The Central Problem of CSCW

I read an excellent paper today by Ackerman titled “The Intellectual Challenge of CSCW: The Gap Between Social Requirements and Technical Feasibility”

I felt that it is a critical read for anyone intending to submit a paper to conferences on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). I say this because it summarizes the problem of CSCW as one of bridging the socio-technical gap. The socio-technical gap is defined as the difference between social activities and the computing response to these activities. There were 9 points given on to elaborate on this gap. These were very useful in guiding my thoughts about designing systems that involve multiple users.

In bullet points:
1) social activity is fluid and nuanced – CSCW researchers deal with understanding that fluidity
2) members of organizations sometimes have differing and multiple goals – CSCW researchers deal with conflict
3) exceptions are normal in work processes – CSCW researchers deal with exceptions
4) people prefer to know who else is present in a shared space – CSCW researchers find ways to balance and promote awareness
5) visibility promotes learning and efficiency – CSCW researchers examine sharing
6) norms are often actively negotiated – CSCW researchers should support negotiation of norms
7) critical mass is important – CSCW systems rarely work without larger numbers of adopters
8) people not only adapt systems, they adapt with systems – CSCW researchers must be sensitive to these adaptations
9) user incentives are critical – CSCW researchers examine motivations and purposes

Ackerman goes on to propose that CSCW can be seen as a science of the artificial (in the Simon-ian sense). However, due to its relative infancy, the general questions of CSCW are still unclear. He proposes four possible problematizations.

Details are in the paper here: http://web.eecs.umich.edu/~ackerm/pub/00a10/hci.final.pdf

I enjoyed the paper because it laid out clearly what is known but diffuse knowledge about CSCW. Although I agree with the argument for focusing on the socio-technical gap as the central problem of CSCW, it did make me wonder if it over-idealized the social as something that the technical should attain. Ackerman does address the dynamic nature of the relationship between man and his tools, but concludes that technology must support what already exists in humanity.

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