Enabling Science and Technology Research Teams: A Breadmaking Metaphor

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Key Takeaways

  • The transformative potential of technology-enabled science argues for creating cross-disciplinary teams of scientists and IT specialists.
  • Achieving the vision of technology revolutionizing academia in general, and the sciences in particular, requires overcoming the barriers to collaboration.
  • A breadmaking metaphor provides a framework for considering the many factors that influence the outcome of collaborative interactions between scientists and IT experts in e-research.

Anyone who has been involved with a cross-disciplinary team that combines scientists and information technology specialists knows just how tough it can be to move these efforts forward. Decades of experience point to the transformative potential of technology-enabled science efforts, and the success stories offer hope for future efforts. But for every success story there are many failures, particularly in the natural and social sciences, which have not traditionally used advanced technologies. Despite good intentions and many hours in arduous meetings, these efforts often go quietly into the night — or occasionally screaming into oblivion.

This situation does not seem to be unique to research teams. Campus IT professionals in all capacities are thrust into settings where they must work with nontechnical colleagues. Often these efforts are problematic: miscommunication leads to good technical solutions that unfortunately do not meet user needs; tempers flare, and the result is high stress for everyone. The technology revolution on campus sometimes resembles something from a horror novel — unexpected monsters cropping up in unexpected places. Yet there remains the vision of technology revolutionizing academia in general, and the sciences in particular. Achieving this vision, though, requires overcoming the barriers to collaboration. First, though, the barriers must be understood.

After years of working as a scientist on a number of these teams and observing that our collaboration issues were not unique, I set out to better understand the process of collaboration and to develop models of collaboration that could inform these efforts. The issues are complex. There are many different ways of thinking about them, and many different disciplinary perspectives provide relevant research findings. Fully articulating the issues would require a large volume, or more likely several volumes. In dealing with the copious relevant literature, I have found it useful to structure the issues through use of a breadmaking metaphor. Each element of the metaphor relates to various lines of research that contribute to an understanding of the e-research process. Here, I present the metaphor along with a few insights from ongoing research in the hope that others engaged in similar efforts can take advantage of these concepts, which I have found useful.

The Breadmaking Metaphor

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is like making bread. Of the ingredients used in making bread, some are more alike than others. The dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt) are very similar in appearance and could be confused for one another by a casual observer, but in fact they have quite different characteristics and functions. Breadmaking also requires some ingredients that are decidedly different from the dry ingredients. All breads require some kind of liquid (milk, water, oil), for example. The combination of dry and liquid ingredients transforms the collective into a material with completely new properties — neither dry nor liquid but dough. Think of the ingredients as different disciplinary perspectives.

One can make bread with just dry and liquid ingredients. However, the addition of yeast drastically changes the results. Yeast has some very interesting characteristics. A small amount can have transformational impact, but the impact is nonlinear. The rate of change in impact is greatest with small increases in amount — larger increases have no added effect and can become detrimental by overpowering the qualities of the other ingredients. Many different components of collaboration could be considered yeast. In this formulation, IT is the yeast.

In order to make bread, the ingredients must be placed in a bowl. The bowl is a place where the ingredients can interact. Note that the ingredients cannot get in the bowl by their own efforts — it requires an outside force sufficient to displace their mass and overcome their inertia. The outside force is societal change and normative institutional arrangements that motivate e-research efforts.

Once in the bowl, the ingredients must be mixed and kneaded. The kneading process is necessary but difficult and requires substantial time and energy. Kneading does not just distribute the ingredients; it builds and strengthens strands of gluten that contain the gases that cause bread to rise. On the other hand, too much kneading can remove the elasticity from those strands and ruin the dough. Mixing and kneading is the process of cross-disciplinary learning and interaction. The strands are connections and linkages created between participants.

Just as the ingredients cannot place themselves in the bowl, they cannot mix and knead themselves. The mixer is another outside force, different from the force that put the ingredients in the bowl. The mixer has been designed specifically to perform this function. The mixer is a person(s) who orchestrates cross-disciplinary interactions.

Once mixed, the new concoction must be allowed to rise. Acted on immediately, the yeast will not be able to fully invade the entire mixture, and the gases that cause the bread to be light and fluffy will not form. If too much time is allocated for rising, however, the bread collapses. Rising is the time needed to allow e-research ideas to incubate.

When the bread has risen, it needs to be baked. This also requires time and energy, and the baking time cannot be rushed by turning up the temperature. During this time all of the ingredients interact with each other, forming a solidified structure. Baking is the collaborative work done that produces e-research outcomes.

