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Messy Talk in Virtual Teams: Achieving Knowledge Synthesis through Shared Visualizations

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.

Journal of Management Engineering, January 2015, DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)ME.1943-5479.0000301)