Virtual Communities: beyond Globalization through Virtual Communication Devices.

Antonio Grandío Botella. May, 2001.
Área de Organización de Empresas.
U.P Administración de Empresas y Marketing

Universitat Jaume I
. Castellón


By proposing and focusing in the concept of Virtual Communication Devices (VCD), this paper tries to shed some conceptual light on the global impact that Information, Knowledge and Communication Technologies are bringing into play for organizations and society as a whole. After introducing the main existing VCD's, an unavoidable paradigm shift is suggested based in the concept of "virtualness". First, The metaphors of the "Swiss clock" (pointing out the mechanical image of the organizations in the past) compared to the "Neural Network" metaphor (referring to the current emerging virtual network company) are used. Secondly, regarding management research, it suggests a movement beyond issues relating globalization (using this term as an evolution from the concepts exporting and internationalization) toward those ones closer to virtualization. Virtualization is defined as the degree in which a company integrates in the Internet all its processes. Thirdly, an emerging understanding of learning as the main source of knowledge management as well as the key factor for coping environment challenges. Lastly, the focusing on needs by conceiving these as the source of a 7 levels continuum in which virtualness can be allocated.


The MacIntosh and PC computers apparition in the 80's implied a tremendous revolution in the way organizations and society as a whole were conceived. However, in the early 90's, a greater revolution was involved in the emerging of computer networks (LAN's) and their logical next step: the absolute networks generalization into the huge planetary phenomenon that has come to be the Internet, in its definitive last format: the World Wide Web (WWW). It is not necessary to deepen too much to realize that one of the most important organizational event in the present time is this. It is usually not so evident that these technologies are radically changing, whether we realize it or not, our way of conceiving the world, the economy, the companies and the organizations. This shift is this way because there has always existed a narrow correspondence among technology, the physical and functional infrastructure of the organizations and its organizational system, its structure of authority and its strategy.

The era of the industrial factory, of serial production by means of massive investments in team goods, propitiated a mechanical, hierarchical and normative organizational structure of authority, because the basic technology was represented by the heavy industrial machinery of the factories. However, the present must be with the Internet and with its networked nature, where the "real" goods are no longer manufactured physical goods, but the communication, the knowledge and the information. Internet information and communication technologies are bringing us the concept of virtualness, derived from the increasingly immediacy (disappearing of space and time) of all types of human relationship, whether economical, work or social in their nature.

There are several definitions of Virtual Organizations. A good general definition can be found in What is? IT Encyclopedia:

"A virtual organization or company is one whose members are geographically apart, usually working by computer e-mail and groupware while appearing to others to be a single, unified organization with a real physical location"

In a more detailed manner, and following Preston (1997):

" ... a Virtual Organization involves the development and maintenance of interdependent relationships between (1) physically separated actors (e.g., different offices, different countries), (2) temporally separated actors (e.g., different time zones, different schedules), (3) actors with different but complementary needs (e.g., employees and customers, marketers and engineers), and (4) actors and communication technologies (e.g., voice mail systems, the World-Wide Web, email accounts). Through the processes of virtual organization, the relationships between organizational entities, their representatives and extensions (e.g., Web pages, voice mail banks, offices) are developed and maintained regardless of the location and time schedules of their participants".

These features allow some specific design factors. For DeSanctis, G. & Monge, (1998) these organizations are characterized by

 "(a) highly dynamic processes, (b) contractual relationships among entities, (c) edgeless, permeable boundaries, and (d) reconfigurable structures" .

The new technologies take us to new visions of the world, and also allow new interesting topics to arise, which at the same time create awareness that many of the old ones lose relevancy. For instance, some of the old topics were the competition, dimension, boundaries, flowcharts etc. of the company. The new ones can  probably be connectivity, flexibility, learning etc. Thus, the "old" concept of Flowchart can be challenged by the Corporate Intranet. We can say that  social world is over, because our world is becoming more and more a virtual networked organizational world.

