Taking CSCW seriously

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Citation: Kjeld Schmidt, Liam Bannon (1992) Taking CSCW seriously. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Taking CSCW seriously
Download: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00752449
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) Computer supported cooperative work (RSS), Human Computer Interaction (RSS), Social Computing (RSS)


This article aims to argue that CSCW should be about "support requirements of cooperative work arrangements" not "computer support for groups."

They also discuss a concept called 'articulation work.' Many interesting problems are not important for small groups, but will be important for large scale CSCW systems.

The problem is that although CSCW is starting to take off as field, it doesn't have a coherent identity or conception. This paper isn't about defining CSCW but about a framework for identifying the important research issues in the field. The meaning of CSCW while something of an umbrella term is also hotly contested and this article needs to account for the politics of the situation.

They bring in Richard Whitley, who says "a research area is constituted by a problem situation." Therefore the authors seek to identify a problem situation for CSCW, but it seems like just about any application, including stuff that used to be information systems or CMC seems to get lumped into CSCW. They say that CSCW is essentially an application area to support cooperative work, and therefore should not be organized around the development of specific technologies but instead to understand cooperative work and to design computing technologies to support the its requirements.

They see CSCW as a fundamentally design oriented area. They think social scientists coming into CSCW must explain how their findings are constructive and not merely descriptive. They also think it's important to actually construct working artifacts to demonstrate designs.

Interestingly, they note Kling preferred the term 'coordinated' work as opposed to the 'happy' term 'cooperation.' They see cooperation as coming from a long tradition in sociology including "Marx who defined it as 'multiple individuals working together in a conscious way in the same production process or indifferent but connected production processes." All work is social, but cooperative workers have to articulate their activities in order to distribute activities and accomplish a task. Cooperative work has communication and coordination overhead. They argue that this meaning of cooperative is neutral and general and divorced from the idealistic and high-minded notions of compromise. Cooperative work is not always better than individual work.

They argue that cooperative work is a better term than Groupwork, because 'group' can mean a lot of different things to different people and may imply certain assumptions about how work is organized. Their definition of cooperation is intended to be general enough to cover all kinds of interdependence in work. Some kinds of interdependent workers may not directly communicate, in other cases they may communicate only through the computer medium, or through and artifact like a database. Interdependent work may also cross organizational boundaries. For example, computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) aims to make systems that support distributed cooperation through a database on a company-wide scale, but CIM was not involved in CSCW. They make a similar argument about office information systems (OIS). Group work tends not to emphasize considerations of systems like OIS and CIM.

Articulation work

They say we need cooperative work by no omniscient and omnipotent agent exists and cooperation expands the range of tasks that are feasible. However interdependence creates the need for new work to manage coordination tasks. The term "articulation work" seems to come from Anselm Strauss who uses the word "meshing" to describe the relations involved in coordination work.

Communication facilities are an important requirement for distributing work, but CSCW systems for communication are not sufficient because articulation involves much more than communication. It is a very broad term that involves high levels of decisions making in an environment with many complex contingencies and uncertainties and solutions are satisfactory not ideal.

"A key issue for CSCW is how to support the cooperative management of mechanisms of interaction themselves." That is to say, the management of articulation work and communication systems.

Why CSCW Now?

What makes CSCW different from information systems?

Information systems can be seen as rudimentary CSCW systems if they for example provide a database as a shared object for indirect communication. But these don't really have much to do with supporting articulation work like "cooperative problem solving and discretion decision making".

But why should CSCW exist as a field?

Organization work is transforming to meed the needs of the modern business and and workforce. CSCW can empower organizations with 'advanced information systems that can facilitate the coordination of distributed decision making.' This involves enabling local decision making with multiple strategies among agents with incompatible conceptualizations of the work.

The wide availability of computer workstations in the office provides an infrastructure ready for the widespread adoption of CSCW systems in the workplace.

They emphasize that office work is extremely difficult to fully automate and that rigid systems often do not fair well. For example "XCP, assumes that what people do in many work settings is to follow procedures." Instead good systems are flexible but afford new kinds of interaction like GROVE (a multiuser text editor).

Trying to build systems that are tightly coupled to organizational procedures are likely to fail because "procedures are not executable code but rather heuristic and vague statements to be interpreted, instantiated, and implemented." Organizational models are just limited abstractions and imperfect reproductions. So systems based on an underlying organizational model should allow users to tweak and interact with the model.

Supporting the management of a common information space

Complex organizations have to construct shared understandings of work, what the authors call a "common information space." This space is constructed through interpretation work. Database objects are also representations used by workers. Different departments have different jargon and the same words can take on quite different meanings. A common information space is a negotiated translation between such disparate areas.

A common information space is not just a shared view system which shows multiple users the same display. That's a shared object not a shared information space. "A shared information space requires an interpretive activity on the part of the recipients."

One of the big challenges both for workers and for CSCW is that common information spaces are often constructed 'at arm's length' as workers independently and asynchronously interact with information objects.

Engelbart and Lehtman 1988 proposed a virtual handbook which would be collaboratively produced by knowledge workers that seems to anticipate Wikis. Schmidt and Bannon thoughtfully criticize the claim that the handbook would be "uniform, complete, consistent, and up-to-date." Because distributed workers are not co-present, a shared understanding will be quite difficult to produce.

Even though an ideal handbook will not be possible, the idea of a handbook is still a good one. They discuss some important design considerations for the handbooks.

1. Identifying the originator of the information

The origin of information is often important to its interpretation, for example reputable doctors are trustworthy sources of medical information. In workplace settings the identity of decision makers is important for how decisions will be evaluated and critiqued. How identity should be constructed, represented, and engineered in different CSCW contexts remains an open question.

2. Identifying the context of information

They provide an example of a policy application that would use hypertext to make visible information about policy documents to policy makers. Knowledge of the strategies and perspectives employed in organizing the hypertext are important for users of the system to interpret and navigate the system.

3. Identifying the politics of the information

Information is not value free. Organizations have factions and power centers that find themselves in conflict. Information in organizations gets misrepresented and distorted by politics. "The realities of organizational life must be investigated seriously if CSCW is to be turned from a laboratory research activity into an activity producing useful real world systems."

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This article aims to articulate a vision for the emerging field of CSCW, which is now a major interdisciplinary area intersecting computer and social science. Their concern is to distinguish CSCW from information systems and to define it as more broad than just developing systems for group work. They see CSCW as a field with a focus on informing technology design by understanding the needs of cooperative work in the ever shifting work place. This article is an expansion of "CSCW: Four Characters in Search of a Context", and between the two of them, is probably the article to cite. However, it's a little heavier and less provocative in tone.