Coordination as an enduring infrastructure problem

Many thanks to my mentor, Alice Robbin of Indiana University’s School of Library Sciences, for turning me onto this interesting new paper by Nancy C. Roberts.

Beyond Smokestacks and Silos: Open-Source, Web-Enabled Coordination in Organizations and Networks

What accounts for coordination problems? Many mechanisms of coordination exist in both organizations and networks, yet despite their widespread use, coordination challenges persist. Some believe the challenges are growing even more serious. One answer lies in understanding that coordination is not a free good; it is expensive in terms of time, effort, and attention, or what economists call transaction and administrative costs. An alternative to improving coordination is to reduce its costs, yet there is little guidance in the literature
to help managers and researchers calculate coordination costs or make design decisions based on cost reductions. Th is article explores two cases—the U.S. Patent and
Trademark Offi ce’s Peer-to-Patent pilot program and the online relief eff ort in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in 2010—to illustrate the advantages and constraints of using Web 2.0 technology as a mechanism of coordination and a tool for cost reduction. The lessons learned from these cases may offer practitioners and researchers a way out of our “silos” and “smokestacks.”

Now, I’m not totally convinced that the author is suggesting that infrastructure is the answer to reducing transaction costs associated with coordination efforts. However, the claim, which seems well substantiated to me, that the challenges facing those attempting to coordinate are growing “even more serious” amid ever complex webs of people, places and things seems like a valuable position to take for those of us writing on infrastructure.

The position can be used to justify infrastructure research. Why is this needed? All too often, I see papers on infrastructure that must justify their raison d’être and their justification is little better than “duh, its infrastructure”, “its the reason other stuff can work,” or “its the stuff that civilization is made of.” However, I am dissatisfied with all of these reasons, even though I share the personal sentiment, esp. “duh, its infrastructure.”

Of course, there are a variety of reasons that we might want to invetigate/examine infrastructure, especially for theoretical purposes. However, scholars tend to fail to justify their research on a more general or social level, and this position on transaction costs associated with coordination is probably a decent position to start from.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

4 thoughts on “Coordination as an enduring infrastructure problem

  1. Looking at the economics of infrastructure is definitely a good idea. I am also not though sure that transaction cost is the problem to focus on here. Also, the rhetoric of "enabling" is maybe just a bit too conspicuous. Despite this, efficiency may still be a key analytical issue with respect of how to get people and artefacts enrolled but I would suggest to rather explore the dynamics of spontaneous coordination a bit more: sometimes coordination is, by all accounts, indeed a free public good – and a good which engineer-entrepreneurs will want to mobilize for the infrastructures they try to extend and make relevant. The emphasis on cost reduction in the article strikes me as a bit contrived but I have to give it a more thorough look.

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