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Patterns of Interaction:

a Pattern Language for CSCW

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Pattern: Collaboration in Small Groups

Essence of the Pattern:This pattern is concerned with the manner in which small, collocated groups carrying out various activities, collaborate to achieve them. It draws attention to the way in which collaboration is facilitated by seating arrangements and various artefacts. Artefacts may be shared applications delivered to individual team members via their own terminal or may be publicly available. Practices for collaboration vary according to the specific set up. Collaboration may be very tightly coupled (as in London Underground control) and rely on overhearing and overseeing one another's moves or may be more loose and ad hoc and achieved more through technology as in the other situations. In all these situations, the arrangement promotes collaboration, which is important in achieving the work. For example, in dealing with complex situations, tightly coordinating one activity to another, sharing knowledge, and providing continuity and consistency in the way things are done.

Design For Dependability

Why Useful? Small collocated groups of this form have a number of potential benefits stemming from the fact that teamwork is promoted. This allows for group knowledge and expertise to be shared and monitoring and checking to occur as the work is produced. It also promotes tighter coordination between workers dealing with inter-related tasks and makes it more likely that activities will be dealt with in a consistent way. This is because group practices are likely to develop and the actor who previously dealt with a case, or has handled a similar case is always likely to be on hand. The nature of the group also provides for some redundancy in the system.

Where Used? This pattern has been described in three settings so far. The focus is on detailing the nature of collaboration for small, collocated groups of workers (2-6 actors), in a variety of settings. The examples presented come from control rooms and a bank software help desk.

This pattern is illustrated with vignettes from the following field work:

  • London Underground Control.. How the line controller and divisional information assistant (DIA) coordinate through talk and gesture in a tightly coupled manner.
  • Ambulance Control.. Ambulance controllers coordinate an ad hoc manner depending on the situational specifics through talk, gesture and technology.
  • Bank Help Desk.. Help desk operators collaborate in sharing knowledge, and to provide continuity of service through talk and technology.

Design implications? Seating arrangements, shared artefacts (e.g. public artefact) and so forth promote forms of teamwork amongst groups engaging in tightly coupled or shared activities. Design involves selecting the group size, arrangement and deciding on the layout and placement of artefacts to support or facilitate specific activities. For example, in situations where workers can oversee and overhear one another's work this provides for opportunities to collaborate on tasks through talk but even through a minimum of direct interaction. Sharing of group knowledge, expertise and experience is promoted in such settings. Such arrangements also provide for monitoring and checking of activities as they are carried out. When considering supporting such activities in a distributed setting this implies the requirement to provide extra contextual information on individual activities through, for example, CSCW tools. These may be designed to provide real-time updating of information from distributed workers that demonstrates their activities. Furthermore, supporting on-going communication between workers through, for example audio and /or video channels, may be important if teamwork is to be promoted.


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