Position Paper for the workshop on INTERDISCIPLINARY THEORY for CSCW design at the CSCW'92 conference, Toronto, 31 October - 4 November 1992

The Role of a Phenomenological Approach in Designing CSCW

 Jesper Simonsen
Computer Science Department
Roskilde University
P.O. Box 260, DK 4000 Roskilde

1. Introduction

In the CSCW community it is often claimed that an interdisciplinary approach is needed in order to understand the nature of cooperative work, and to design appropriate computer support for this work. Computer scientists are engaged to make discussions with ethnographers, linguists, sociologists, etc., and to look at, try out, and use approaches from phenomenological oriented disciplines.

My main interest is requirement analysis of cooperative office work with the purpose of designing relevant computer support for this work.

I believe that a phenomenological approach is vital to understand the nature of cooperative work. However it is still an open question to me how to combine this approach with a functionalistic approach that I claim is both familiar and necessary to the computer scientist in order to design and construct computer support.

This paper briefly discusses some problems in such an interdisciplinary approach. Besides different traditions' one could claim that an interdisciplinary approach must face barriers as fundamental differences in methods and ontology.

2. A Phenomenological Approach

I believe that within systems design it is appropriate to interpret social structures in a linguistic sense, i.e. view social structures as mainly constituted and expressed through the spoken or written language. Of course social structures and human practice are constituted and expressed in many other ways too (e.g. in psychological or cultural ways), but the decisive way is through language, e.g. through writing, speech, conversation, and discussion. The primary way to study social structures are consequently the study of the communication within the area of interest.

Within systems design this makes it appropriate to interpret an organization as structures of meanings (or "rules"; Winch, 58) which are maintained by the members of the organization by the way they communicate, behave, and interpret each others behaviour. This also concerns the change of organizations - through the design and use of information systems. This change influences the structures of meanings, and the way the members of the organization are interpreting changes, behaviour, objects (e.g. information systems), etc. The structures of meanings becomes the focus of the design process. This point of view on the design process is shared by e.g. (Boland, 1985; Kensing and Winograd, 1991; Suchman and Trigg, 1991; Wynn, 1991; Heath and Luff, 1991). One thing that I find remarkable among most of these researchers is that there is quite a distance from their efforts in trying to understand organizations and work and to the resulting design of an information system.

In order to design appropriate computer support it is vital to understand the nature of the cooperative work in question. Still to me it is obvious that you cannot design an information system solely from a phenomenological approach. The objective of the design process is to suggest, describe and implement information systems that support this work, social context, etc. This brings a need to reduce the complexity in order to point out where computer support could be relevant, and what this could require. At some point in the design process you have to narrow your focus on the areas where computer support could have a rational potential, and detail your analysis here. This leads to the need for an explicit framework and methodology as a tool for the necessary abstractions that can guide you in deciding "what is relevant to look at and analyse". The aim of the process is to end up with descriptions of relevant information systems.

Then what is the consequence, if we:

To me the consequence is some combination of a phenomenological approach with a functionalistic approach. I believe a functionalistic approach is familiar and necessary to the systems designer and computer scientist with their focus on designing and constructing "things". I believe it is an (implicit) part of their education and background (see e.g. Andersen et al, 1990) and maybe an influence comes from programming languages and information systems, which by their very nature are descriptions of systems, functions, and the data they operate on.

3. A Functionalistic Approach

One approach that tries to "bridge the gap" between two extremities in the design process (from the initial recognition of a possible need for computer support in an organization to a detailed description of information systems stated in a requirement specification) is the Work Analysis (Schmidt and Carstensen, 1990; Schmidt, 1990; Schmidt, 1988). The Work Analysis is based on a functional analysis of the work and organization in question.

The functionalistic approach in the Work Analysis has 2 main points compared to a phenomenological approach within the design process:

1) The organization within the design process is not a "foreign culture" but well-known private or public companies and it makes sense to view them as systems in a functionalistic sense. They all have a superior purpose concerning own maintenance, or survival, according to the demands and needs from their environments: market constrains and purposes stated by Acts of Parliament. If the organization cannot fulfil its purposes its resources will drain.

2) Organizations try to reproduce themselves in functionalistic terms: groups within departments within board of directors, tasks, purposes, and functions within each other and in relation to the environments, etc. Members of the organizations are familiar with, and do interpret and communicate that the organization behaves and is controlled by these terms. Maybe this is a naive and idealised picture but the point is that, e.g. the resulting description of a requirement analysis, which systematically uses these terms, will be familiar and thus support the decisions to be made in the design process.

The Work Analysis intend to use phenomenological techniques as unstructured in-depth interviews, observation, etc. in gathering information but suggests a careful yet systematic interpretation into functionalistic descriptions.