Table 1.

Organizational Topics of Interest
Positive Virtual
Competitiveness Connectivity
Flowchart Intranet
Economies of Scale Knowledge Management

1.- The Internet and Virtual Communication Devices.

As we have pointed out, the appearance of the Personal Computer (PC, Macintosh etc.) at the beginning of the 80, represented an unprecedented revolution in the humanity's history. Mainly, their capacity and versatility when treating information of all types, radically changed the way of managing our companies and organizations. But as we have cited, in this new millennium, an even more tremendous revolution is arising from the possibility of connecting all the computers of the world by means of networks, where the information is available in real time without caring of geographical distance. This revolution has a name: the Internet. Let us describe some of the most important Internet devices.

a.- Web Pages. Almost all companies around the world have their own place in the Internet. We can already say that, paradoxically, the "real location" of companies and organizations is their virtual place in the Internet. We must increasingly address our communication and information needs to the organization's web site. Instead of physically visiting a company in their geographical location where we probably would have to walk many corridors and knock on several doors to find out the information that we want, we could, ironically and probably, look for it on the company's web site. All the kinds of information needed by diverse users is there, ranging from real or potential investors (its annual sales of revenues, balance sheets, strategy of dividends, development perspectives, etc.) to customers support, through to instructions for the very company's employees. Nowadays the web site can also include many interactive communication devices, such as specific departments e-mail accounts, virtual shopping, several forms and orders, discussion forums and even written and audio/video chats.

b.- Electronic Mail (E-mail). For many years now, Electronic mail exceeds postal mail in volume. It is usual these days that e-mail  includes html features, since it allows for the inclusion of all kind of multimedia material in it, attached files and links to any web page in the Internet.

c.- Discussion Forums/Auctions. Any topic of interest can be discussed in a news list (that can be ordered by date, topic etc.). Companies also use them internally for Knowledge Management purposes.  A special commercial case of them can be found in the huge variety of virtual auctions in the world wide web.

d.- Portals. A portal is not but a web site where usual demanded information and knowledge concentrates for an easier access. They can be horizontal / generic or vertical / specific. In the first case, they try to grasp all the information that we usually look for when we enter the Internet (politics news, sports, games, software, chat, search of information, etc.). The vertical ones address a singular topic (i.e. cars, psychoanalytical studies or management papers). These concentration features are evolving to what is called "Knowledge Hubs". Many big companies are investing great amounts of resources in these portals for they imply interesting business opportunities.

e.- Chat. The already popular chat implies the possibility of communicating with many people at a time via a host server. The most popular ones in the past used the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) technology, but now those implemented with the JAVA  technology seem to be becoming more popular. In a chat, anyone can enter in the desired "virtual room", choosing a fictitious name (nick). The chat purpose can vary a lot, from pure amusement to business stuff.

f.- Personal Communicators. We can include here what are also called Personal Instant Messengers. Probably the newest and more interesting ones, these programs usually keep in constant touch people which are mutually included in each of their personal database (contact list). When active, the program warns other people (colleagues, friends, etc. that have our personal code) of our presence in the web, and vice versa: warns us about their presence. So, we can see "on-line" those people that are connected in a given moment and those ones that aren't (off-line status). We can exchange instant messages with the on-line users and send delayed ones to the off-line ones till they are connected. We can also have person to person chats or share it with more users, sending and receiving all kind of files (text, pictures, music etc.). Some of these support remote application sharing (for instance, writing or drawing together in the remote user word processor from the local computer). Many of them include the possibility of "knowing who" and contacting the people who are visiting the same web page as we are. We can be advised of a visitor's presence in a determinate web page. Recently they included free voice conference between computers and sending SMS (GSM cell phone short message system) as well as the possibility of making calls (and receiving) from cell and fixed phones all around the world.

