Haris Papoutsakis, Technological Education Institute of
Inter-firm collaboration is the core of knowledge management today. Research on collaboration issues started in the early 1990s and it was soon realized that the tools people need to work with others are different to the ones needed to work alone. Groupware differs from past software. Taking full advantage of existing information systems, groupware represents a fundamental change in the way knowledge-based firms use information technology.
The article first explores the internal knowledge markets and the internal communities’ approaches that dominate knowledge sharing within a firm. It then examines where collaboration is required, under same or different time and place environments, and the peculiarities of the information systems involved in every occasion. Building upon the findings of an empirical study on the relationships of collaborating groups and the role of information technology, the article concludes that proper use of information systems may revolutionize the inter-firm collaboration process. In addition, it provides guidelines that encourage industrial firms to make groupware the backbone of their knowledge sharing infrastructure.
Keywords: Inter-firm Collaboration, Knowledge Sharing, Information Systems, Groupware
Inter-firm collaboration and the information technology (IT) used for this purpose, is in the core of knowledge management. They have been addressed, from a general perspective, by numerous researchers (Davenport and Prusak 2000; Grant and Baden-Fuller 1995; Sveiby 2001; von Krogh et al, 2000). In this article, we shall look into inter-firm collaboration from a practical point of view, emphasizing on the IT-based tools and techniques that facilitate knowledge work within the firm and particularly among its various groups or departments. This means not only encouraging people to share knowledge on a person to person basis, but also to put their knowledge in a form that others can easily access it. Because knowledge originates from both inside and outside the company, practical issues on knowledge management deal with customer knowledge and researcher knowledge and how to embed this outside knowledge in a real-time system. Under this perspective we believe that the challenge is to recognize where IT fits in the overall knowledge management and knowledge sharing arena within the firm.
It is important to examine the channels that permit and facilitate information to flow inside and within the collaborating groups of an organization. Two are the main types of information handling activities: the procedure-based ones (related to the procedures that each one of these groups is involved in) and the knowledge-based information handling activities. We shall focus our interest on the information systems designed to support knowledge-based activities. Systems that support employees of the various groups in performing information handling activities in order to work together, share expertise and knowledge, and solve problems. As of their nature, these systems must support activities that do not always follow the same or similar process and that deal with information and knowledge that cannot be easily captured.
The rest of the article is organized as follows. In the next section the research methodology is deployed. In section three we resort to literature in order to take a close look at the two different approaches that dominate knowledge sharing within a firm: the one of internal knowledge markets, based mainly on reciprocity, and that of internal communities, based primarily on commitment. We then examine the situations where collaboration is required, under same or different time and/or place conditions, and the peculiarities of the information systems involved in every occasion. In section four, the results of the empirical study, upon which our investigation is built, are presented. Finally, in section five, our conclusions are put forward and, at the same time, guidelines that may encourage industrial firms to make groupware systems the backbone of their knowledge sharing infrastructure are provided.
2. Research Methodology
The inter-firm collaboration issues that are the focus point of this article
stem from a Doctoral Thesis intended to evaluate the contribution of shared
knowledge and information technology to manufacturing performance. Mutual trust
and mutual influence among the collaborating groups have been used in our
initial study as the two antecedents of shared knowledge. For the purpose of
this research, an evaluation model was developed and survey data, collected
from 51 medium to large size industrial companies in
Taking into consideration that the measurement of organizational characteristics requires research methods different from those used for measuring the characteristics of individuals, we adopted the key-informant methodology in order to collect the data required for our study. The use of the method by a number of eminent pioneer researchers justifies this choice. Phillips and Bagozzi (1986, p. 313) describe the method as “…a technique of collecting information on a social setting by interviewing a selected number of participants. The informants are chosen not on a random basis but because they posses special qualifications such as particular status, specialized knowledge, or accessibility to the researcher”. Campbell (1955; pp. 339) considers the use of informants as an alternative sampling technique “… epitomized by the use of one or a few special persons who are extensively interviewed and upon whose responses exceptional reliance is placed and, thus, is to be most clearly distinguished from randomly or representatively sampled interviews”.
