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2004 Best Published Paper Reflects Fifteen Year Journey PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 25 February 2006
by Catherine Durnell Cramton, Division Member-at-Large and Newsletter Co-Editor

In case anyone thought that exemplary published research papers result from a more blessed development process than most of us have experienced, there is the story of the 2004 OCIS Best Published Paper.  The paper by Alan R. Dennis and Monica J. Garfield, “The adoption and use of GSS in project teams: Toward more participative processes and outcomes” was published in MIS Quarterly’s June 2003 issue.  The research community’s first reaction to the paper was rejection—for a spot on the 1992 International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS) program.  Yes, that is 1992, eleven years before the paper finally appeared in print.  In the meantime, Alan Dennis journeyed from doctoral student to chaired professor and coauthors changed.  Reviewers suggested that the paper become more qualitative, then more quantitative, then more qualitative.  An offhand comment buried in the reviews proved to be important to the paper’s ultimate framing.  Through it all, Dennis thought “there was a really good paper in it,” despite little positive feedback.

The paper’s beginnings go back to Fall 1989 when Dennis was a third year doctoral student at University of Arizona and already interested in group support systems (GSS).  There was a hospital located within walking distance of the university and the vice president for nursing approached Dennis’s dissertation chair, Jay Nunamaker.  The hospital was considering whether to buy a group support system, but wanted to try it out first.  Nursing had just created six teams, each of which had the same project assignment: to write a proposal to improve the satisfaction of patients, families, physicians and nurses.  The initial intention was for all six teams to use GSS in their work, however demand for the GSS room at the university led to the decision that three of the teams would use GSS while three would not.  From a research standpoint, this was probably a fortunate development and a better design.  Nunamaker asked Dennis if he wanted to work on the project with the hospital and Dennis said “yes.”  Dennis soon enlisted Suzanne Iacono, then also a doctoral student at University of Arizona, and the two facilitated group meetings and gathered data in Spring 1990.  They were interested in the time groups with and without GSS spent working on their projects, the quality of their performance as assessed by others, and members’ subjective experiences of satisfaction, group cohesion and participation.

The first version of the paper was the ill-fated submission for presentation at the 1992 ICIS.  Although Dennis and Iacono also were interested in issues of group formation and adoption and structuration of technology, they started with a quantitative paper that addressed the straight-forward question, “Does GSS work or not?  Does it make sense for real project teams?”  Conference reviewers felt the field experiment compared poorly with more traditional laboratory experiments.  “At the time, the feeling was that it was not well enough controlled,” said Dennis.  Dennis put the rejected paper on a back burner and became an assistant professor at University of Georgia.  However, he did return to the Tucson hospital two years after initial data collection to investigate long term outcomes of the six projects.

A New Coauthor

In 1994, future coauthor Monica Garfield enters the story as a first year doctoral student at University of Georgia.  “I was looking for something to do,” said Garfield.  “Alan said, “I have this paper but—I bet Alan doesn’t remember this—he said ‘but you’re not going to be able to do this.’”  He thought the paper needed theoretical work-- investigation of multiple bodies of theory in order to determine which one, or which combination, would best illuminate the meaning in the data.  He thought the task was too messy for a first-year doctoral student.  This, of course, made Garfield all the more determined to prove she could do it.  Meanwhile, Iacono had taken a job as an assistant professor and had gotten the message that her university valued sole authored publications.  In light of that, she proposed that Dennis write his own paper with the data—with any coauthors he chose--and she write her own paper with the data.  They agreed on this plan.

Dennis and Garfield made their first journal submission in Fall 1995, to MIS Quarterly.  Their paper eventually was published in MISQ, but not this submission.  The manuscript at the time focused on GSS adoption behaviors and utilized both quantitative and qualitative data.  Reviewers recommended that Dennis and Garfield reduce the quantitative aspects of the paper and focus on the qualitative data.  Dennis and Garfield resubmitted in 1997 and at this point, the same reviewers recommended that they focus on the quantitative data and reduce the emphasis given to the qualitative data.  Given this development, Senior Editor Linda Applegate rejected the paper but left the door open for Dennis and Garfield to ponder the reviewers’ comments, make what changes they thought appropriate and resubmit it as a new paper, which would draw a new set of reviewers who might be more favorably disposed toward it.

They revised the paper and sent it to a different journal instead.  It wasn’t a long sojourn.  “They didn’t like it,” said Garfield.  “They wanted more on method, more quotes and shorter overall length.”  The reviews were voluminous, filling more pages than the paper itself, she said.  Spending “days and days” reading them was a memorable early career experience.  After this rejection, Dennis and Garfield decided to resubmit to MISQ.

