by Paula Bach on June 12, 2007 07:46pm

Bryan has previously blogged about the project partnership between the Penn State University (PSU) College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and the Open Source Software Lab (OSSL). I am at the OSSL here at Microsoft this summer and next as a research intern. The project, which started in May 2007 and will last two years, is my dissertation research. I work with Jack Carroll in the Center for HCI at Penn State. I am a third year PhD candidate and I study HCI in open source software development.

In this blog I want to talk about interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. Broadly speaking, the information society is like the Wild West and many challenges as well as opportunities, especially with information technologies, have arisen. So for example, the Internet is like the Wild West of the information society. Challenges and opportunities in a new frontier are exciting for business and academia at once. Understanding the challenges and opportunities, however, needs new ways of investigating. A single discipline can address some of the challenges and opportunities, but complex problems, especially ones involving the intersection of information, people, and technology can benefit from expertise from multiple approaches. This is where a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach can be helpful. Rogers et al (http://rizzo.media.unisi.it/page2/assets/Rogers_Scaife_Rizzo.pdf) make the distinction between interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary:

Interdisciplinary usually means “the emergence of insight and understanding of a problem domain through the integration or derivation of different concepts, methods, and epistemologies from different disciplines in a novel way.” Multidisciplinary can be characterized as “a group of researchers from different disciplines cooperate by working together on the same problem towards a common goal, but continue to do so using theories, tools, and methods from their own discipline, and occasionally using the output from each other’s work.” The characterizations differ in whether elements of a discipline are coupled or decoupled.

Although both terms have been used interchangeably, the subtle differences in problem solving depend both on the kind of problem a team of collaborators is solving and on the investigatory skills of the team members. The OSSL takes both approaches to both the challenges and opportunities inherent in understanding the open source and where Microsoft fits in. This broad approach is inherent when comparing Microsoft’s past and current missions: A computer on every desktop and in every home running Microsoft software compared to To enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential. The missions shifted from technology-centric to people and organization-centric. This new approach includes a global perspective on key aspects of the information society: people, information, and technology. This new approach is also exemplified by a new type of academic unit called information schools, or iSchools. The joint project, looking at HCI in open source software development, is interesting from a number of perspectives in the space of information, technology, and people. My approach is interdisciplinary, taking a number of concepts and methodologies and combining them in using different epistemological perspectives. Please contact me if you would like details on the interdisciplinary nature of the study of HCI expertise in open source software development—it would be too long to expound on here.

Bryan and I recently went to the iSchool at University of Washington to talk to graduate students and faculty about the project. The research conversation, as it is called, was well attended especially for a sunny Friday afternoon at the end of the spring semester. (The iSchool dean even showed up!) We talked about the challenges of studying the open source community and about doing interdisciplinary research in an iSchool.

The most interesting aspect of my experience so far as part of this joint partnership is that I am doing interdisciplinary academic work in a business unit studying open source software development at Microsoft – all of which are normally ”separate worlds” (academic/business and Microsoft/open source software). My summer here will entail collecting data and analyzing results of HCI expertise in open source software development as well as looking at HCI expertise in software development internally at Microsoft as a basis for comparison. In this summer series, look for my blog entries as I ponder results from the studies.