Two symmetrical relationship questionnaires, worded in a reverse form, were addressed to Production and Quality or R&D managers -and their assistants- and aimed at portraying the opinion and the attitude of the two collaborating groups towards each other, in terms of sharing knowledge. Data collected via a last ad hoc question that requested managers to evaluate the use of commonly used IT infrastructure for inter-firm collaboration, are analyzed in this article.
A third, performance questionnaire –attempting to measure manufacturing group performance– was addressed to senior managers or their assistants. They were asked to compare the manufacturing group under question, to other comparable manufacturing groups they had managed. Here again, data collected through a last ad hoc question that invited senior managers to evaluate the use of specific IT functions on four collaborating tasks closely related to the group performance, are analyzed in this article. It is the analysis of the data collected from these two ad hoc questions that has primarily helped us formulate the conclusions in section five.
The nature of the inter-firm relationship under investigation and the
complexity of the three questionnaires used, have forced us to pilot test them
with the assistance of a small group of managers from organizations not
participating in the actual research. Interview data are not analyzed here but
they have significantly helped us to word questions in as simple terms as
possible and anchor them to the specific relationship, and to pre-investigate
the use of certain IT infrastructure and functions in the firms of our sample.
The first enabled us to achieve the need for the responder (key-informant) to
speak the same language with the researcher (social scientist), considered so
3. Inter-firm Collaboration
As the 20th century drew to a close, companies guided by a new logic of value tended to consider knowledge and its circulation among collaborating groups as a driving force in order to gain sustainable competitive advantage (Davenport and Probst, 2002; Grant 1997). Academics and economists have argued that in an environment characterized by globalization, increasingly strong competition and the growing complexity of new products, inter-firm collaboration is a key contributor towards the new reallocation (Ciborra and Patriotta, 1998; Gibbert et al, 2000; Drucker 2002).
Upon designing and pilot testing, under the above perspective, the two ad hoc questions that are the focus point of this article, we became aware of the following facts:
¨ There are more than one approaches that allow the flow of information and knowledge in organizations, with knowledge markets and knowledge communities being the dominant ones, although not always labeled as such within the organization.
¨ Time and place are the two parameters that most significantly influence the use of IT for inter-firm collaboration.
It is true that the literature on knowledge sharing with IT support is abundant. We have briefly reviewed works focused on the above two core topics in order to analyze them in the following subsections.
3.1. Knowledge Markets Versus Knowledge Communities
Cohen (1998), in his well documented Report on the First Annual U.C. Berkeley Forum on Knowledge and the Firm, distinguishes and analyzes with clarity the two different approaches to knowledge transactions in organizations, already identified during the pilot testing phase of this research: Internal knowledge markets and internal knowledge communities. The choice of one of the two approaches is of significant importance to our study, as it affects company action. According to Cohen, the proponents of knowledge markets are mainly talking about knowledge interactions between individuals and emphasize on incentives as they tend to consider that knowledge is a ‘thing’ that can be transferred. The devotees of knowledge communities focus on the group and give more attention to encouraging connections among people, which may lead to deeper exploration of the process of knowing.
Supporters of both the above mentioned approaches can be found in the scientific literature and they also made themselves obvious in the Berkeley Forum. Prusak (1997) stated that there are knowledge buyers, sellers and brokers in firms, each of whom expects to gain something in a knowledge transaction. The main price mechanism governing the knowledge market is reciprocity, the expectation that one will get valuable knowledge in return for giving it. Or, to express it differently, one needs to contribute knowledge to become part of the knowledge networks on which s/he depends for success.
