Taking CSCW seriously

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The topic of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) has attracted much attention in the last few years. While the field is obviously still in the process of development, there is a marked ambiguity about the exact focus of the field. This lack of focus may hinder its further development and lead to its dissipation. In this paper we set out an approach to CSCW as a field of research which we believe provides a coherent conceptual framework for this area, suggesting that it should be concerned with thesupport requirements of cooperative work arrangements. This provides a more principled, comprehensive, and, in our opinion, more useful conception of the field than that provided by the conception of CSCW as being focused on computer support for groups. We then investigate the consequences of taking this alternative conception seriously, in terms of research directions for the field. As an indication of the fruits of this approach, we discuss the concept of ‘articulation work’ and its relevance to CSCW. This raises a host of interesting problems that are marginalized in the work on small group support but critical to the success of CSCW systems ‘in the large’, i. e., that are designed to meet current work requirements in the everyday world.

This paper has had a lengthy gestation period, and aspects of the arguments have appeared elsewhere. Some of the points made here first surfaced in a short polemic by the authors entitled “CSCW: Four Characters in Search of a Context,” appearing in the Proceedings of the First European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, September 1989, Gatwick, UK. (Subsequently published in Bowers and Benford (1991)). Major revisions of this paper, under the title “CSCW, or What's in a Name?” were made in 1990, and again in 1991, and copies of these manuscripts were distributed and discussed widely. The present paper is completely re-written with substantively new argumentation and material. The ordering of authors for this, as for earlier joint work by the authors, is arbitrary. We received extensive and insightful comments on some of the concerns of this paper from Elihu Gerson, Mike Robinson, and Lucy Suchman at an early stage that have helped shape our arguments. Numerous other people have commented and discussed aspects of these issues with us over the years, both orally and in written form. We thank them all, and hope they accept this acknowledgement, as attempting to enumerate everyone would be an impossible task.
Our understanding of CSCW and the basic issues in CSCW has been developed in discussions within WG4 of “CoTech” (COST Action 14). WG4 has been funded by a grant from the Esprit Basic Research programme of the Commission of the European Communities.