If we are to evaluate a class of objects, it helps to have some
understanding of what those objects are. I have denoted my research
"the evaluation of cooperative systems", and so need
to give some consideration to the meaning of this term. In its
usage in Lancaster, it is simply used to denote the computer programs
sometimes called groupware or CSCW systems, and it has purely
arisen as an easier and less loaded term than those. Sommerville
et al (1993) define the term as follows:
systems which [are] essentially cooperative in the sense that they [are] team-based
However, it is clear that this usage is a neologism, and that
both 'cooperative' and 'systems' have a long history in various
areas of academic and practical discourse. Therefore I shall attempt
to discern something of the meaning of the term cooperative systems
by considering the meaning of its constituent parts. It must be
stressed that I do this for the sake of understanding, and that
the synthesis (putting together) will be as important as the analysis
(pulling apart). It is with the latter, however, that I shall
It was Marx who first used the term "cooperative work"
- although, as Hughes et al (1991) have more recently pointed
out, to suggest that there could be such a thing as work that
is not cooperative is to misunderstand the nature of the
modern organisation and the fundamentally intertwined nature of
all work. However, it is possible to make some sensible remarks
about cooperation and its nature.
Cooperation literally means "working together" (from
the Latin "co", together; and "operare", to
work). We can see this as the root of all modern uses of the term
- it denotes some kind of activity conducted between two or more
people, to common gain. Much work has gone on in social psychology
in studying the subject, and from this Michael Argyle (1991, p.4)
offers the following definition of cooperation:
acting together, in a coordinated way at work, leisure or social relationships, in the pursuit of shared goals, the enjoyment of the social activity, or simply furthering the relationship.
In this descriptive sense, then, cooperation refers to any sort
of activity that two or more people conduct together. Studies
of such situations have been made by sociologists (e.g. Heath
and Luff, 1991), by anthropologists (e.g. Hutchins, 1991), and
by social psychologists (e.g. Axelrod, 1984). A point that must
be made about the last of these three groups is that the studies
of cooperation in social psychology have tended to use artificial
laboratory situations where only a limited amount of cooperation
is permitted (such as the famous but vacuous Prisoner's Dilemma
game), whereas the sociologists and anthropologists study real
situations of cooperation.
Nevertheless, the following general principles about cooperation arise:
Some of these points lead us on to a second way in which cooperation
has been considered - not just to say how it works, but rather
to advocate cooperation as a good in itself. This has particularly
been apparent among those considered with personal growth and
social justice. A Quaker poster illustrates this well. Two mules
are shown with two piles of food. A rope joins the two, but it
is too short to allow them both to eat from their own food piles
at once. They strain against each other for a while, resulting
in neither of them eating anything, then realise their folly and
join together: first they both eat from one pile of food, then
from the other. The caption reads: "Cooperation is better
The same notion is found in training for assertiveness and negotiation
skills. One is advised that an assertive transaction, or a successful
negotiation is not one where you get what you want and the other
gets nothing, but rather one where both, or all, people get what
they want (or at least the most important parts of that). In other
terms, the aim of such transactions is a 'win-win' situation.
It is suggested by many that the world would be a happier place
if conflicts were addressed in such a manner rather than aiming
for one to win and others to lose (or ignoring them altogether,
which is also destructive).
So we can see two meanings for cooperation: a description of how
people tend to work together, and a prescription for how they
should work together. When phrases like "cooperative
system" and "cooperative work" are used, the former
is the most immediate meaning; but we should not forget the latter
vision of how things could be.
It is crucially important to distinguish between two uses of the
word "system" when we consider it in this context. The
word is in use by computer scientists and organisational theorists
to denote a collection of computer hardware, software and networks
- one talks of a computer system and means such this kind of technological
mixture. Indeed, the name under which a large part of the students
of computers in use collects themselves is "information systems".
This overshadows in computer circles an older and more general
use of the term, which has been in use since around 1940 - the
use of systems thinking.
Systems thinking is an approach which views the world in terms of systems. These are models of real-world situations which have the common property that, in Aristotle's phrase, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" - there are properties of the entity viewed as a whole that are not to be found by considering the constituent parts of that entity. A good example is given by Lewis (1994:44), who considers a bicycle. This is composed of a number of pieces - two wheels, frame, handlebars, chain, saddle and so on - but taken separately none of these has any particular meaning. However, by combining the pieces together in the right way, we may create an system that affords transport. That is, the ability of a bicycle to carry me to work (given motor power from my legs) is an emergent property of the complete system. As Senge (1990:68) puts it,
systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes
... a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things,
for seeing patterns of change rather than snapshots.