Gilmour (2003) goes one step further and proposes that organizations should focus on collaboration management based on a brokering model that forces people to share knowledge when there is something in it for them. Let us consider, for example, two managers (i.e. the manufacturing and quality managers of a company from our sample) evaluating the same vendor; wouldn’t they want to talk to each other and compare their notes and experiences? The brokering model is there to connect people who should be connected. One IT-based solution, proposed by Gilmour (2003), is to continually survey the flood of electronic information that flows through the company in order to find out who is likely to know what. Then, when somebody needs information, those who have it can be asked privately whether they are willing to share.
Supporters of the knowledge community approach, suggest more emphasis on personal connection and commitment to shared success –but also risks and benefits– and less on knowledge transactions, which von Krogh (1998) associates with ‘low care’ social situations. Collaborators worry about themselves and their partners; buyers and sellers don’t. Trust and good will influence action much more powerfully in a community or collaboration world than they do in the relatively impersonal market environment.
Findings of this article, mainly stemming from the pilot testing interviews, indicate that the knowledge market approach, driven by pure self-interest, and that of the knowledge community, characterized by sharing, trust and generosity, represent the two extremes, with real-life situations somewhere in between. Many of our pilot test informants reported that in practice, many individuals care about their colleagues and knowledge markets do depend on trust and reciprocity, as the value of exchanged knowledge cannot be precisely defined and ‘payment’ for it is usually intangible and belated. Some pilot test informants believe that knowledge community members are individuals who are better prepared to contribute to the group effort when they expect a share of the benefits of the group success. In their way, they also make a ‘market’ calculation of what they will get in exchange for the knowledge they offer.
Based on what we have experienced from our sample companies, work is done mainly in task-focused teams, where trust and influence are both important for knowledge sharing. Specialists from various departments (i.e. manufacturing, quality and R&D) work together as a team for the duration of a project (i.e. the development of a new product) depending on a variety of IT tools for their collaboration. Drucker (1988) had long ago foreseen that we are at the beginning of the third evolution in the structure of organizations: the organization of knowledge specialists.
3.2. IT-supported Collaboration
Supporting collaboration has lately been acknowledged as a mainstay in organizations because it is commonly accepted that it is conductive to both knowledge generation and sharing. Making available the wealth of knowledge that exists throughout the organization is of real benefit to firms that wish to improve the ability of employees to make decisions.
For the past 25 years, Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS) have been used in order to help more than one person work together to reach a decision. McNurlin and Sprague (2004) note that GDSSs traditionally support ‘pooled-interdependent’ decision making (where several people reach a decision jointly by working together simultaneously and interacting) or ‘sequential interdependent’ decision making (where one person makes a decision –or part of a decision– and passes it on to another person, not necessarily at the same geographic locus). Findings from both the literature and our pilot testing interviews indicate that it is increasingly difficult to tell when the decision making starts and when supplementary activities (such as data gathering, communicating and interacting) take place. So gradually the ‘D’ (for Decision) has disappeared and we now talk about Group Support Systems (GSS).
Under this perspective, in our study, we have divided the IT-supported inter-firm collaborating activities into two generic categories:
i. Communication and interaction, where communication is conceived as transmitting information from one person to another or to several others and interaction means back-and-forth communication over time. Examples from our study: Advanced office systems, such as intranets and groupware and in particular e-mail.
ii. Decision making and problem solving, where members of the groups reach a decision or form a consensus. Example from our study: The evolution of an inter-firm GSS from the already existing GSSs.
Both types of group activities are needed in collaboration and, historically, systems supporting group work have originated from these two major functions. It was for this reason that ‘coordinating business tasks’, ‘supporting decision making’, ‘facilitating team work’ and ‘facilitating access of information in Data Bases’ have been selected as the four IT functions under investigation in this article.
In four sectors of our sample companies, excluding textile, there were a number of multinational corporations that operated globally. This has forced us to look into the time and place parameters. Johansen (1991) and his colleagues of the Institute for the Future are categorizing the work of groups using a variation of the DeSantis and Gallupe (1985) matrix, by having time on one dimension (same time/different time) and place on the other (same place/different place). The time/place framework they propose in their search for ways in which technology can be utilized to support ‘anytime, anyplace’ collaboration is shown in Figure 1. The two options (same or different) of the parameters time and place designate the way the group members are communicating and interacting over time and/or distance. The ‘same time/same place’ cell, for example, includes electronic meeting support systems. The ‘different time/different place’ cell incorporates such communication-oriented systems as voice and e-mail, group editing, work flow, etc.