In a wide communication sense, they have also a huge planetary classified users database by hobbies, religion, interests, knowledge field etc. Some of the most popular are ICQ, AOL,  Windows Messenger, Yahoo messenger, Odigo and Powow. Most of them are freeware, which is to say, they don't cost any money. We should note the tremendous impact this new, and free, devices have in the development of the relative new "peer to peer" paradigms as an alternative to the stablished "Client-Server" paradigm in the groupware world (i.e. The new "Groove" technology respect to the classical Lotus Notes technology, conceived by the creator of both: R. Ozzie).

g.- Videoconference. The most widely known videoconference software is Windows Netmeeting. This not only allows users to see and hear each other in real time, but it also allows connection to a server directory where we can contact any of the connected people in that moment. It also includes a written chat, a slate where we can draw in common with the other user, files transferring and application and desktop sharing. Netmeeting is freeware and is also in the popular MS Windows 98/ME/2000. It is interesting to notice the low price of the necessary webcam for video conferencing (under 38 in may, 2001).

1.1- Virtual Communication Devices: a Taxonomy. The Internet has made possible the emerging of many changing information and communication devices. We can try to make a taxonomy based in many dimensions, but we consider here two of them: the knowledge management capacity (in terms of time and quantity) and the interactivity features (let it be personal or group).

Table 2. Virtual Communication Devices.



Product Examples Knowledge Management Interactivity
Time Quantity Personal Groupal
Electronic Mail E-mail clients:
Netscape Instant Messenger
Delayed High Direct Low
Web Page/Site Browsers:
Netscape Communicator
Very Delayed Normal Indirect (one way only) (3) Low
Discussion Forums/Auctions   Delayed High Mixed High
Written Chats IRC
Real Time (1) Normal Duplex High
Voice Chats Excite
Real Time Low Direct Low
Audio Conference Buddy Phone
Netscape Conference
MS Netmeeting
Real Time (2) Low Direct Low
Video Conference MS Netmeeting Real Time (2) Low Direct Low
Personal Communication Devices Netscape I.M.
MS Netmeeting
MS Messenger
Yahoo Messenger
Duplex High Multiple Direct Normal
(1) It is not unusual at the present to observe important time delays in chats (lets say, from  a normal few seconds up to several minutes), specially in "rush hours" that provoke frequents disconnections that obligate to reconnect.
(2) Usual TCP/IP voice and video implies at the present a little delay under a second.
(3) Web pages are increasingly including many interactive features (chat is a good example) that eliminates the most of the cited table differences.

In the table we use the term "duplex" to say that the device has all the necessary features for working in a mode or in the other, while we use the term "mixed" to refer to a middle way between two features. Finally, I have  chosen the "Multiple Direct" term to address the personal messengers with the capability of direct and individual interaction with several isolated users without the usual communication among them.

2.- From Swiss Clocks to Neural Networks: Implications of the Virtual Communication Devices.

One of the more evident conclusions we can imagine is that, definitively, time and space will have little influence in the communications of the future. A company or an organization can be conceived as a loose and flexible coordinate Extra/Intranet web guided by some both fuzzy common purposes and shared meanings. In other words, old images or organizational metaphors pointed out the similarity between machines and companies (Morgan, 1986). We can use the image of the admirable old mechanical swiss clocks and how the multiple parts fit perfectly to understand how the companies of the past were intended to be: "in perfect order". Nowadays companies, and even the whole world relationship, is closer to a neural network, being the human brain the pertinent metaphor to be used. In a web world, based in the TCP/IP protocol, it is almost impossible to predict the way that an "information packet" is going to walk between two computers even when repeating the process no matter how many number of times. That's also the way that the brain works, in a chaotic manner.

2.1.- Virtual Organization as Virtual Community: Communication Web Stages.

For this paper purpose, virtualization implies the degree in which the Internet is being expressed in the whole company dimensions, the organization becoming, by an evolutive process, one more site in the entire planetary network. The final process is a company which becomes a Virtual Community.

