What is coordination theory and how can it help design cooperative work systems?

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Citation: Thomas W. Malone, Kevin Crowston (1990) What is coordination theory and how can it help design cooperative work systems?. Proceedings of the 1990 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1145/99332.99367
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1145/99332.99367
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1145/99332.99367
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): What is coordination theory and how can it help design cooperative work systems?
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) CSCW (RSS), Theory (RSS)


In this article, Malone and Crowston "launch" the concept of coordination theory which went on to be a reasonably influential theoretical framing for work in CSCW. The authors begin with a dictionary definition of coordination: the act of working together harmoniously. Later, they become more specific and define it as, the act of managing interdependencies between activities performed to achieve a goal. The authors provide a detailed discussion of a series of existing work in CSCW and describe how it can be thought of in terms of coordination. They also walk through the study of work (without technology) in a manufacturing context and describe how thinking about work in terms of shared interdependencies and goals can help frame an understanding of the problems that IT systems might attempt to address in support of this work.

Coordination theory is different from other forms of theory. Its primary goal seems to be to offer a framing that is:

  • Broader than CSCW and information systems in particular so that it is better suited to bringing in a variety of perspectives from other disciplines (and from social science in particular) as a way of bringing a more interdisciplinary perspective to CSCW in particular.
  • Particular enough that can be used to explicitly identify interdependencies and goals and provide a way of looking for "common objects" that researchers can use.

The article, in this first sense, is a more of a call for interdisciplinary work and a suggestion for one way in which alliance might be forged than it is a theory in the way they are more frequently thought of. The "particulars" of the theory are still very broad and it remains somewhat unclear what wouldn't be coordination theory.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The article has been cited hundreds of times and is the seminal citation in what was, over the last twenty years, one of the major theories in CSCW.