Figure 1 Groupware Options (Johansen, 1991)
In the two subsections following we shall further comment on some particular situations where, as reported by a number of pilot test informants, the use of information systems to support collaboration is of importance. Until recently there has been little integration among the systems in the four cells, even though it is clear to investigators and system developers that supporting collaboration must aim to permit anytime, anyplace group working.
3.2.1. Same Time / Same Place Collaboration
Supporting same time/same place collaboration has generally meant supporting meetings. Team members from the groups involved meet face-to-face in order to develop the basic plan and objectives and finally reach a decision. Meetings are part of the daily schedule of any staff member and McNurlin and Sprague (2004) mention the results of a US study that have found that the average executive in a US company spends more than 800 hours a year in meetings. The number alone represents an approximate 30 percent of total work hours, and what is more, the executives reported that they considered about 240 of those hours to have been wasted in useless meetings.
From comments made during the pilot-testing interviews, the main problems with meetings are:
¨ Often there is no agenda, participants do not study the documentation provided before the meeting and expect to be briefed during the meeting.
¨ Key people arrive late or do not attend at all, time may be spent on briefing attendees or on routine matters, and due to a poor job of the chairperson a few people –very often the same at every meeting– dominate the discussion and others do not speak up at all.
¨ Many meetings are wasteful from a cost standpoint (considering cost per hour in salaries, travel expenses, etc) not to mention the unavailability of the participants at their place of duty.
Combining solutions proposed in relevant literature with the experiences of a small number of pilot test informants and the expectations of many more, we have come to the following means by which information technology can help:
¨ Eliminate some meetings. Use of e-mail or the company intranet can eliminate all meetings that do not call for a group decision or action (i.e. progress report meetings). Electronic and voice mail systems allow meetings to be cancelled at the last moment (when key people can not attend or essential information is not yet available).
¨ Better preparation for meetings. Computer conferencing can play a significant role in improving preparation for meetings. A computer conferencing system is actually a form of enhanced e-mail, allowing participants to log on at their convenience, read all entries made by others since they last logged on, and make their contributions. The chairperson can use the system to obtain reactions to the proposed agenda and even for handling routine actions (like approval of previous meeting minutes and voting on routine issues) as well as for providing a written record of pre- and post- meeting communications.
¨ Improve the effectiveness of meetings. The major benefit of using meeting support systems is improved meeting efficiency and effectiveness. Meetings are more effective when the ideas generated by the group are more creative and the group commitments materialize more quickly.
Another ‘same time/same place’ situation that can benefit from the use of group support systems is the traditional presentation and discussion sessions usually applied in conferences and in business meetings of a certain importance.
3.2.2. Different Place Collaboration
Collaboration of groups that work in different places and probably at different times is another promising use of information systems, and particularly groupware. In the global economy era multinational companies can use the three main regions of the globe (Asia, Europe and the Americas) to extend their workday to round-the-clock by passing work from groups in one region to the next at the end of each one’s workday. At the end of the 24 hours day, they will have accomplished three days worth of work, without any of them having to work long hours or the company paying overtime.
The few informants from multinational companies that participated in our pilot testing interviews recognized the important role of IT in supporting the formation of collaborating virtual teams that exist in a global environment but not in one place. Virtual teams are formed to handle a project and then disband after the project is completed. Therefore, their members seldom meet face-to-face. Virtual teams tend to operate in three cells of the Johansen matrix:
¨ Same time/same place: The team meets face-to-face probably once, at the beginning, to develop the basic plan and objectives.
¨ Different time/different place: Team members then communicate by e-mail and do data gathering and analysis separately.