This older notion of system - from which the computer sense arose - is intended as a general perspective on all kinds of entities. It arose in biology, through the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1969) and while to some extent, as Morgan (1986:45) comments, it can be seen as a "biological metaphor in disguise", it is taken by its theorists to be considerably more general. Indeed, Kenneth Boulding, one of those working under the banner of "general systems theory", has written a book entitled The World as a Total System (1985), in which he identifies a hierarchy of eleven levels of system in which we can view the world:
mechanical systems (those governed by Newtonian physics);
cybernetic systems (based on the principle of feedback to maintain equilibrium);
positive feedback systems (those which are not in equilibrium);
'creodic' systems (those based on the carrying out of a plan, such as genetics);
reproductive systems (which are capable of reproducing themselves);
demographic systems (the behaviour of populations);
ecological systems (the interaction of species);
evolutionary systems (where the rules governing the system change);
human systems (the organisation of individual humans);
social systems (the interaction of human beings, and the use of artefacts); and
transcendental systems (which we know through religious experience).
While Boulding gives examples of all kinds within the 'lower'
systems, most of human collective experience can be found in the
category of the social systems. Accordingly, these has been the
object of study of most systems theorists. In particular, they
have concerned themselves with the study of the interactions of
people within organisations, and particularly with companies and
public-sector institutions. Thus systems thinking has been substantially
used within business schools.
However, two distinct kinds of systems thinking have arisen as
the discipline has developed. The first is mathematically-based,
likes to create formal models of situations, and finds it useful
to draw analogies between human and social systems and the better
understood mechanical and cybernetic systems. This has been dominant
in operational research, for example, which has been concerned
to create mathematical models of situations requiring planning,
the better to assist the planners in their task. Similarly, the
work of the RAND Corporation in the USA on solving problems using
a method derived from engineering that it referred to as systems
analysis, continues to be influential in the design of information
Another strain can be found in the work of those who take a holistic
perspective on the world, requiring that mind and nature not be
separated, and likewise that situations can best be understood
by studying them from all sides. One of the best early proponents
of this approach was Gregory Bateson (1972a), who made extensive
studies in anthropology, psychiatry, learning, and zoology, continuously
pushing against assumptions that things need to be considered
separated which can instead be considered together. Peter Checkland
(1981) comes from a different angle, but his "soft systems"
methodology takes an excellent approach to human systems that
stresses the importance of holism in studying these, and how vital
it is that multiple perspectives be brought to bear.
Checkland also stresses a key point about systems: that they do
not exist as such in the real world, but are rather ways of viewing
the world - they belong to epistemology rather than ontology.
This is crucially important, as it emphasises that different systems
will be identified by different people, and we need to be clear
what we mean. For example, if we consider the phrase "the
computer system", some use this to mean a standalone PC (box
containing chips plus monitor, keyboard and mouse); others include
software on the PC (perhaps just the operating system - another
use of the word! - or perhaps also the word-processor etc.); others
include networking to other PCs; and others also include fileservers
on a local network, the files on them, the other computers, and
even (implicitly) the technicians that keep the system running!
Finally, a mention of the crucial phrase "socio-technical
systems" (which is to be found at several points in this
report) must be made. Coined by Eric Trist of the Tavistock Institute
of Human Relations, it refers to "the interdependent qualities
of the social and technical aspects of work ... these aspects
of work are always inseparable, because the nature of one element
in this configuration always has important consequences
for the other" (Morgan 1986:44). This combination of people
and technology is vital to my purposes here: when I refer
to a computer system, I most decidedly do include the people that
keep the technology running, but also those that use it, who built
it, who work with those that use it, and so on.
So to summarise the above material - cooperation is a process of two or more people engaging in an activity for shared gain, supported by communication and coordination; and a system is a collection of objects with emergent properties, here involving people and technology. Putting these together, I suggest the following definition for 'cooperative system':
a combination of technology, people and organisations that facilitates
the communication and coordination necessary for a group to effectively
work together in the pursuit of a shared goal, and to achieve
gain for all its members.
A few comments can be made about this definition:
Of course, like Checkland's remarks on systems being epistemology
rather than ontology, this is just one view of what constitutes
a cooperative system. Others may have different views, emphasising
the technology more or the group dynamics more. For me, keeping
these things in balance is a key to understanding the nature of
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Axelrod, Robert (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
Bateson, Gregory (1972a). Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chandler.
von Bertalanffy, Ludwig (1969). General system theory: foundations, development, applications. New York: Braziller.
Boulding, Kenneth (1985). The World as a Total System. Sage.
Checkland, Peter (1981). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Chichester: John Wiley.
Heath, Christian and Paul Luff (1991). Collaborative Activity and Technological Design: Task Coordination in London Underground Control Rooms. Proceedings ECSCW '91 .
Hughes, John, Dave Randall and Dan Shapiro (1991). CSCW: Discipline or Paradigm? A Sociological Perspective. Proceedings of ECSCW 91.
Hutchins, Edwin (1991). Organizing work by adaptation. Organizational Science, 2 (1): 14-39.
Lewis, Paul (1994). Information-systems development: systems thinking in the field of information-systems. London: Pitman.
Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organisation. Sage, 1986.
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Sommerville, Ian, Richard Bentley, Tom Rodden and Peter Sawyer (1993). Cooperative Systems Design. Report CSCW/10/93, Computing Department, Lancaster University.
Magnus Ramage 24 October 1996