Key Components Highlighted by the Metaphor

A number of key components of e-research collaboration are highlighted by the metaphor (Table 1). These can be categorized as issues of external forces, place, time, and process — issues common to all phenomenological models. A number of theories and conceptual frameworks are relevant to the different elements. In this section I briefly describe some of these elements.

Table 1. Metaphorical Elements, Corresponding Model Elements, and Relevant Theory

Metaphorical Element Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration Model Element Relevant Theory and Concepts


Disciplinary perspectives

Individual creativity

Diversity and heterogeneity

Yeast Enabling technologies  
Moving force

Societal change

Normative action by institutions

Theories of action

Organizational change

Bowl Interacting place, face-to-face or virtual

Physical collaboration places

Virtual collaboratories

Mixing and kneading Collaboration methods, tools, and processes

Psychology of learning

Organizational learning

Team processes

Boundary objects

Mixing force Collaboration facilitator, mediator, catalyst, and synergist

Transformational leadership

Boundary spanning

Rising E-research design


Participatory design methods

Ill-structured problems

Baking Cross-disciplinary application development Project management


The ingredients are individuals with different disciplinary specialties. Some are more alike in their perspective than others. Conceptual frameworks of a physicist and a computer scientist are more alike, for instance, than a sociologist and a computer scientist. Conversely, two physicists may have distinctly different research interests. To someone from outside that domain, they appear similar, but from within the domain there are distinctive differences. All are not the same. Illustrating this, Figure 1 shows a partial map of science constructed by analysis of journal use. Journals located close to each other in this space are accessed by the same people; those that are far apart are rarely accessed by the same people.

Figure 1}

Figure 1. Partial Map of Journal Use Analysis
Image modified from Bollen et al.1; used with permission

Any collaborative e-research team can be described by a conceptual arrangement comprised of pair-wise conceptual connections between any two participants. There is a tendency for those who are most alike to converge quickly on creative ideas that span their interests, leaving those who are most different isolated. (See "Team Structure.") Disciplines exist because of this tendency and the creative outcomes that ensue from interacting with those who have similar but not identical perspectives. Yet conceptual heterogeneity brought about by major differences in perspectives creates an enhanced opportunity for radically new outcomes to emerge. Cross-disciplinary e-research collaboration depends on integrating these heterogeneous perspectives.

Motivating Force

Major e-research funding incentives have emerged over the past decade. Despite these incentives, few domain researchers engage in e-research. We have a propensity to continue to act and interact with the same people, and in the same ways as in the past, unless a compelling reason to change arises. Institutional arrangements such as universities, foundations, and funding agencies are the outside forces that motivate involvement in an e-research project. They must create incentives that bring ingredients to the bowl. Note, however, that this is not accomplished by getting rid of the containers. Most individuals will remain in their departments and disciplines while engaging in e-research projects. (For more on this point, see "Challenges to Interdisciplinary Research.")

Career success in academia is tightly coupled to productivity as measured by publications. It is much easier to work and publish within one's discipline than to engage in lengthy, arduous collaborations with IT researchers that can require years to produce publishable outcomes. This can be a career inhibitor for any researcher, but for new faculty facing tenure decisions, it is a career killer. In e-research, considerable time and effort are expended searching for appropriate and innovative matches between emerging technology research and the needs of scientists, then iterating over many potential solutions. The outcomes from these exploratory efforts are rarely publishable.

New, compelling incentives are needed, but it is unclear what those incentives might be, or who is responsible for generating them. As Denise Caruso and Diana Rhoten noted:

[I]nterdisciplinary success depends on exploration and curiosity in the service of solving a problem or answering a question, which may or may not yield the kind of tangible result we expect from traditional research…it requires tenacity and a tolerance for ambiguity that many traditional researchers find difficult to maintain.2


In the past, the bowl was a physical place where people met face-to-face, and there will continue to be a need for such face-to-face meetings (see "Co-located Teams"). Rumors of the death of distance are highly exaggerated3 (with credit to Mark Twain). Still, in the digitally connected society, people may interact from anywhere. The emerging bowls of the future are virtual places — scientific collaboratories or virtual organizations. To be effective, virtual places must provide many of the same capabilities as face-to-face meetings. This raises a number of technical issues as well as social interaction and collaboration issues that have not been present in the past and that require cultural and organizational change. However, the vision of virtual collaboration is not simply to enable the same interactions as usual from a distance; rather, virtual collaboration is an opportunity to engage with others in ways never before envisioned. Computing becomes a collaborator, contributing input and resources that humans cannot. Computing provides an opportunity to marshal the vast knowledge, data, and resources relevant to a problem in ways that individual faculty and researchers could never hope to accomplish. Indeed, opportunities abound for creative combinations that emerge from interactions between collaborators with heterogeneous perspectives — and the web is the ultimate source of heterogeneous perspectives. Emergent cognition arises from humans and computers collaborating to explore, discover, and interact in the virtual world. Nevertheless, empirical findings suggest that collaboratories that seek to engage participants in tightly coupled interactions are less likely to be successful than looser collaborations (see "Collaboratories"). Mechanisms must be developed for harnessing the potential of collaboration across heterogeneous perspectives before these technical approaches will reach their full potential.

