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Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)

Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)

Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) results from the connectivity provided by modern computers via local area networks (LANs) or the Internet, that allows multiple users to work together. In the early days of computing during the 1950s and 1960s, mainframe computers executed business programs. They were given a stack of punched cards , processed for a while, and eventually printed out an answer on long strips of folded green computer paper. End users never even saw these machines. Only "operators" had access to the input and output devices. End users would usually hand a job request through a small window in the "computer center" to an operator, returning in a day or two to pick up the answer.

Then came the personal computer, or PC, which essentially did the same thing, except the computer center and the operators were no longer required. As a "personal" computer, this machine belonged to one individual, who no longer had to share processing time with others who also had access rights to the mainframe. Instead of punched cards and paper, keyboards and display screens became available. Ultimately WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") interfaces, such as Apple's Mac OS and the various releases of Microsoft Windows, became available, increasing the user's easy control of the machine's processes.

This focus on the solitary user changed with the development of the local area network (LAN), which allowed people to send e-mail around the office. It allowed people to access shared files and even to share applications. Chat and bulletin boards first appeared in these environments, and workflow programs and file servers started their lives on LANs. Many of these concepts have become the foundation for groupware and multi-user programs, as they have developed into the twenty-first century.

By 2002 the Internet boosted the idea of working together that was pioneered in the time of the LAN. One of the major influences for groupware and multi-user applications on the Internet was games. In particular, multi-user dungeons (MUDs) pioneered many of the concepts that are leveraged today for collaborative applications in business, research, communications, and other endeavors.

Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) draws on these concepts. The view of what a computer is changes with it. While early computers were mainly viewed as "tools," they were later also seen as "documents." A word processor, for example, turns the computer into a tool. The file that is created with the word processor exists eventually independently of the word processor. Still, it is "in the computer." The computer therefore also serves as a "document."

With the advent of LANs and the Internet, a third view of computers was introduced: the computer as communication device. Very much like a telephone or a teletype , the computer acts as the medium that transports messages. And although it is actually the network that transports the message, the computer is the terminal device, the access point to the communications network.

With these three perspectives on computers as tool, document, and communication device, one can start to look at the other issues that have an impact on groupware and multi-user systems.


CSCW and groupware can be categorized according to application domain . A meeting system used in education will differ from a meeting system used in a business context. Engineering tasks usually require different tools than administrative tasks. The following list of task and application domains will grow as new systems are built and applied to an ever-expanding set of domains:

  • Engineering
  • Administration
  • Manufacturing
  • Research and development
  • Banking and insurance
  • Logistics and warehousing
  • Decision making
  • Teaching and learning
  • Authoring
  • Drafting
  • Entertainment
  • Software engineering
  • Project management
  • Military planning and operations.


In order to build, deploy, and use groupware, a number of enabling technologies must be in place. Among the most important technologies for the design and implementation of CSCW systems are:

  • Networks
  • Connectivity
  • Naming and name spaces
  • Mail and other communication protocols
  • Multimedia technologies
  • Hypertext and hypermedia
  • Video technologies
  • Cross-platform development tools
  • Large bit mapped displays.

Synchronous/Co-located Applications

One example of a CSCW system is a synchronous/co-located application. To support teams in negotiating, decision making, brainstorming, learning, and other activities, a number of systems have been built to enhance a meeting room. Examples of such electronic meeting rooms are the Capture Lab at Electronic Data Systems, the Electronic Meeting Systems (EMS) at the University of Arizona, a commercial system by IBM, and the CoLab at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). These systems usually consist of a room with special furniture that can be rearranged. The furniture is also designed with the monitor under the surface of the desk. Users view the monitor through a glass surface on the desk, thus having an unobstructed view of other participants. The tables either form a circle or a semi-circle. Sometimes a large bitmapped device is used instead of the whiteboard or chalkboard. All devices are connected by a LAN. Special software can be written to take advantage of a configuration such as in Figure 1.

The motivation to create such meeting rooms is rather obvious: Media such as overheads and flip charts influence the way people communicate and how well they remember what was said in meetings.

Meetings can be classified along their functions: exploration, information sharing, brainstorming, problem solving, decision making, morale building, negotiating, planning, or social structuring. This diversity creates a wide range of design issues concerning the layout of the room, the capability of the software, the performance of the hardware, the selection of user interfaces, and many others.

see also Computer Professional; Office Automation Systems.

Dirk E. Mahling


Haring-Smith, Tori. An Introduction to Collaborative Learning. New York: Harper-Collins College Publications, 1993.

Weber, Aaron, and Scott Weber. The Book of Evolution: Groupware for Linux Users. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2001.

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