CSCW: Four Characters in Search of a Context
Citation: Liam J. Bannon, Kjeld Schmidt (1989) CSCW: Four Characters in Search of a Context. ECSCW 1989: Proceedings of the First European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (RSS)
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Tagged: Computer Science (RSS)
This article sketches out the definitional issues present in early days of CSCW, when cooperative work systems were being rapidly produced without very much study into how to produce them, other than a strong finding that early "office automation" systems often suffered from a belief that their task was to automate the "handbook" type procedures of an office, whereas the people working in the office accomplished an important portion of their work using practices that never made it into a handbook. CSCW at this time took on a fairly focused view of what was meant by "Work" (all of the examples are oriented toward firms and labor, e.g. offices and factories). However, even at this point in history the precise meaning of cooperation was an open question: was this really all group work, or only that work where some collaborative attitude was maintained among people, or might it be collaboration that also occurred between people and machines, or between people mediated by machines? The authors describe CSCW as more than simply groupware, but also extends to other lines of investigation such as the critique of technology that supports work, the extension of design powers to disempowered groups or the rendering of such designs in a more democratic way as part of workplace democracy, or else the melding of systems creation and design research in an applied research frame.
Bannon and Schmidt describe the three key issues for CSCW as "articulating cooperative work", "sharing an information space", and "adapting the technology to the organization, and vice versa". (p. 364). Arguably these are core concerns that continue today.
Theoretical and Practical Relevance
Early work like this offers a certain kind of clarity; before particular vendors and ways of working became dominant, it was perhaps easier to talk in terms of a "shared information space". Likewise although group work and collaboration are heavily normative today, this article characterizes cooperation as "merely technically necessary or economically beneficial in certain work environments". I suspect the terminology of "strict constructionist" and "loose constructionist" is not what we would use today; the distinctions are not dissimilar to Kling's (1980) notion of the "systems rationalist" versus the "segmented institutionalist". The article closes with a summary of the overall findings of the field with respect to "Office Automation" (p. 368-369); by failing to see the informal rules, processes, and interactions involved in people working together, early attempts to "automate the office" were a substantial failure.