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Collaborative Computing - Area Overview - Media and Collaboration, Characterizing Collaboration, Traditional Collaboration – Groupware & Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,  

systems participants shared environment

Wayne Robbins† and Schahram Dustdar‡

†Defence R&D Canada (DRDC), Future Forces Synthetic Environments,

DRDC Ottawa; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

‡Distributed Systems Group, Institute of Information Systems

Vienna University of Technology, Austria

Definition: Collaborative computing is a fertile melange of technologies and techniques which facilitate people working together via computer-assisted means.

The area offers a plethora of research and development opportunities across a number of disciplines while also constituting an increasingly common part of daily business practice within industry and government.

By its very definition, collaboration implies working in a joint fashion with those not immediately connected. Consequently, it has long been the “cornerstone of group activity” regardless of setting; and in many situations, collaboration has been and continues to address ways to better cooperate in a co-located setting. In most cases, however, the disconnectedness implied by (tele-)collaboration entails the use of modern communications mechanisms as part of working in a distributed manner. Additionally, given the traditional limitation of shared physical spaces, the many subtle and assumed details of how the collaborative process is actually achieved become more pronounced in distributed, computer-assisted systems. The specific and often significant demands on the technology along with the efforts required by collaborators often require special consideration. For example, the social convention and human judgment often tacitly perceived and applied in a physical encounter must be strictly accounted for in computer-assisted collaborative environments.

Now consider the role of media within collaboration. In real-world collaboration, people see each other, talk to each other, point at shared props, sketch ideas on shared surfaces and can view other media (such as text documents, animations, video clips, etc.) in a mutually common environment. In short, as part of the collaborative effort, the participants and the objects they use form a physically shared (i.e., co-located) “media space” in which users interact with each other through the experience and manipulation of media, such as books, papers, overheads, writing instruments, whiteboards and so forth (see for discussion of the actual media space concept). The collaborative process utilizes and benefits from the breadth of media and interaction styles used by the participants. In particular, by combining presentation (of material), conversation (between participants) and interaction (between participants with respect to objects in the shared space), the appropriate medium for the task at hand can be experienced in a shared and globally aware manner. Activities naturally occur in a timely and orderly manner and in relation to the overall goal and state of the collaboration; that is, the activities are coordinated and synchronized enabling a semantically coherent environment in which individual collaborators know what is going on (i.e., they are situationally aware) and can interact in a legitimate and sensible fashion. Similarly, the issue of awareness is fundamentally important to enabling real-time interactive exchanges between distributed participants. In such logical environments, participants do not implicitly have such simultaneous awareness; therefore, it must be provided so that they can relate to activities at the same time and interact in an equitable manner. Consequently, participants must appropriately (and explicitly) be notified of actions which affect them in non-obtrusive, up-to-date and timely group context.

Therefore, in moving towards increased promulgation of collaborative environments, the basics of collaboration, including relevant processes, tools and technologies must first be understood. These considerations, including the role of multimedia and the various types of systems that constitute collaborative computing, are the focus of this article.

Media and Collaboration

Analogous to the handling of material elements within a shared physical space, multimedia systems have also traditionally fallen into the same three categories. Presentational multimedia refers to those systems that render multimedia scenarios to a passive audience, typified by the traditional lecture style of delivery. The architecture of presentational systems typically utilizes the retrieval of pre-stored media from remote servers which are then displayed to the viewer. Conversational multimedia systems are those which allow people to engage in a dialogue using voice and/or video in a real-time synchronous manner. Such systems can range from text-based instant messaging and audio-enabled “phone” programs to full-fledged audio/video teleconferencing systems. Interactive multimedia augments these classifications by enabling their participants to manipulate and interact with their environment, such as being able to control a presentation’s progress by rewinding, fast-forwarding or hyper-linking to other parts of the presentation. In a conversational system, interactivity is provided by using a separate teleconference in parallel with the use of shared application (e.g., a drawing tool). While such a combination illustrates the notion of collaborative computing, a key disadvantage is the user-centric setup and coordination required in order to collaborate. That is, while the two streams of communication are occurring in parallel, the lack of integration does not readily facilitate, and sometimes even inhibits, using them together.

To address this issue, the notion of collaborative multimedia combines presentational, conversational and interactive multimedia into a single, unified and integrated approach. Thus, rather than relying on disjoint parallel technologies, collaborative multimedia supports participants freely moving between the types of expression, information and interaction as desired and appropriate for the collaborative effort. Providing such an environment necessitates providing interoperable tools and technologies that “fit well” together not only technologically (such as in terms of data formats, communication mechanisms and programming interfaces) but also in terms of comprehensive and complementary functionality, appropriate usability and fluidity relative to the participants and processes (e.g., workflow). Through an integrated environment, support for participant awareness of each other and the overall collaborative effort can be increased through more comprehensive and coordinated interaction. The natural communication styles required within the collaborative process can be supported in an integrated manner that is useful, flexible, comprehensible and meaningful to those involved. Therefore, a various kinds of collaborative practices, processes and behaviours, both at individual and group levels, can be more easily supported.

