Mirel and Johnson: "Social Determinants of Preparing a Cyber-Infrastructure Innovation for Diffusion"

Mirel, Barbara, and Nicholas Johnson. “Social Determinants of Preparing a Cyber-Infrastructure Innovation for Diffusion.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15.3 (2006): 329-353. Web.



Article is rather dense/technical. Research concerns IT specialists working on creating improvements for systematic packet loss preparing for I-2 (Internet 2) technology transfer.


Description of the Examined Problem


Issue identified as mixture of "a compound problem of knowledge management and systemic packet loss" (330). 30 ppl participated in 102 emails on issue.


Sociotechnical Context


I-2 developed for mass diffusion


Understanding I-2 as an Organization


both a community and a technology. "community values consensus and coordination" (331). e2e performance group: four objectives: developing an e2e performance-management infrastructure; developing e2e problem-solving tools and knowledge bases; specifying necessary designs for bringing application and netowrk processes in synch; and fostering relevant communications and coordination between diverse groups (331).  Last two objectives must be better emphasized (not being focused on).


Understanding I-2 as a Technology


Connects to backbone (Abilene). Xfer @ 2.5GB/sec. Diff media have diff Xmission reqs. Flexibilities and compatibilities.


Relevant Literature


CSCW (computer-supported collaborative work)


Three analytical approaches:


  1. the logic and arguments people use to explore and debate complex problems
  2. the social dynamics associated with solving complex problems cooperatively and remotely when teams are functionally diverse, decentralized, or temporary, and
  3. motivations that prompt people to pursue less than optimal choices in complex problem solving (332)


Logical Arguments in Complex Problem Solving


conceptual mapping (cognitive mapping).


"Therefore, in the intricate web of fleshing out issues and arguments in complex problem solving, people’s methods for assuring social harmony and integration may be at odds with the methods best for sorting out, solving, and taking action on root causes of complicated problems. This was the issue in our case study" (333).


Social Dynamics Specific to the Traits of Our Case Study Group


The gap: "Unfortunately, few if any studies on e-mail collaborations have examined exchanges amid time pressures about complex problems that involve ambiguous issues, technical and social relationships, and boundaries, as our study did" (333).


Motivations for Social and Discursive Choices


Cites Burke''s dramatistic pentad.




3: cognitive mapping; content analysis; dramatistic analysis.


Cognitive Mapping


focused on arguments problem solvers mutually agreed on; ways solvers split up probs/ goals to make manageable; args that converged/ran counter to each other; extent to which participants completely and complexly dealth with the issues (335-36). Differs from fishbone diagrams. Cog Maps "revealed structure and omissions in participants'' arguments but not the relative importance they placed on specific themes, dispositions, and interactions" (336). To do so, conducted content analysis.


Content Analysis


Asked: What issues, problems, and potential solutions consumed the discussion most; how did the group''s attention to various themes and interactive stances evolve and what does that show about the analyses and realizations of improvements that did and did not occur; how were people''s interactions, degree of centrality, and content shaped by roles; and how did these dynamics affect the group in realizing improvements? (337).


State that went through multiple interations while constructing codebook. Content, metadata, paragraph analysis. ID''d social networks, etc. "We identified patterns in exchanges by day, role, individual problem solver, and subproblem. These analyses, however, did not show the effects of teammates’ rhetorical choices on problem-solving outcomes" (337).


Dramatistic Analysis


Burke-- relationship as actor-action, actor-scene, etc. Addressed following:


  1. patterns in emphases that participants cumulatively constructed through ratios for
    different subproblems and their effects
  2. tensions in motives revealed by these emphases
  3. connections between patterns in emphasis and conventions for coordinating cross-domain work in decentralized environments, and
  4. the effects of discursive emphasis on the realization of improvements (338).


Used Burke''s definitions. Five categories surfaced.


Data and Participants


Overview of data collected over 13-day period. All men. For detail, see 338




Cognitive Mapping


ID''d two streams of argument: systematic packet loss [complex conversations, debates, contingent reasoning], and insufficient knowledge management [linear, straightforward conversations]. See Fig. 1 (340).


Content Analysis


Top three paragraph topics: packet loss due to network issues; packet loss due to applications; insufficient diagnostic tests for troubleshooters. On 340, noted who tended to talk more about what (e.g., Network engineers vs operators etc.). People indicated as "hubs" had at least three replies to their questions; mostly network ops were hubs (342). Found, in opposition to research lit, that disagreement not pre-requisite to consensus building.


Dramatistic Analysis


A rhetorical analysis of the dramatic emphasis in problem solvers’ e-mails showed that participants highlightedvarious ratios (actor–action, action–scene, actor–agency, etc.) as they progressively discussed the following five broad issues:


  1. commitments to and beliefs about various goals
  2. technical accountabilities in systemic packet loss
  3. human accountabilities in systemic packet loss or incomplete information,
  4. consensus-generatingmoves highlighting actions or summaries
  5. technical accountabilities in the problem of incomplete information (343).


Empasized three main issues: human and technical accountability and consensus-related actions or summaries.


Analysis of shifts finds three major motivations: masking disagreements; maintaining strategic ambiguity; human, domain-based responsibilities.




who talked to and what about constrained tech debate.




"This study shows that understanding the social dynamics in collaborative problem solving for complex technical faults is integral to the technical improvements that a group realizes. Technologists need to recognize the workings and effects of this intertwining. As our transcript analysis shows, when technologists do not have this understanding, they may choose collaborative interactions and communications that counteract and constrain their own good intentions for achieving technical improvements without recognizing it" (349).


Three suggestions: improved tools cannot fix everything; system design improvements cannot be indefinitely put off to deal with straightforward probs; need two types of flexibility: social cohesion and social consensus-based problem solving.