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Engineering teams collaborating in virtual environments face many technical, social, and cultural challenges. In this paper we focus on distributed teams making joint unanticipated discoveries in virtual environments. We operationalize a definition of “messy talk” as a process in which teams mutually discover issues, critically engage in clarifying and finding solutions to the discovered issues, exchange their knowledge, and resolve the issue. Can globally distributed teams use messy talk via virtual communication technology? We analyzed the interactions of four distributed student teams collaborating on a complex design and planning project using building information models (BIMs) and the cyber-enabled global research infrastructure for design (CyberGRID), a virtual world specifically developed for collaborative work. Their interactions exhibited all four elements of messy talk, even though resolution was the least common. Virtual worlds support real-time joint problem solving by (1) providing affordances for talk mediated by shared visualizations, (2) supporting team perceptions of building information models that are mutable, and (3) allowing transformations of those models while people were together in real time. Our findings suggest that distributed team collaboration requires technologies that support messy talk—and iterative trial and error—for complex multidimensional problems.
Proponents claim that the adoption of building information modeling BIM will lead to greater efﬁciencies through increased collaboration. In this paper, we present research that examines the use of BIM technologies for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and ﬁre life safety systems often referred to as MEP coordination and how the introduction of BIM inﬂuences collaboration and communication. Using data from over 12 months of ethnographic observations of the MEP coordination process for two commercial construction projects and interviews with 65 industry leaders across the United States, we ﬁnd that BIM-enabled projects are often tightly coupled technologically, but divided organizationally. This means that while BIM makes visible the connections among project members, it is not fostering closer collaboration across different companies. We outline the competing obligations to scope, project, and company as one cause for this
division. Obligations to an individual scope of work or to a particular company can conﬂict with project goals. Individual leadership, especially that of the MEP coordinator in the teams we studied, often substitutes for stronger project cohesion and organization. Organizational forces and structures must be accounted for in order for BIM to be implemented successfully.