Characterizing Collaboration

In terms of conduct, collaboration has been characterized in terms of three main types: ad hoc, guided and structured. Ad hoc collaboration is typically informal, often spontaneous and usually short-term in nature. Classic examples of ad hoc collaboration include brainstorming sessions, instant messaging and conference calls. Guided and structured collaboration are ostensibly more formal in that they regulate interactions between collaborators in a organized and continuous (on-going) manner. Guided and structured collaboration offer varying degrees of organization in terms of how much they implement and/or follow prescribed (business) processes. Examples include workflow computing and on-line meetings. However, both conference calls and on-line meetings can range from ad hoc to structured, depending on the rules governing the particular collaborative effort. Similarly, large-scale collaborative efforts such as scientific computing initiatives [ 5 ] can range in their degree of formality, in large part based on their particular technological and/or methodological focus. Consequently, this diversity in what it means to collaborate highlights the fact that the true characterization of collaboration is multifaceted, including not only the technologies used but also the people and the processes they employ.

Ultimately, the key drivers affecting the reality of collaborative computing include the cultural, communication and behavioral styles of the individuals and organizations participating in the collaborative process and utilizing the various technologies. In addressing these areas, human-computer interaction (HCI), computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), groupware and computer mediated communications (CMC) have traditionally constituted the predominant R&D areas within collaborative computing. Amongst them, significant effort has been put towards the development of various computer and communication technologies as well as emphasis on user-centric issues.

While such efforts are fundamentally important to the creation of collaborative systems, collaborating in an intelligible manner is ultimately impacted by the often subtle and implicit coordination of activities that is part of the collaborative process. Consequently, coordination must be facilitated by all aspects of a collaborative effort (be it technical, process or people) in order to achieve an environment in which the actions performed upon objects and the interactions between participants make sense; that is, meaning must be maintained through synchronizing the participants and their actions relative to the overall behavior and role of the system. Doing so requires knowing the context and type of work being done as well as the informational aspects associated with it. Maintaining knowledge of these aspects as well as facilitating the actual collaborative functionality can be derived from four basic requirements for a collaborative system:

  • Connectedness: Ensure necessary connectivity between participants.
  • Awareness: Facilitate awareness (and discovery) of other participants.
  • Sharing: Facilitate sharing and exchange of information between participants.
  • Communication: Facilitate dialogue and interaction between participants (above and beyond information exchange).

Subsequently, these four elements can be seen as being axiomatic enablers for collaboration: given that participants are linked and aware of each other in a way that allows them to share information and communicate (at a metalevel) about the information and the processes/activities they wish to utilize, complex and coordinated collaborative efforts are then a matter of exercising control over these aspects and utilizing the necessary functionality in the correct behavioral contexts (see and the companion article on “Behavioral Facilitation”).

Traditional Collaboration – Groupware & Computer-Supported Cooperative Work

The long-standing history of office automation has lead to the classification of collaborative computing into two broad categories: (1) groupware ; and (2) computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) . Defined as “computer-based systems that support groups of people engaged in a common task (or goal) and that provide an interface to a shared environment” , the primary focus of groupware is to provide a group interface for a shared task. In a similar vein, computer-supported cooperative work systems deal with how technology (specifically computer systems) can assist in the work process. These two areas are often combined into a single focus which addresses how groups of people can work together in a (logically) shared environment with the assistance of computer support.

As illustrated in Table 1, groupware systems span a spectrum of usage patterns and the illustrated time/place matrix is a well-known taxonomy. Systems which support synchronous activity are known as real-time groupware while those that support asynchronous activity (such as electronic mail) are non-real-time. Synchronous systems therefore offer a concurrent shared environment in which multiple users can interact simultaneously while asynchronous systems provide for serial non-shared interaction. As a rule, most groupware systems primarily support interaction along only one such dimension.

Groupware systems have also been classified based on application functionality, including the categories of message systems, multi-user editors, computer conferencing, intelligent agents, (group) decision support and coordination systems. An overview and discussion can be found in . Systems often span multiple categories in this taxonomy and can be used in an overlapping manner by a group to accomplish its goal. Consequently, collaboration can be seen as a blend of activities used in varying ways across multiple participants. Therefore, the utility of a collaborative environment is directly influenced by its openness and flexibility such that it can support the integration of different technologies to support various collaborative tasks.

To support this diversity within collaboration, several different perspectives exist in the application of groupware technologies; these include: distributed systems, communications, human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence and social theory. For practical purposes, many systems (with some exceptions, such as ) support group work according to a particular approach and with their own unique focus. Such an example would be workflow management systems ( WfMS ), which generally aim at assisting business or government groups in communicating, coordinating and collaborating with a special emphasis on the facilitation (i.e., automation and/or augmentation) of business processes. To do so, WfMS deal with temporal aspects such as activity sequencing, deadlines, routing conditions and schedules. They are typically “organizationally aware,” containing an explicit representation of organizational processes and often provide a rigid work environment consisting of roles, associated activities and applications. Such systems are usually highly valuable in their organizational context but are either built-for-purpose or require significant customization to meet the needs of a particular group.



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