Christine V Bullen.

Groupware in practice : an interpretation of work experience online

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Christine V. Builen
John L Bennett

March 1990

CISR WP No. 205
Sloan WP No. 3146-90

Center for Information Systems Research

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Sloan School of Management

77 Massachusetts Avenue

Cambridge, Massochusetts, 02139




Christine V. Bullen
John L Bennett

March 1990

CISR WP No. 205
Sloan WP No. 3146-90

•1990 C.V. Bullen, J.L Bennett

Center for Information Systems Research

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology



Observers have identified a potential for major improvements in organizational
productivity made possible through the use of personal computers serving as a means to
link people into task-oriented teams. The study we conducted, given in overview form
here, offers an early examination of how people are using personal computers for such
electronic exchanges via networking. Our interviews of 223 people who were using several
"groupware" systems in a sample of 25 enterprises indicate how they employ these software
tools to support their group work.

We conclude that complex interactions of social and technical factors affect the
use of groupware systems in organizations. We outline issues which both the developers
of systems and the managers implementing groupware systems must understand in order
to facilitate the design, introduction, and use of these systems.

Acknowledgements: The authors wish to acknowledge the many individuals who agreed
to be interviewed, and interacted with us in the course of this research. Without their
cooperation and genuine interest in the topic, it would have been very difficult to learn
about the experience of groupware use in organizations. We wish to thank David L.
Anderson who assisted us in the fieldwork and provided support for the ideas presented
here. We also acknowledge the following for their valuable roles in reviewing drafts:
John Henderson, J. Debra Hofman, Bob Johansen, Wendy Kellogg, Bob Mack, Tom
Malone, Wanda Orlikowski, Judith A. Quillard, John Richards, and JoAnne Yates.

Groupware In Practice: An Interpretation of Work Experiences

I. Introduction

The fact that personal computer (PC) availability in the work place is growing at

an astounding rate is being heralded from many comers:

"We're going from 11 million to 34 million PCs by 1994. PCs now make
up about half the electronic keyboards in use but will account for 70% of
the total in 1994." (Dalton, 1988)

"About 7 million PCs and 300,000 multiuser systems were installed in the
United States by early 1985; and these numbers are still growing at about
15% annually. By 1985, there were terminals or microcomputers for at
least 10 million people, or 20% of the United States' white collar workforce."
(Kling and lacono, 1988)

The usual assumption that the use of personal computers contributes to increased
worker productivity is turning into an open question: Loveman reports that at a national
economy level, researchers have failed to establish a significant relationship between
information technology investments and increased productivity. (Loveman, 1988).

What aspects of PC use could contribute to measurable increased productivity?
How do we get beyond the extravagant claims often associated with PCs to discover the
reality of their value? Are changes in the organizational workplace or in the design of
systems needed to bring the potential into actual realization? We believe that
understanding how PC's are being used now can be important for understanding the value
that PC's could potentially bring to the office environment.

One area where personal computers are being brought into use is to support the

work of business teams.

"Business teams are becoming a way of life in many organizations...
Business teams are seen by many as a wave of the future." (Bullen and
Johansen, 1988)

'Traditional departments will serve as guardians of standards, as centers for
training, and the assignment of specialists; they won't be where the work gets
done. That will happen largely in task-focused teams." (Drucker, 1988, see
also Reich, 1987)

Our particular focus is on looking at people who work in teams and are networked
through personal computer workstations. We seek to understand the value that the
technology brings to the office environment. We believe the quality of the results of using
information technology to support group work has the potential to far exceed what is
achieved today through the use of PC's by relatively isolated individuals within

If indeed team work is an important form of office work now - and will be more

so in the future - then investigating how teams of people work and studying the use of

personal computers in a team environment should be valuable for understanding how

information technology is used and how this is affecting productivity in today's

organizations. The MIT Commission on Industrial Productivity found:

'The third recurring weakness of the U.S. production system that emerged
from our industry studies is a widespread failure of cooperation within and
among companies." "... most thriving firms in the U.S.... have learned to
integrate technology in their ... strategies and to link [their strategies] to
organizational changes that promote teamwork, training and continuous
learning." (Berger, et al., 1989)

The presence of PC's networked together in communication paths provides the

physical infrastructure. But is a new kind of software needed to provide tools for team

processes? A term which has become popular during the last few years is "groupware",

a term applied to software that is intended to be used in support of interpersonal work

within an organization:

"Groupware is a generic term for specialized computer aids that are designed
for the use of collaborative work groups. Typically, these groups are small,
project-oriented teams that have important tasks and tight deadlines...
Sometimes, groupware is used by permanent groups or departments...Group
interactions may be formal or informal, spontaneous or planned, structured

or unstructured." (Johansen, 1988; see also Engelbart, 1963, 1968; Hiltz and
Turoff, 1978; Stevens, 1981; Hiltz and Kerr, 1981; Kerr and Hiltz, 1982; Rice

Our questions about the use of PC's, the role of PC's when teams are linked
through communications networks, the underlying issue of productivity, and the role of
specialized software for use on PC's and workstations, all served as background as we
began this research project. We used a case study methodology to investigate the current
status of group work in organizations and to observe how computer-based tools were being
employed in the facilitation of group work. Our purposes in this research are to develop
insight on factors that should be influencing software design, and to report experiences
that can help guide managers who put group support systems into practice.

II. Research Design

An interview framework served as a focus for data gathering. While the outline
provided for initial distinctions we knew would be of interest, we let other distinctions
emerge from our interviews. This work illustrates a research methodology often used by
anthropologists and titled in a variety of ways, including "exploratory observation" (Malone,
1983) and "contextual inquiry" (Bennett, Holtzblatt, Jones, and Wixon, 1990). This type
of study is not intended to be a controlled experiment or a large sample survey. The
technique focuses on interacting with people in their own contexts as they do actual work.
The goal of data gathering is to obtain insights through observation, interviews, and
interaction. The challenge of this methodology is that it relies on the skill of the observer
to accurately report and interpret, while allowing unexpected phenomena to emerge from
the examples studied. This approach often results in uncovering research questions which
can be investigated through controlled experiments or additional contextual inquiry. Our
conclusions present such opportunities for further research.

Table 1 outlines the topics that served as a framework to guide the interview. In
this paper we summarize, synthesize, interpret, and present points salient to us.
Therefore, we do not present data in each category shown on the interview outline.

We used the interview outline as we spoke with two hundred and twenty-three
people in twenty-five organizations, represented at thirty-one sites (see Table 2 for details
on companies, number of interviewees, and groupware systems available in each). Each
interview lasted a minimum of one hour, with the longest interview lasting two hours. In
almost every case, the interviews were carried out in the individual's office or work area.

The twenty-five organizations represented a wide range of industries and size of
companies. We chose organizations in which groupware systems were available, and those
systems helped to define the set of groupware systems that we studied. Organization
names are coded, as our agreement with those interviewed guaranteed confidentiality. We
consulted with each organization to choose groups for our interviews that met the
following criteria:

► cohesive business teams, facing challenging environmental

conditions which would emphasize the importance of
coordination for achieving their goals and objectives;

»■ teams that had some form of information technology available

to support the work of the group.

The size of our work groups ranged from seven people to thirty-Sve people. Those
interviewed included individuals at all levels of management within the target work group
and, where appropriate, support personnel (administrative assistants and secretaries). In
most organizations, the managers to whom the work group reported were also included
as part of the case study to help establish some of the contextual information.

' ■ ; «■ ! ! K. ' ,..:-.J.J. Tg ^ ' .V ; : !gg


Case Study
Interview Outline

General background information on the organization, the work group, and the
individual being interviewed;

Detailed information on the work group or project:

o Members

o Description

o Mode of operation:

meeting frequency

forms of communication (face-to-face, phone, electronic, video)

levels of stress


boundary management (relationship to world outside project);

Description of how tasks are accomplished;

Determination of information technology (I/T) tools that are used to facilitate task
accomplishment with detailed description of use;

Determination of general sense of satisfaction with existing mode of operation;

Suggestions for change;

Probing of interviewee's sense of the future:

o Types of group work that will take place;

o Changes anticipated for organization as a whole;

o Needs for different lyT tools.

CISR Grpwr CVB/m*

Table 1


Companies Studied with Revenues,*

Number of People Interviewed, and


Groupware Systems Available





$30.00 8 PROFS, Hfgglns, The Coordinator (V.I)


17.00 30 Other, Metaphor, ForComment


..^.._J_2.00 ,^.^^,^^^,_^^^.„,^^^.^.^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


11.00 5 PROFS


10-00 3 Other


10.00 3 PROFS, Other


^:::^W:::::::::y:^::::^::^::::::^:x:S^::^:^^^ :::■■::;;;:::::: ■■

9-80 3 PROFS, Th« Coordinator (V.l), Hfggins


9.40 10 AII-ln-1

-^ "tWiaWK-Mjr


8.40 10 PROFS. Hfgglns


8.00 20 AII-ln-1


6.80 5 A!Mn-1


6.00 3 PROFS, ForComment


5.00 3 Hlgglns



13 The Coordinator (V.I)

35 The Coordinator {V.I), Other




1.40 6 Metaphor


1.40 10 Other


1.00 15 The Coordinator (V.I)


