real" organizations.
[Allison] How would you define what an "organization" is?
[Brian] Although it isn't a formal definition, I think about organizations as entities composed of resources, structures, processes, systems and symbols that we build to enable long-term, large-scale action. Organizations are like sustainable scaffolding. People create them, use them, adapt them, and destroy them. They can facilitate actions or constrain choices. How you see the world (and the organization itself) is often colored by where you sit in the ‘scaffolding’.
[Brian] While people are involved in many ways, organizations are legally, socially, and operationally distinct from the particular individuals involved -- so assuming that we can understand organizations just by studying individuals is rarely true.
[Brian] The same is true about organizations and networks. While much is being learned from studying networks, there is more to organizational infrastructure around us than can be captured by dyadic representations of relations. "Networks are neat...but networks aren't enough".
[Allison] How does your research explain why organizations change?
[Brian] Organizations are always changing -- like any organism; a static organization is by definition dead. What we tend to notice are ‘unexpected’ changes.
So the question isn't so much "explaining why they change" as it is explaining why organizations change in particular ways.
In my research I focus on fundamental forces that underlie organizational changes, but yet often fade into the background and are forgotten. Power and politics; selection and competition; communication costs; role structures and expectations; identity, identification and commitment -- these are all forces which have significant effects on how organizations develop and function and yet are often overlooked, dismissed, or underestimated.
[Allison] How can your research help us in making better organizations in the future?
[Brian] Most people underestimate the malleability of organizations -- except for technologists and managers who tend to overestimate it. By providing a better understanding of how organizations work, my research seeks to empower those who are accustomed to seeing organizations as immutable structures and to mitigate the significant damage done (to both organizations and the people dependent on them) by those who underestimate their intricacies and impact.
[Allison] Thanks Brian! Your research has much to teach us all!