¨ Same time/different place: If the company possesses advanced technology, team members may have audio or video conferences to discuss developments and progress towards goals.
The above literature review, conducted for our specific research interests, indicates that there is a range of group working situations and many types of IT-based systems that support collaboration. These systems have been around for at least 30 years, and have become increasingly sophisticated over that time. They permit more discussion, more evenly spread participation, more high-level companywide debate, and involvement by more people than a traditional planning meeting would allow. Other tools allow real-time collaboration among distributed team members who not only need to hear each other’s voices, but also need to simultaneously see their hand-drawn changes to an engineering drawing in real time. Still other collaboration tools help team members located around the globe ‘converse’, not in real-time but at different times of the day.
4. Study Results
In our study, the last question in the two symmetrical relationship questionnaires is examining the use of certain IT infrastructure as tools and enablers for inter-firm collaboration, among manufacturing, quality and R&D groups. Research findings regarding the use of IT infrastructure, as reported by key-informants (managers and their deputies of the three collaborating groups), are listed here:
¨ E-mail has been reported as used by 86.6 percent of the participating companies.
¨ 71 percent of the participating companies use Intranets.
¨ Internet has been reported as used by 42.85 percent of the participating companies.
¨ 30 percent of the participating companies use Data Warehouse software.
¨ Extranets have been reported as used by 23.65 percent of the participating companies.
¨ 20.95 percent of the participating companies use Groupware software.
¨ Workflow software has been reported as used by 11.6 percent of the participating companies.
¨ Finally, SAP has been reported, under Other, as used by only 2.25 percent of the participating companies.
Percentages reported here, by the managers of the collaborating groups, indicate that there is definitely room for improvement regarding the use of certain IT infrastructure as tools and enablers for inter-firm collaboration. We shall address this matter in the conclusion section of this article.
In a similar way, the last question in the manufacturing performance questionnaire is investigating the use of certain IT functions on four collaborating issues, closely related to the group performance. Research findings regarding the use of certain IT functions, as reported by key-informants (senior managers), are listed here:
¨ Facilitating access of information in Data Bases has been reported as an IT function used by 84.4 percent of the participating companies.
¨ 82.6 percent of the participating companies use IT to coordinate business tasks.
¨ Facilitating team members to work together has been reported as an IT function used by 76.4 percent of the participating companies.
¨ 69.2 percent of the participating companies use IT to support decisions making.
The above relatively high percentages, reported by senior managers, indicate that the above four IT functions are critical for the performance of the manufacturing group under investigation. The subject shall be addressed in the conclusion section of this article.
All above reported percentages refer to the average of ‘strong’ answers (Likert ratings 5, 6 or 7) among key-informants of the relevant questionnaires and the complete questions are exhibited in the Appendix together with a link to detailed information on our initial research.
5. Conclusions And Guidelines For Managers
In this article we have argued that information technology, in general, and particularly certain information systems support inter-firm collaboration to a great extend. To demonstrate this we have relied upon a specifically focused literature review, pilot-testing interviews and key-informant responses to a questionnaire survey. As we believe that the results of this study are of interest to both researchers and the business world, upon presenting our conclusions, we formulate some guidelines for managers.
To start with, and putting into practice the main finding in this article, managers should make sure that their subordinates:
¨ include in their objectives the task of collaboration, which means to share knowledge and available information with colleagues in collaborating groups;
¨ are entirely aware of the information technology resources available (special groupware software and equipment).
In doing so their companies will take maximum advantage of the positive role that IT-based collaboration may play on the performance of their group and of the organization. One particular result of our study (only 20.95 percent of the managers and creative workers among the participating companies use groupware software) is a strong indication that there is room for improvement in this field. This, combined with other positive findings about information and communication technologies supporting collaboration (the e-mail with 86.6%, the Intranets with 71% and the Internet with 42.85%, all appear to be amply used), indicates that the infrastructures do exist for further improvements.
