In this paper, we describe usage patterns of a design information database observed from four years of data, and discuss issues of learning through social and technology mediated interactions in a product design community. From the period of 1994 to 1999, an increasing amount of the design information in a project-based course at Stanford University has been captured in electronic format. This design information consists of design notes, drawings, reports, slide presentations, emails, vendor references, and even, in some cases, summaries of phone conversations, meeting minutes, and the like. The large corpus of captured information was made available to the project teams during each academic year on the assumption that one would be able to achieve better performance by building on and learning from experiences of peers. Because the data was all made available over a webserver, we were able to collect information on access to it We have thus had a chance to learn from studying the usage of a large body of captured design information. Preliminary analysis on the first two years of data was reported in DETC conference in 1998 (Liang, Cannon et al. 1998). Results from our current analysis show some interesting patterns of file utilization. Those patterns includes a surprising high ratio of access to process-related files, as opposed to product-related files; a temporal access pattern that closely matches project deliverables and milestones; and, an increased correlation between database usage and team-based performance over time.
The results from quantitative data analysis are augmented with qualitative user interviews. When interviewed, all engineers agreed that there could be a lot of benefits from learning from peer experiences. Nevertheless, physical and psychological barriers often prevent one from doing so. Physical barriers include distance, time, and organizational distance. Some psychological barriers include the perceived value of the archived information, and perceived effort of finding useful information. These pragmatic organizational learning issues arise from the fact that the teams were working on diverse projects and are all pressured by time and resources. We hypothesize that these real-world constraints of time and resources prohibited many learning opportunities to occur which would otherwise have been very productive and effective. This tension between learning and working is the backdrop of this learning experiment. We suggest that the patterns reported in this paper will be typical of a small product design consulting firm that has many fast-paced projects running in parallel.