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STANFORD -- When is a fax better than a mailed memo? Do voice-mail message systems speed up or slow down work?

Researchers at Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facilities Engineering are exploring how information-processing tools affect results, using the first computer program to analyze the performance of organizations.

The "Virtual Design Team" simulation program - built by Raymond Levitt, professor of civil engineering, and graduate student Geoff Cohen - also can explore the effectiveness of various organizational structures or management styles. The project, which recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, could point the way to more efficient processes and better resulting designs.

Using artificial intelligence technology, the researchers first modeled the tasks, technical experience and information-processing tools used by engineering teams that design oil refineries and chemical processing plants. These teams must share technical information and coordinate their work in a timely manner to control costs. In their first test of the model, they found that voice mail can shorten design projects in such an organization.

"If you have a decentralized organization, we found that voice mail saved you a substantial amount of time because you didn't have to find the other person at his or her desk to communicate," Levitt said.

"If, on the other hand, you have a very centralized organization, where all the decisions are made high up on the hierarchy, our computer simulation model indicates that voice mail would actually slow you down. It appears that certain managers receive more information than they can handle. They become bottlenecks."

Managers, who must give approvals and verifications before workers can proceed to the next task, have a harder time assigning priorities to messages when they are on voice mail, he said.

"You can scan papers on you desk and pull out the important ones, but audio messages are very difficult to scan," Levitt said. "There's usually no way to know which recorded message is most important except to play through all the messages, and that takes time if there are 50 of them."

Next, Levitt and graduate student Tore Christiansen hope to expand the model so it can predict the quality, as well as the duration, of design projects. They will try to model how the functional requirements of power substations influence the coordination and information- processing needs of the design process.

"We believe that the right organizational structure and information processing tools will empower the design team and significantly improve the design," Christiansen said.

Eventually, Levitt hopes organizational analysis models can be used by producers, their consumers, government regulators and even insurance underwriters to make better trade-off decisions on quality and cost of products.

"Clients of engineering design firms often introduce problems by requiring a degree of reporting and approvals that add time to the process," Levitt said. "If we can model the quality aspect, the client may say, 'This organization will take longer, but I'm willing to pay the premium in time to get better quality.' "



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