Considering the literature findings presented in section 3.2.1 and the results of our study, regarding the use of IT functions by 76.4% of the participating companies in facilitating team members to work together, we suggest that managers should further facilitate the use of IT among the groups in order to improve meeting efficiency and effectiveness. Their goals, when using information systems for the improvement of meetings, should be: to
¨ eliminate some meetings
¨ encourage better planning and better preparation for those meetings that must be held
¨ improve the effectiveness of meetings that are finally held
Despite the high percentages (69.2% to 84.4%) reported in our study for the use of IT functions, managers should not moderate their efforts to ensure that information technologies are best exploited for the four functions they are primarily designed to assist inter-firm collaboration. This can be achieved by:
a. Coordinating business tasks and facilitating team work. Thus, most of the factors that unfavorably affect operating efficiency among collaborating groups must be eliminated. Collaboration is a sort of response to changes in both the external environment and internal situations, while information technologies do improve the horizontal, inter-group flow of information, necessary for the improvement of collaboration.
b. Supporting decision making processes. In their effort to make better decisions, knowledge workers have the option to search for accurate information usually possessed by their collaborators in another group. Implementing decision systems allows employees to capitalize on opportunities and to defend the group against threats already recognized in one of the collaborating groups.
c. Facilitating access to information in data bases. Thus, collaborating knowledge workers improve their intellectual skills and may use the accumulated experience to increase organizational performance.
In performing each one of the above four IT functions, the use of IT-based collaboration tools changes the collaboration process, revolutionizes who can participate, in what way and even the kind of work they do. In this way, collaboration becomes the heart of business world today and the use of special software changes the structure within an organization, working relationships among collaborating groups and between virtual team members working in different parts of the world simultaneously or at different times.
To conclude we may say that tools people need to work with others are different from the ones they need to work alone. Under this light, groupware differs from past software and it represents a fundamental change in the way people, within collaborating groups, think about using information technologies. Taking full advantage of existing IT platforms (e-mail systems, LANs, departmental systems and public network services such as the telephone or the Internet) successful firms must discover the right mix of people, process, and technology elements that will allow them to make their groupware systems the backbone of their knowledge sharing infrastructure.
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Krogh, G., Ichigo, K., Nonaka,
Specifically, the use of the
following IT infrastructure is:
Intranet Extranet Groupware , Workflow Internet , e-mail , ……… …… , ….…………
Data warehouse ,
Other ………… , ………..….. ………..…….
For simplicity purposes we have
grouped ratings of the 7-points Likert scale into
- Extremely Strong, Strong or Moderately Strong: Strong
- About Average: Average
- Extremely Weak, Weak or Moderately Weak: Weak
We are assuming that infrastructures not rated at all in the questionnaires are not used by the company for purposes of sharing knowledge, although we understand that there might be some few cases where this was unintentionally disregarded.
Specifically, the use of the following IT function is:
- Coordinating business tasks:
(collecting, facilitating, sharing, etc. information)
- Supporting decision making:
(reaching the right information at the right time)
- Facilitating member’ team to work together:
(no matter where they are)
- Facilitating access of information in Data Bases:
(no mater where they are)
- Other ………………………………………….:
- Other ………………………………………….:
For simplicity purposes we have
grouped ratings of the 7-points Likert scale into three
- Extremely Strong, Very Strong or Strong: Strong
- About Average: Average
- Non-Existent, Very Weak or Weak: Weak
Results are presented analytically,
in pie-chart form, in Appendix 8B of a Doctoral Thesis under the title:
“The Contribution of Shared Knowledge and Information Technology to
Manufacturing Performance: An Evaluation Model”, available in the data
base of the UPC (Universidad Politécnica de Catalunya, in
About the Author:
Haris Papoutsakis, Electrical Engineering Department, Technological Education Institute (TEI) of Crete, P.O. Box 1939, GR-71004 Heraklion, Crete, Greece; Tel: +30 2810 229246; Fax: 319281; Mob: +30 6947 083878; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Assistant Professor Haris Papoutsakis
is an academic faculty member in the