Finding the Key

However, buried in the reviews were gems of advice, offered offhandedly.  Dennis and Garfield had noted that members of the GSS groups seemed to have more influence on project goals than members of non-GSS groups.  The latter groups developed conservative projects that met the unstated agendas of team leaders while the former developed projects that were more closely aligned with their own interests as team members.  A reviewer called this influence on outcomes “participativeness.”  This reviewer also suggested a literature that Dennis and Garfield hadn’t seen, which contrasted equal participation and with shared influence through participative processes.  This helped Dennis and Garfield move closer to the final storyline of the paper.  Through this process, Dennis tended to be good at crystallizing the paper’s big picture, while Garfield explored possibly relevant literatures to find the needle in the haystack.  She called it “wandering” and he called it “patience.”

Bringing participativeness to the foreground, they submitted a new version of the paper to MISQ in 2000.  From that point to publication in June 2003, what was required was “a lot of hard work” with good advice from the Senior Editor (K.K. Wei), Associate Editor, and reviewers.  Dennis and Garfield revised the paper twice in response to reviewers before they received a conditional acceptance and drafted the final revision.

Reflecting on the Journey

Reflecting on the review process, Dennis notes that some reviewers tend to focus on attacking the methods used in a paper rather than assessing its message or helping with its theoretical development.  Method-focused reviewers, he says, often are more junior people, who see their job as finding the flaws.  “Sometimes you need a sympathetic editor who understands the message of the paper,” he says.  In the second submission to MISQ, Dennis said he asked for relatively senior reviewers, hoping for greater attention to the paper’s message.

With regard to the paper’s development process, Dennis quotes the saying, “Quantitative papers are theory in search of data while qualitative papers are data in search of theory.”  A major challenge of the paper, he says, was finding the right theoretical frame.  Another challenge, says Garfield, was finding models for “the mechanical component”--how to present the data and write the paper.  For example, says Dennis, “Where do you put pieces of evidence?  In a table?  In the text?”  “Sometimes it is hard to articulate the patterns you see” in a way that is meaningful to readers, he observed.  To address these challenges, they searched literatures, looking for the right theory and well constructed articles to use as exemplars.
Garfield learned that it was necessary from time to time to step away from the paper, rather than forcing the writing.  She would go jogging and think about the paper.  “I worked on it a lot during the summer.  I was running a lot,” she said.

Identifying the right theoretical frame for a paper may take several tries, Dennis said.  “Sometimes, it doesn’t come easily or quickly.”  While this is more likely to be the case for papers built on qualitative data, it also sometimes applies to quantitative papers that seek to test theory.  “The theory you use going into it doesn’t always turn out to be what is really interesting,” he said.

Sample Of Judges’ Comments
This paper describes the impact of GSS use on project teams by comparing the processes and outcomes over time in six real medical project teams, three of which used the GSS technology and three of which did not.  The teams were observed in meetings over a seven-week period; additionally, the researchers returned two years later to measure long-term outcomes.  This paper is significant because it offers an opportunity for researchers to see how claims about GSS impact on group processes and outcomes from literature reviews, laboratory studies and empirical studies of special events use square with acutely observed data collected over time in multiple real organizational teams, with some ability to compare GSS and non-GSS teams.  The findings support some of the things we think are true about GSS (greater participation) but also offer some surprises and puzzles for future researchers to explore.  The data are sufficiently well collected and described that future researchers have good quality material from which to push off.  Moreover, because the data are  pulled together and presented effectively in tables, future researchers are likely to share a common understanding of what the data were (rather than each person extracting different tidbits from a qualitative narrative).
It seems to me that this paper may lend new vigor to this research stream by describing real and significant team and organizational consequences of technology support in a non-virtual setting.  Attention seems to have shifted lately from collocated applications of GSS to technology support for virtual collaboration.  While the latter clearly is an important area, this study reminds us that technology may have real and significant impacts in face-to-face environments as well as virtual ones.  The use of both qualitative and quantitative data in this paper provides a good example for future researchers, and the longitudinal aspects of this research are laudable and important.

Biographies Of Authors

Alan R. Dennis (www.kelley.iu.edu/ardennis) is Professor of Information Systems and holds the John T. Chambers Chair of Internet Systems in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.  His research focuses on the use of computer technologies to support teams, on knowledge management, and on the use of the Internet to improve business and education.  He is the author of more 100 research papers, and has won numerous awards for his theoretical and applied research.  He is the author of four books, two on data communications and networking, and two on systems analysis and design.  Prof. Dennis is the founding Publisher of MIS Quarterly Executive (http://www.misqe.org), a journal focusing on applied research designed to improve practice, which is a spin-off of MIS Quarterly, one of the leading academic research journals in Information Systems. He also serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of the Association for Information Systems, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and International Journal of e-Collaboration.

Monica J. Garfield (cis.bentley.edu/mgarfield/) is an Assistant Professor in Computer Information Systems at Bentley College.  Her research focuses on the use of IT to enhance creativity, the impact of technology on group interactions and knowledge creation.  She also works in the area of telemedicine with regards to socio-technical issues that impact the implementation of telemedicine networks.  Her work has appeared in such journals as Information System Research, MIS Quarterly, Communications of the ACM and Journal of Management Information Systems. She is also the editor of the ISWorld Net's Data Base Course.

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