Mixing and Kneading

Mixing and kneading are the processes by which disciplinary knowledge is exchanged, cross-disciplinary learning occurs, and linkages between disciplines are discovered (see "Success Factors"). These linkages form a coherent conceptual framework from which creative content and connections can emerge. Effective orchestration mechanisms that enable this creative collective thinking are poorly understood. In cross-disciplinary teams depth and diversity of knowledge impede finding creative linkages, yet those same characteristics are likely to yield radically creative ideas when linkages are found.

Diana Rhoten4 studied six U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) funded interdisciplinary centers using social network and ethnographic analysis. She found that although these institutions were organized to provide substantive support for interdisciplinary research, and individual researchers within these organizations were highly motivated to conduct interdisciplinary research, few truly interdisciplinary outcomes were achieved. In particular, she highlighted the lack of unifying problem definitions around which researchers could coalesce, leading to the "tendency to become a nexus of loosely connected individuals searching for intersections, as opposed to cohesive groups tackling well-defined problems." This phenomenon points to the difficulty of crossing disciplines, identifying the connections between perspectives, and even clarifying a problem that can be addressed from different directions. These issues are not unique to research centers; rather they are fundamental issues that any cross-disciplinary team (including e-research teams) must confront. (For related research, see "Diverse Perspectives.")

Collaborative teams are groups of individuals who aggregate for the purpose of working together on a shared problem. Yet as long as the problem definition is vague, such efforts have difficulty gaining traction. The key challenge confronting e-research collaborators is managing and enabling group creative thinking when collaborators have deep and highly heterogeneous perspectives. The goal of such projects is not just IT research, but the transformation of the domain through application of innovative computing methodologies. Historically, finding the right connections that allow simultaneous advances in both areas has been problematic. Domain researchers require small additions of the right technologies; determining which technologies are relevant and appropriate is critical. Yet domain researchers often have difficulty envisioning how emerging technologies might impact their work, and IT researchers have difficulty communicating potential outcomes in concrete, nontechnical terms. Consequently, there is a tendency for e-research to result in an IT project with little application rather than a problem-centered project that advances both areas (see "Science and Technology Collaborations"). Researchers must create and develop conceptual connections that are interesting and challenging for both. Concerted effort is needed on both sides to align interests such that work meets both the technical goals and the goals of the end user.

Mixing Force

The mixer is not necessarily in charge of the group or necessarily the primary decision maker. The mixer controls the mixing, consistent with organizational science studies of critical leadership behaviors in situations that call for cooperation and transformative outcomes. In collaborative teams, it is crucial that the process through which the final problem is defined results in collective buy-in and that each individual understands his or her role. This requires a leader who can successfully orchestrate generative elements and interactions such that a shared vision emerges. The leader directs the process, not the outcomes. (See "Critical Leadership Behaviors" necessary for success.)

Studies of stakeholder organizations working together on complex social issues5 have identified critical individuals referred to as "boundary spanners." Boundary spanners facilitate and manage interactions, but they are more than just facilitators or managers. They must act as translators but also as synergists. They must be entrepreneurs and innovators, cultural brokers, trust builders, and catalytic leaders. Although some leaders with these characteristics have arisen, many more are needed.

A better understanding of the overall collaboration process, and mixing processes in particular, will enable training of a cohort of students in every discipline who can more effectively engage in collaboration. Some of these people will combine native leadership ability with understanding of collaboration processes to become the synergistic, catalytic leaders of tomorrow.


It takes time for creative, interdisciplinary approaches to emerge in a complex project. Disciplinary training and cross-disciplinary mixing are all preparation for the incubation of ideas. The connections constructed during mixing form a springboard for incubation, but the more heterogeneous the perspectives, the longer the incubation period needed. Emergent ideas will be fuzzy and poorly defined initially. Group activities can be structured to lead toward increasing problem definition.6 Nevertheless, incubation of creative ideas in individuals often requires long periods of time; it is reasonable to expect that incubation in complex teams will require even longer. Do not expect good things to emerge overnight, or from a single meeting.

