NSF Awards $1.4 Million to Study Remote Socialization and Effects of Information and Communication Technologies

The National Science Foundation has awarded $1.4 million to researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University and the University of California, Irvine, to help explore how working in highly digitized, often remote locations, might transform future definitions of various occupations.

The researchers hope to unveil how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help individuals transcend traditional geographical boundaries in the course of learning an occupation and, in doing so, transform our ideas of occupations for a new era, with broad social, cultural and economic implications.

Occupational skills are critical to economic success, social progress and individual well-being, yet scholars argue that many occupations are failing to adapt quickly to changes in science, technology and policy. The failure of occupations to change and refashion themselves to meet new social and technological pressures portends reduced job skills and possible job loss for American citizens.

Individuals are increasingly entering occupations that have no physical interaction with colleagues who can teach, provide information or model behavior for them. At the same time, advances in ICTs are allowing growing numbers of individuals to work independently, physically separated from established offices or communities in their field.

The team is comprised of Diane Bailey, assistant professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, Paul Leonardi, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and Bonnie Nardi, professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine.

"No one is born knowing how to work," said Bailey, "rather, each person who takes up an occupation has to first learn it.

"ICTs open up the possibility for incredible transformation in how individuals come to learn an occupation and assume its identity."

The study is intended to provide insight into how technology-enabled remote socialization may be able to contribute to faster occupational transformation and how advances in ICTs present the very real possibility that occupational identities will be reinvented, crafting altogether new ideas of what it means to work in a certain field.

The research focuses on how remote socialization enabled by ICTs are transforming four distinct occupations: graphic design, automotive engineering, banking and Internet entrepreneurship. The researchers are studying engineers at General Motors, bankers in Brazil, Internet entrepreneurs in Mexico and graphic designers at Capgemini (a multinational business/technology consulting firm).

The project objectives are:

  • To examine how ICTs mediate emerging remote occupational socialization in a global context by comparatively studying this process in the context of four case studies spread across Brazil, India, Mexico, Poland and the United States.
  • To build a model of remote occupational socialization based upon these case studies.
  • To draw insights for the design, implementation and use of ICTs that enable people to enter occupations previously inaccessible to them, and in some cases, to reinvent occupations. The proposed research explores highly significant questions in the face of advances in ICTs that permit a growing number of individuals to "become" practitioners in occupations far from any established occupational group or community of practice in their field.

The researchers hope to demonstrate ways in which ICT-mediated communication may provide more opportunities for workers to break free from the inertia of established occupations and develop new work practices and strategies that move the occupation forward.