1.00 5 The Coordinator (V.I)


0.90 3 PROFS, Other


0.18 10 The Coordinator (V.I)



* 3 Other

* 2 The Coordinator (V.I)


n/a 3 PROFS, ForComment


n/» " 10 PROFS, ForComment/ tlthir

Profs available in many places; studied in 2

*Revenues approximate, 1988

**Revenues less than $1 million

CISR Qmwr CVB/mtb 001


Table 2

We did not choose our groups for study on the basis of a statistically random
sample. We contacted potential research sites on the basis of referrals and our own
knowledge of their use of technology. However, the resulting sample is drawn from a
wide variety of industries, and it includes a wide range of organizational sizes and
geographic dispersion. While these characteristics do not guarantee that the results can
be generalized, they do suggest that we are not seeing isolated and unusual instances of
groupware tool use.

Conducting a study of work groups raises some interesting questions about how
to define inclusion in a work group. What are its bounds? Work groups have been
defined as "identifiable and bounded subsystems of a whole organization [with a]
recognized purpose, which unifies the people and activities." (Trist, 1981); "collaborating
groups of information workers" (Bikson, et al, 1989); and "multiple individuals acting as
a bounded whole in order to get something done" (Rousseau, 1983)

We found a variety of organizational forms constituting work groups. For example,
at CableCo the work group coincides with the organizational department, although it is
spread geographically across the continental U.S. At SmallCons, the "work group" consists
of the entire firm. And at SoapCo, the work group is a flexible concept such that at
times it involves an organizational entity at one location (e.g., the Boston marketing
group), while at other times it consists of the worldwide instances of the organizational
entity (e.g., all marketing groups), and under still other circumstances, the work group is
a subset of entities (e.g., Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco marketing groups).

In the world of electronic communications, the composition of work groups is
showing important changes from those observed in the past. Because of flexibility
provided by communication technology of all kinds, it is becoming more difficult to
identify a formal organizational unit as a work group. That is, some people co-located in
an office area do not necessarily work together as a group, and people geographically
separated may form a team focused on achieving a common work result. Through the

power of electronic media, these groups are dynamic and fluid; this is tnie for both formal
and informal organizational units.

"The traditional concept of an 'organization' is no longer useful to managers
or students of organizations. It is dominated by models of structure and
physical identity at a time when telecommunications has eroded the
boundaries between firms and changed the nature of coordination across
geographic location" (Keen, 1988)

Given our research interest in the factors important for software specifically
designed for use by teams, we had to develop a working definition of what constitutes
"groupware." This term often is used to indicate computer software that is intended to
support interpersonal work within an organization. Early notions of groupware saw a
clear connection between the software tool and the group processes. However current
manifestations of groupware tools appear to focus on the technical qualities of the
functionality and may, in effect, ignore the dynamics of group use.

We have employed a broad definition in our research in order to accommodate
the evolving nature of this field. In time, the term groupware will probably be narrowed
to include only those tools specifically designed to support group work. However, at the
present, it is useful to include all tools being used to support group work, even if the tools
represent user adaptation of an existing technology (e.g., group agreement to share files
and calendars on a system designed to keep such functionality private). Therefore, our
working definition of groupware is: computer-based tools that can be used by work
groups to facilitate the exchange and sharing of information.

There are a large number of systems with a large variety of functionality, which
fall under this groupware umbrella. Figure 1 illustrates a framework for organizing these
systems using the dimensions of time and place to create four domains which describe
circumstances of interpersonal work (Bullen and Johansen, 1988):

► same time, same place

> same time, different place
*■ different time, same place

»■ different time, different place.

While each of these domains is important and the four are interdependent, for this study
we decided to investigate those computer systems which can be used to facilitate work in
the different time, different place domain.

III. Information Technology Tools Studied

In the course of the case studies, we focused on the use of eight different
information technology systems at various times and various locations. The choice of the
specific systems was influenced by their presence at the organizations that agreed to
participate. Within the various systems a number of functions can be considered as tools
that can be used for support of groups. In order to describe these systems broadly, we
make the following generalizations. All of the systems studied provide the following
functionality (i^ummarized in Table 3):

■ Construction/Editing Facilities: All systems provide at least a rudimentary text
creation and editing facility. Some include elaborate editors and provide function to
import graphics. One special purpose system (ForComment) focuses on joint authorship
and editing as an aspect of group work.

■ Electronic Exchange of Text: This includes electronic mail and/or conferencing,
gateways to other systems (both internal and external, e.g., facsimile transfer), and
document transfer. As a result of the text being captured in a computer-















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