Collaborative Activity and Technological Design: Task Coordination in London Underground Control Rooms

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Citation: Christian Heath, Paul Luff (1991) Collaborative Activity and Technological Design: Task Coordination in London Underground Control Rooms. Proceedings of the Second European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work ECSCW ’91 (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1007/978-94-011-3506-1_5
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1007/978-94-011-3506-1_5
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1007/978-94-011-3506-1_5
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Collaborative Activity and Technological Design: Task Coordination in London Underground Control Rooms
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Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) Computer supported cooperative work (RSS), ethnography (RSS)


While computer supported cooperative was making progress in technology development, Heath and Luff say that little is known about how collaborative technologies get used in actual workplace environments. They cite Galegher and Kraut who attribute the failure of systems to a lack of considering knowledge of social interaction. While studies of "technologically mediated cooperative work environments" have been emerging, they have lacked important implications for technology design. They aim to intervene with a study observing technologically mediated work in a Line Control Room on London Underground with implications for "distributed, intelligent systems ... to support cooperative work and the design process.

Methodological considerations

In this section they argue that using ethnographic "naturalistic" methods inspired by sociology lets you see the broader interaction between workers, technology, in realistic contexts. Much of work depends on the context that laboratories can't reproduce. They used field audio and video recordings as well as field observation and interviews.

The technology in the control room.

They focus on the control room for the Bakerloo Line. There are a number of technological elements in the room including a PA system, alarm, and CCTV monitors for viewing platforms. The people on the team sit 2 two a desk and there are two controllers, a DIA (divisional information assistant) and a trainee DIA.

There is a "paper timetable" which is a key artifact that everybody uses to define good service. The controller's main job is to manage gaps between trains on the line so as to keep up with the timetable. Severe problems can be managed by making temporary markings on the time table to signal disrupted service to the team. This kind of communication is essential so that the team can act in concert and not make things worse.

Even though roles are formally quite different in practice the Controller and DIA engage in complex and close collaboration. People in different roles practice "emergent and flexible division of labour" to support one another and "manage difficulties and crises".

Surreptitious monitoring and interrelating tasks.

The nature of work in the control room depends on amazingly subtle communication between Controller and DIA. They have to rapidly respond to events on the line by calling drivers, station managers, and issuing announcements. They overhear each others calls in order to infer the situation and make their own calls. They are able to simultaneously monitor their collaborator and perform their own tasks. They do all this while leaving one another a lot of elbow room and not directly interacting this is why Heath and Luff call it "surreptitious"

Rendering activities visible

The workers often perform tasks with implications to their collaborators, in doing so they make their activities visible through subtle non-interactive communication like talking to themselves about the decisions they have to make. This alerts collaborators that they will have to adapt to the change. Heath and Luff discuss modification of the timetable by the controller in particular and how the controller mutters numbers that make visible the thought process behind the reformation. They cite Goffman's participation framework in which their may be a 'primary recipient' of communication (e.g. the driver on the phone.), but communication with that recipient is modified in ways that communicate with those in the 'perceptual range of the event' (the DIA).

Overseeing the local environment of events and activities

The DIA and controller also monitor the other's activities in order to detect oversights or mistakes and to correct the others behavior. Corrections typically take the form of subtle or nonverbal signals to draw attention that avoid crossing boundaries or violating "territorial rights" of the others roles. For example, they provide an account of a controller on the phone ignoring a crisis on the line while the DIA rapidly glances back and forth between the hard line display and the monitor in attempt to attract attention.

Shaping tasks and coordinating activities

Work in the control room blurs the line between collaborative and individual. The prior sections showed how the workers collaborate through subtle and nuanced communication while primarily engaged in their own occupational tasks. In this section they discuss how the shared technological media displays in the control room including a hard line display showing the locations of trains and the CCTV system that shows the platforms create a shared information space that helps provide context for collaboration. However Heath and Luff argue that this information is not sufficient for them to make sense out of the others subtle cues. Instead, the context of daily crises and reformations, "natural history of the day" is also required. The subtle cues and interactions between the controller and DIA are needed to constitute the natural history of the day in the minds of the collaborators.

      • The design of tools to support collaborative work In conclusion they outline a number of insights they think this study contributes to design.
  • Giving each person in the control room their own display would decrease awareness of the other by undermining the glancing at monitor signal.
  • Given the increasing number of people who use the timetable, they think it is important to develop an electronic timetable system that uses electronic pens to fit into the existing workflow but allow changes to the time table to be immediately distributed.
  • Subsequently an algorithm might predict the outcomes of timetable changes.

They also have more general insights for CSCW researchers and designers. These are to reconsider the dichotomy between individual and collaborative work, to consider shared resources that afford mutual monitoring and "a seamlessness between public and private activities."

In a more speculative turn, they imagine systems for awareness that move away from dependence on screen displays. They consider DigitalDesk which is a desk with a camera and a projector that allows work on paper documents but provides a resource for monitoring and awareness that could be distributed but also affords co-present, collaborative work.

They also speculate as to what methodological frameworks would be suitable for fieldwork design of technological work, calling the method used here 'structured ethnography.' It is not so clear what makes this different from normal ethnography. Although they don't mention it, they may be anticipating the rise of actor network theory.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This was an early and influential paper during the ethnographic turn in studies of computers in work places. At the time, sociology was still at the margins of computer science and information systems. By showing how ethnographic methods could produce deep insights that show how technology is actually used in a setting of intricate coordination, this article helped legitimize ethnographic studies of the workplace in computer supported cooperative work. They also contributed to understanding the importance of awareness in CSCW. This article offers a useful example of studying the coordination practices of workers and analyzing their patterns using ethnomethodology and conversation analysis: listening and observing closely how people work together to achieve their shared purposes.