We could distinguish three levels in this process: external (corporate Internet web site), internal (Intranet) and, perhaps, the most important in the boundaries between this latter: the Extranet in the way of a virtual community. This term is close to that of "user" conceived by the TQM concepts a wider and global evolution of the "customer" term. Immediate users are employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders, but we could include the potential ones as well. We could depict seven stages in the virtualization process.

Figure 1. Communication Dimensions for a Virtual Community.


2.2.- Implications of Virtualization.

The way to virtualization has many important consequences. In a wide sense, we can find the following:

The Learning Company (as Senge, 1990, 1995 conceives it) is presented here as the natural paradigm for Virtual Organizations. This is illustrated in the figure 1: the current organizations are being reoriented towards an infrastructure on the net of which the Corporate Intranet is the most usual form. The object of the Intranet is focusing the managerial tasks towards the Knowledge and Information Management, while the human resources of the companies should adapt to these new configurations by means of what we will denominate Emotional Development.

Figure 2. 

Let us be clear that the information, knowledge and, above all, learning reside fundamentally in networks of people, even not in separate individuals, so that the human being, as the unquestionable main factor of virtual organizations earns a special relevance. When we center ourselves on the human being, we discover that it is in the emotional side of human nature where the most powerful forces are both to encourage and preventing learning.

3.- An Evolution in Paradigms Change.

Can we conceive an evolution in the management paradigms up to Virtualness? Furthermore, could we catch a glimpse of what is beyond virtualness in the immediate future? In other papers we have suggested a seven stage continuum regarding the evolution of management paradigms and learning (Grandío & Chiva, 1997; Grandío, Chiva & Montesinos, 1998). For my purpose, an adaptation has been made using the term "virtual" for adressing the "informative" stage/paradigm, and the result can be seen in table 3.

Table 3: 7 Levels, Questions and Stages.

  Learning Level Stage/Paradigm   Insight respect previous Stage
7 Realizing Complex ^ Learning depend on the creation of new "insights"
6 Aware Systemic ^ Representations depend on "how we learn and build them"
5 Representational Virtual ^ Objectives depend on "how we see" (representation)
4 Strategic Economic ^ Rules and Satisfaction depend on "what our objectives are"
3 Imitative Social ^ Programs and Rules depend on "members satisfaction"
2 Operating Normative ^ Customs and Routines depend on what the programs dictate
1 Conditioned Familiar ^  

Based in human needs (Maslow, 1949, 1970), this model aims to be holistic, in the sense that it should be able to explain the evolution of Science paradigms as a whole, as well as the evolution of Society and Organizations. I am still working on its development. As it is shown, each level implies a sort of "insight" in respect to the previous, a "realizing" next to the gestaltic "aha" construct. In regard to psychology and management schools this continuum could be related as is shown in table 4.

Table 4.- Levels of Organizing/Learning, Human Needs and Psychology and Management Schools.

Learning Levels Maslow Psychology School Management School
Realizing Transcendence Z Transpersonal (Maslow, 1970) Transformational View (Banner & Gagné, 1995)
Aware Self Actualization Y Humanism (Mc. Gregor, 1960; Maslow 1967, 1969) Learning Organization (Senge, 1990)
Aware Self Actualization Y Humanism (Mc. Gregor, 1960; Maslow 1967, 1969) Learning Organization (Senge, 1990)
Representational Status (Ego) Cognitivism (Miller, Galanter & Pribram, 1960).
Social Constructivism (Moscovici).
Resource Based View (Grant, 1991; Peteraf,1993)
Knowledge Management (Nonaka, 1994)
Images of Organization (Morgan, 1986)
Organizational Autopoiesis (Ross & Slocum, 1994)
Strategic Achievement Problem Solving (Simon, 1947) Strategic Management (Andrews,1971; Ansoff, 1975; Porter, 1980, 1985)
Imitative Social Vicary, Observational (Bandura, 1963) Human Relations (Mc Gregor, 1960; Mayo, 1946)
Operating Security Operant Conditioning (Skinner, 1938) Scientific Management (Taylor,1911)
General Principles of Management (Fayol, 1916)
Conditioned Physiological Classical Conditioning (Pavlov, 1904, 1926)  