The need for incubation suggests the need for time set aside specifically for cross-disciplinary interactions, but also for time to reflect on those interactions. Similar to the recognition that faculty can be energized by sabbaticals that allow them to focus their effort, cross-disciplinary teams need time set aside for collaborators to be "synergized" by crossing their efforts. Unlike sabbaticals, this time should not be a foregone conclusion — not everyone has the goal of crossing disciplines. For those who do, however, blocks of time set aside without the distractions of everyday work are invaluable.


Many factors influence the ability of a collaborative group to take action together. Yet the ability to generate creative approaches that effectively integrate across disciplinary perspectives, and provide opportunities for all participants, is central. The team that learns to think creatively together in the beginning is positioned to more effectively take collaborative action together. Successful action is not guaranteed, but the absence of a well-conceived cross-disciplinary agenda pretty much guarantees disappointing collaborative action. Yet an agenda, in this context, must be a potential agenda, not a firm agenda. A project takes a specific form that depends on input from all of the disciplines. By the very nature of those interactions, the collaborative path may have high uncertainty. Many iterations of design, testing, and revision might be required before effective and satisfying solutions are reached. Any collaborative effort that includes advanced IT must be prepared to confront major technical challenges that require time and effort to resolve. (See "From E-Science Project to Cyberinfrastructure.") All participants must remain engaged while these issues are being resolved. The rest of the ingredients can't remove themselves from the bowl during this process — the yeast must interact with the other ingredients.


Given the number of issues that confront cross-disciplinary science and technology teams, and the wide range of knowledge and experience that must be brought to bear on the process, it is no surprise that these efforts have a low success rate. On the contrary, it is almost a miracle that any of them succeed! I believe that those that have succeeded historically discover an interesting problem to work on by serendipity, and the desire of the participants to tackle that problem overcomes all other issues. While this can lead to great outcomes, we must do better than serendipity.

An analogous situation existed early in the 20th century with the rise of large corporations. Large corporations did not replace small businesses; rather, they created a new business environment. Along with that new environment, new professional niches arose for people who managed the system. Clearly, there is a comparable need within complex cross-disciplinary technology projects for professionals able to manage the complexity of the project and address the different issues highlighted by the breadmaking metaphor.

There are precedents for this role within the IT arena. Software companies employ market analysts and product developers to ensure a match between the technologies they develop and the users they hope to entice to purchase those products. Businesses employ business analysts to ensure that the investments they make in technologies and systems fit their business needs, and they employ training professionals to ensure that investments in technology are matched with efforts that focus on developing the human capacity to use those technologies. In both cases, the needs and tasks are fairly well defined. In academic and research settings, the needs are not well defined because academia focuses on the forefronts of knowledge rather than those areas that are well known, and research is, by definition, an exploration into uncharted territory. Hence, the matching task is much more difficult. It is time for academia to begin to define comparable professional positions for those who will tackle the new complexities that are emerging — who are our intermediaries and negotiators, the people who can facilitate the matching of needs and solutions in our settings? Until we facilitate the work of our cross-disciplinary research teams, we cannot improve their chances for success.


This work was supported by National Science Foundation grant numbers 0636317 and 0753336 for the CI-Team Demonstration and Implementation Projects: Advancing Cyber-infrastructure Based Science Through Education, Training, and Mentoring of Science Communities. The author gratefully acknowledges the many collaborators involved in these projects, whose comments and insights have been useful and influential.

  1. Johan Bollen, Herbert Van de Sompel, Aric Hagberg, Luis Bettencourt, Ryan Chute, Marko A. Rodriguez, and Lyudmila Balakireva, (2009). "Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science," PLoS One, Public Library of Science, vol. 4, no. 3 (2009).
  2. Denise Caruso and Diana Rhoten, "Lead, Follow, Get Out of the Way: Sidestepping the Barriers to Effective Practice of Interdisciplinarity," The Hybrid Vigor Institute, San Francisco, CA, April 2001.
  3. Gary M. Olson and Judith S. Olson, (2000). "Distance Matters," Human-Computer Interaction, vol. 15, no. 2 (Septmber 2000), pp. 139–178.
  4. Diana Rhoten "Final Report: A Multi-Method Analysis of the Social and Technical Conditions for Interdisciplinary Collaboration," The Hybrid Vigor Institute, San Francisco, CA, September 2003.
  5. Paul Williams, "The Competent Boundary Spanner," Public Administration, vol. 80, no. 1 (2002), pp. 103–124.
  6. Deana D. Pennington, "Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration and Learning," Ecology & Society, vol. 13, no. 2 (December 2008), p. 8.