4. Phenomenology contra Functionalism

A traditional functionalistic position is that you in principle are able to study social structures by isolating or demarcating structures into systems, in which causal relations are dominating, forming some kind of boundary to the environments of the system. You can describe the function, that the system has in proportion to its environments as well as the function of the coherence within the system. The point of functionalism is that systems can be described as teleological or functional in a sense where they preserve themselves - they have a superior purpose. The superior principle of the system is its own maintenance, or survival, and events within the system can be described as having a function towards this principle.

Having a phenomenological approach one cannot have a conceptual framework "in front of you" when you enter "a foreign culture" such as a work setting in an organization. Phenomenologists try to avoid preconceived opinions, prejudices, and a conceptual framework as a template or tool for one's interpretation. If social structures are perceived as structures of meanings and this is the essence and substance of all social structures, then the purpose is to conceptualize these structures of meanings. As structures of meanings are constituted and expressed through communication one must try to get into this communication and examine (and/or participate in) the consent communication among the members of the culture. This meaning, which one is able to grasp in this way, one should try to give equivalent and adequate concepts. The concepts (forming a conceptual framework) can in this way be regarded as emerging from the communication in question: as a methodological rule one must then avoid preconceived opinions, e.g. expressed through a "standard" conceptual framework.

5. The Role of a Phenomenological Approach in Designing CSCW

The role of a phenomenological approach in designing CSCW must as a starting point be to ensure that the abstractions and reductions made by a functionalistic approach are relevant and "true". Hence the role is somehow to improve a functionalistic approach making its abstractions more relevant in designing CSCW.

The open question is how to do this being aware that this interdisciplinary combination of approaches must face barriers as fundamental differences in methods and ontology.

One problem in combining the two approaches is that they involve different ways of thinking. In a functionalistic approach the aim is to make delimitation's and abstractions to get to a description of a system that enables you to continue in a systematic way, i.e. to overcome aspects that could be (too) troublesome to cope with. In a phenomenological approach it is problematic to delimit structures of meanings, e.g. into "closed" systems.

Another aspect is the differences in the dealing with the process. A phenomenological approach tend to focus on a "non-controlled" understanding of processes and is in principle constantly open to complexity. A functionalistic approach tend to focus on factors controlling the processes and is systematically building up a model describing those factors.

A third aspect is the different attitude towards the members (e.g. the users) in the organization in question. While a phenomenological approach clearly has its focus on the people, their behaviour, etc., a functionalistic approach could tend to "forget" them as individuals or reduce them to somewhat rational, ideal, and anonymous colleagues.

6. References

Andersen, Niels Erik, Finn Kensing, Jette Lundin, Lars Mathiassen, Andreas Munk-Madsen, Monika Rasbech and Pal Sorgaard: "Professional Systems Development: Experience, Ideas and Action", Prentice-Hall, New York, 1990.

Boland, Richard: "Phenomenology: A Preferred Approach to Research on Information Systems" in Mumford, Enid, Rudi Hirschheim, Guy Fitzgeral, and Trevor Wood-Harper (eds.): "Research Methods in Information Systems", Proceedings of the IFIP WG 8.2 Colloquium, Manchester Business School, 1-3 September, 1984. North-Holland, 1985.

Heath, Christian, and Paul Luff: "Collaborative Activity and Technological Design: Task Coordination in London Underground Control Rooms", in "Proceedings of the Second European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 24th-27th September 1991 Amsterdam, Holland", Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Holland, 1991. pp. 65-80.

Kensing, Finn and Terry Winograd: "Operationalizing the Language/Action Approach to Design of Computer-Support for Cooperative Work", in R. K. Stamper et al. (eds.): "Collaborative Work, Social Communications and Information Systems", North-Holland, 1991.

Schmidt, Kjeld: "Function Analysis Instrument", in G. Schäfer et al. (ed.): "Functional Analysis of Office Requirements: A Multiperspective Approach", Wiley, Chichester etc., 1988, pp. 261-289.

Schmidt, Kjeld, and Peter Carstensen: "Arbejdsanalyse, Teori og praksis",[Work Analysis, Theory and practice], Risø National Laboratory, (Risø-M-2889), Roskilde, Denmark, 1990.

Suchman, Lucy A., and Randall H. Trigg: "Understanding Practice: Video as a Medium for Reflection and Design", in Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng (eds.): "Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems". Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Chichester, UK, 1991, pp. 65-89.

Winch, Peter: "The Idea of a Social Science", Routledge & Kegan Paul LtD., London, UK, 1958.

Wynn, Eleanor: "Taking Practice Seriously", in Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng (eds.): "Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems". Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Chichester, UK, 1991, pp. 45-64.