Sloan Industry Studies Fellow Fosters Work in Virtual World

Working in a virtual world may be the hot new trend that delivers on what it promises: a way for global engineering teams to successfully manage and execute complex design and construction projects.

John E. Taylor (left), assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, has been awarded one of three prestigious 2009 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Industry Studies Fellowships to examine ways to improve global engineering design service project execution. Taylor already is putting his research to the test in a course for teams of students from Columbia, Helsinki University of Technology in Finland, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras in India, and the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

“These students are working in global engineering teams to optimize the schedule of a design and construction project,” says Taylor. “They are using different modeling tools at each university to examine the problem from a distinct perspective. The Columbia students are using organizational simulation models to identify critical project bottlenecks and quality risks; the Indian students are using 4-D CAD modeling tools to identify time-space conflicts; the Dutch are using cost models to examine project lifecycle considerations, and the Finns are providing global virtual team facilitation. Integrating the three computational models at the end of the project is going to be a real challenge… the kind of challenge faced by engineering firms operating globally today.”

The avatar above is Prof. John Taylor looking at a CAD model posted on the TeamWall. The Communicator window on the left shows the options that team members have to communicate with each other. Team interactions as well as usage of the TeamWall can be recorded to facilitate research on global virtual engineering teamwork and model integration.
The avatar above is Prof. John Taylor looking at a CAD model posted on the TeamWall. The Communicator window on the left shows the options that team members have to communicate with each other. Team interactions as well as usage of the TeamWall can be recorded to facilitate research on global virtual engineering teamwork and model integration.
Taylor identified the challenge of integrating the complex array of models used by global engineering teams in his National Science Foundation-funded project.  He is the principal investigator of a three-year project to study global engineering teamwork for complex petrochemical plant design and construction projects.  He created the course to expose students to the kinds of challenges they will face working on global engineering teams but also to expose them to emerging technologies he is developing in his Project Network Dynamics Lab to address some of the challenges.

All students are working in a virtual working environment called the CyberGRID (Cyber-enabled Global Research Infrastructure for Design), which was developed by Taylor’s research team in collaboration with Professor Riitta Smeds and researchers at the Helsinki University of  Technology. “The CyberGRID is to support working, not meeting,” says Taylor. “Most efforts to use virtual worlds in commerce involve meetings. Our vision is to use the CyberGRID to support the complex and concurrent modeling efforts of a globally-distributed team.”

Gartner Research predicts that, in two years, 80 percent of active Internet users will have an avatar presence in a virtual world.  Many companies are already on the virtual bandwagon. Information Week reports that Cisco Systems has hundreds of employees in Second Life, a free, online virtual world. Even NASA is using virtual worlds to support engineering meetings in their organization.  The NASA CoLab is a space developed by NASA for its globally-distributed engineering and scientist network to meet and discuss projects.

All the students in Taylor’s course on Strategic Management of Global Design and Construction have an avatar and each of the global engineering student teams has its own meeting room. The TeamWall tool provides the space to share models and to spot integration problems. Students can share the model they are developing on their desktop at Columbia via the TeamWall. 

Then they can discuss the impact their model output might have on the other models concurrently being developed by the Indian or Dutch students.  “This technology supports the work of all the teams and helps resolve conflicts,” says Taylor. “There are many benefits of shared space because it allows these teams from around the globe to all discuss and resolve issues on the project at the same time.”

During the semester, students must work with each other to develop three intervention strategies to alleviate schedule and/or cost overruns, quality risks, spatial conflicts, cost issues, and resource shortages to optimize the construction sequence. The intervention strategies should be actual strategies a project manager might employ to solve the identified problems. In fact, the students must present their findings to the project manager and include the results of that discussion with their final project report. 

Taylor’s Sloan Industry Studies Fellowship supports his work that tackles the emerging problem of how global project teams with a multiplicity of disciplinary, cultural and institutional boundaries codify and negotiate complex design knowledge using advanced modeling tools. His approach uses a combination of in-depth field research, lab experimentation, and computational simulation modeling to extend theories of project networks while developing relevant organizational change strategies and technologies to support cross-boundary adaptation.

“I am pleased that the Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation see the value in examining design and construction globalization issues,” said Taylor.  “The CyberGRID and the TeamWall have the potential to reshape how many types of complex projects—not just design and construction projects—are executed. I am glad to have the opportunity at Columbia to tightly integrate my research and pedagogical activities and to prepare engineers to meet the current and future challenges of working globally. Starting this summer we hope to involve visionary design and construction firms working globally in the CyberGRID research.”