Computer Support for Cooperative Work (CSCW)

John Rooksby, University of St Andrews

Related Papers         PDF


CSCW is a interdisciplinary area of research that examines technology support for social practices such as working together or multiplayer gaming. The acronym refers to Computer Supported Cooperative Work, but this is a legacy term that does not truly reflect the broad interests of the area. The key innovation of CSCW is that it takes primary interest not in technology, but in the kinds of human and social practices that are to be supported by technologies.


The term Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) was coined in the mid 1980s. At the time, computing equipment was becoming more and more commonplace in workplaces, and the problem of software support for workgroups had emerged as a new research issue. There was much interest in groupware, for example Lotus Notes. However, as time went on, computers kept on becoming more and more affordable, not just to organisations but to general consumers. At the same time, networked computing was becoming the norm, first with local networks, then the Internet, and then wireless and mobile networks. Whereas CSCW started out with a somewhat short-term vision of developing software solutions for workgroups, the terrain in which it was interested opened up massively. The discipline remains very much alive today, often seen as a more socially oriented sibling of the field of Human Computer Interaction.

The Acronym

CSCW stands for Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Understanding what these terms mean are helpful for understanding the field, although many feel the acronym is now out of date:

Interdisciplinary Research

What sets CSCW apart in computing related disciplines is its focus on ?work? (or more general human and social practices) rather than technology. That is, research questions and results in CSCW generally discuss the requirements for or effects of technology regarding human practice. Because of this focus, CSCW has become highly interdisciplinary. CSCW draws from technology disciplines as much as those that have historically studied work-practices (for example Psychology, Sociology, Organisational Studies, and so on). How CSCW differs from these other disciplines are its concerns with the details of practice, how things are actually and specifically done, and how technologies, specifically, feature in this. The orientation is to how to design or deploy technology in ways that are supportive of cooperative practices. Therefore it is often essential to look at the details of use rather than broader trends. It is incorrect therefore to assume that any sociology, or any psychology is interesting to CSCW, and incorrect to assume that methods from these disciplines can simply be imported. CSCW is not the sociology or psychology of technology but a melting pot in which technologists, sociologists, psychologists and others have come together to innovate ways of understanding and designing systems. Ethnography is one example, it has taken on a very different form and set of concerns to what many sociologists think of as ethnography.

Common Interests

Most work is cooperative in some way, and the task in CSCW is not so much to separate out cooperative work as one kind among others, but to investigate the cooperative aspects that feature within people's broader efforts and concerns. Therefore a CSCW researcher may approach one of many settings and seek to uncover how cooperation is or could be done with technology. They may seek to address one of a number of themes, including:

  1. Awareness: In what ways can one person be aware of the actions of others? This is particularly important when actions can have an effect on other people and may not necessarily be visible. The problem is not just how to increase awareness, but how to do this appropriately (for example without compromising privacy).
  2. Articulation: In what ways can people?s efforts be divided up and kept separate? This is important where there could be clashes or wastage if practices begin to consume the same resources or are unnecessarily repetitive.
  3. Plans and Action: How are plans achieved in actual, situated practice? Plans, including project plans, workflows, protocols and so on do not determine how work is done, but rather it is an achievement of that work to have gone to plan.
  4. Timing: There are a variety of issues associated with the temporal features of work. How can cooperative work be effectively scheduled? How can information be delivered in timely ways? What are the patterns and routines that people engage in? Ultimately, how can technologies support timely work and do things in a timely way?
  5. Ordering: How can cooperative activities be done in order? What role can technology play in ensuring that one thing is done after another, rather than simultaneously, or not at all? Conversely in what ways does technology impose order inappropriately?
  6. Interaction: What role does technology play in the ways people interact, and how does human interaction take place through and around technology? How do people talk as they work, and what do they talk about? How does communication technology play a role in wider forms of communication (for example how and when do people talk about emails they have sent, or chose to use IRC rather than email?)
  7. Leadership and management: How can technologies be used to appropriately monitor and manage cooperative work? How can leaders (as opposed to managers) make better use of technology?
  8. Power and Politics: How do technologies affect the distribution of power within workplaces? How can technologies be used to empower people, improve social settings, and so on? The above is not an exhaustive list, but sketches out some frequent interests.

Technology 'in the wild'

CSCW researchers often find a great deal of interest in the settings in which technologies are used. CSCW research is often done in 'the wild' because the complexities of the settings in which work is done and the agendas and concerns they need to satisfice can be difficult to predict and simulate in controlled settings. Key points for doing this include:

Again, the above is a flavour rather than an exhaustive list. Because CSCW is focused upon practice, because people routinely make use of multiple technologies as a part of their practices, and because other aspects of the setting in which that practice takes place, CSCW researchers are often interested in what can be described as 'systems ecologies'. Ecology is a useful metaphor because it refers to the interdependencies of elements of an environment without necessarily implying stability or harmony. In particular it implies that introducing something new will potentially have wide-ranging effects that are difficult (or perhaps impossible) to predict, and so important to monitor.


CSCW provides a melting pot for ideas from several disciplines interested in technology and human practices. This has provided a context in which methods and perspectives relevant to engineering socio-technical systems have thrived. However the corollary of this has been something of a lack of a clear focus and an importing of longstanding disputes from other disciplines.

Moreover, it can often seem that little progress is made in CSCW. The problems that CSCW grapple with are tameable but not resolvable; there will be no once-and-for-all solution to the problems of cooperative work. As technologies move on, many of the issues prove to be the same, with the same insights confirmed for new settings. The focus in CSCW on the human practices, rather than on producing novel technology, often also means that it provides a commentary on new technology rather than provides an arena for its invention. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the management and deployment of technology is often more of a challenge than its production. Many organisations understand that the real costs of software are not in its shelf price but in its long-term use.

Reference as:
Computer support for co-operative work (CSCW). Rooksby, J. (2011). In LSCITS Socio-Technical Systems Engineering Handbook. University of St Andrews.