For developing toward virtualness, we will give a more detailed classification of the Representational Learning and Virtual Stage, dividing it in 3 sub-levels:  Informative, which would include what seems to be the immediate alternative paradigm to Strategic Management (and the more theoretically closed to it): the Resource Based View (Prahalad & Hamel, 1994; Grant, 1991; Peteraff, 1993), Knowledge with its core focused in Knowledge Creation Management and which reflection can be seen in Drucker's (1993) new approaches (let's recall his "post capitalist society"), Nonaka (1994), and Representation which has many analogies in Management literature: i.e. the Morgan's (1986) Images of Organization, Strategy as a Perspective in the 5 P's of Mintzberg's Theory (Mintzberg & Quinn, 1991), and all of his analogies of this with culture, personality of organization, "weltanschauung", ideology etc., Senge's (1990) Mental Models, Betis & Prahalad's (1995) Dominant Logic, the Autopoietic Theory (Maturana & Varela, 1980; Krog, Roos & Slocum, 1994, Whitaker, 1995) etc. This is shown in the next figure.

Figure 2: Three Contemporary Stages.

As it has been cited, and in regard to organization studies, I am deeply convinced that Representational level implies an actual synthesis between psycho-sociological and economical views, but it goes beyond them. We use the word synthesis as opposed to eclecticism, in the sense that it transcends both views into a new level that we could be widely label as Business Organization Science. This would include in its roots, obviously, many other social sciences like Politics, Anthropology etc. in order to understand our new society of organizations (Drucker, 1993). 

Besides each communication level we can distinguish four types relating to the nature of communication in our continuum: nominal, positive, virtual and dialogical.

Table 5.-  Four Evolving Natures for Communication.

Nature Standardization

Key Factor

Stage Learning Device
Nominal Nominal Rules/Laws Normative Operating Swap
Positive Ratio (Numerical) (National) Money Social Imitative Local Markets
Parity Currency (International) Economic Strategic Global Markets
Virtual Communication Protocols The Internet Information Skills The Internet
Taxonomies Constructs Knowledge Knowledge Groupware
Meanings Enacting Representation Paradigms Virtual Communities
Dialogical Learning Aware Systemic Discovering Learning Spaces
Complex Realizing Complex Creating  

We use the term standardization as the process by which we use a single pattern to represent and describe the huge environmental variety (let's say complexity) that is known and "socially recreated" by a community. Standards are useful, as well as the consequence of, for coordinating resources and relationships. Language can be a form of standardization, and Rules/Law another. I use the term "nominal" in the process of putting names and labels to things and behaviors and ruling them in a bunch of norms to be applied to everyone in a community. Positive standardization comes with the appearing of fiduciary money and the possibility of exchanging it with another foreign currency. Money is a "positive" way of standardization because it always refers to real economic assets, and represents the accepted value of goods as well as the economic way of resource allocation/coordination. Virtualness comes with the information era and the huge network we are living in called the Internet. It starts with network communication protocols used by everybody as a standard, the packets technology: TCP/IP and the Hypertext Language (HTML) overcoming all existing differences between computers, platforms and operating systems. Once this standardization is done we are moving to knowledge with the Groupware (i.e. Lotus Notes and Intranets) and then to representations, in the sense of shared  paradigms by a virtual community. 

But, probably, and as I have pointed out, the implicit processes that lay behind virtualness are close related to learning and, when the complexity grows up, dialogue is the only way to cope with it (Grandío & Montesinos, 1998). These aspects are to be examined in a immediate future.