Roger Tagg
School of Computer and Information Science, University of South Australia, Mawson Lakes SA 5095, Australia
Keywords: Collaborative Computing, Philosophy, Information Systems Methodology.
Abstract: There appears to be evidence that much potential IT support for group work is yet to be widely adopted or
to achieve significant benefits. It has been suggested that, in order to achieve better results when applying IT
to group work, designers should take more notice of modern philosophies that avoid the so-called "Cartesian
Dualism" of mind separated from matter. It is clear that group work support is more than a matter of
automating formal procedures. This paper reviews the question from the author’s lifetime of experience as a
consultant, academic and group worker; proposes some models to address some of the missing perspectives
in current approaches; and suggests how future efforts could be re-orientated to achieve better outcomes.
Recent years have witnessed much soul-searching in
the field of Information Systems (IS). This was
highlighted in (Hirschheim and Klein, 2003), which
talked about a crisis in IS. Although the obvious
symptoms have been the bursting of the
bubble and a major decline in student enrolments,
the authors saw the more serious issue as the failure
of IT and the internet to introduce a “rational-critical
discourse”. In other words, IT support has
concentrated on the mechanistic facilitation of
business and government activity, and not on
improving human communication and participation.
In attempts to counter this shortcoming,
philosophy has sometimes been invoked as an
influence in a number of IS innovations. For
example, Organisational Semiotics (Stamper, 1973)
can be traced back to the “pragmatism” of Peirce,
see e.g. (Wiener, 1958); and Language Action
Perspective (LAP) (Medina-Mora et al, 1992) to
“Speech Acts” (Searle, 1964) – and, according to
(Nobre 2007a, 2007b) to Heidegger’s “Being and
Time” (Heidegger, 1926).
Philosophy is also the theme of (Mingers and
Willcocks, 2004), which contains a collection of
authors’ views on the relevance of philosophy to IS.
However philosophy rarely makes for easy reading
by IS and IT practitioners, especially in the case of
(Medina-Mora et al, 1992) stated that “We
encounter the deep questions of design when we
recognise that in designing tools we are designing
ways of being. By confronting these questions
directly, we can develop a new background for
understanding computer technology – one that can
lead to important advances in the design and use of
computer systems.”
In the case of using IT to support group work,
(Nobre, 2007a) suggested that most of our current
efforts are too biased towards “structuralist and
cognitivist interpretations of group behaviour”.
Instead, we need to “study collaboration and
coordination in innovative ways that explore the
social embeddeness and embodiness of human
meaning and knowledge creation”.
Many useful insights have also been offered by
other authors, for example (Checkland and Scholes,
1999; Kent, 1978; Mumford, 1995; Ciborra, 2002)
and the proponents of Activity Theory, e.g.
(Engeström et al, 1999; Constantine, 2007). These
publications do not require us to hack our way
through the jungle of Heidegger’s terminology.
However as (Lyytinen, 2004) points out, LAP
has not managed to become part of the IT
mainstream, and the same can be said for many
other innovations of IS and IT researchers. There is
therefore an unsolved question of how we, as
academics, analyst/designers and software
developers, can actually help to realize the potential
improvements of these innovations.
Tagg R. (2008).
In Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - ISAS, pages 89-96
DOI: 10.5220/0001677200890096
The present author is basing this paper not only
on the literature, but also on his experience in 45
years of work in Information and Management
Science (Tagg, 2008). The paper continues by first
analysing some of the things that are often said to be
wrong with current practice in group work. It then
considers the potential value of some philosophical
(or quasi-philosophical) ideas. Two examples of
additional conceptual models are then proposed,
which try to address some otherwise missing
perspectives that a philosophical approach may
uncover. These are followed by a short conclusion,
which includes some suggestions for future changes
in approach.
Many articles, especially in the popular press,
suggest that even with all technologies we have,
projects involving collaboration between humans
have low success rates, implementation delays or
serious teething troubles. Whistle blowers are not
encouraged, and a credibility gap arises between the
messages one is told and what one observes or finds
out. Taking a philosophical approach, we should try
to address the reasons, and not pretend that group
work follows some ideal pattern.
2.1 Overload
In 45 years in the workplace, this author has noticed
a relentlessly creeping number of hours one is
expected to work per week, and a greater proportion
of working time being spent on non-core work.
Examples are regulatory compliance, data collection
and measurement, quality assurance, switching from
one job to another, attending to ever-expanding
volumes of email - and last but not least, “backside
covering” – trying to cover oneself against blame for
when things go wrong.
Overload is discussed in the literature, e.g.
(Whittaker and Sidner, 1996). (Kirsh, 2000) also
discusses the cognition problems of frequently
switching focus. Fragmentation – the problem of not
getting a clear run to get things done without
interruption - has also been recognized by e.g.
(Czerwinski, 2006; Tungare et al, 2006).
For many information workers, a relentless
worsening of overload has outpaced any gains from
using IT. A Canadian study (Wilson et al, 2000)
reports that some workers are experiencing
depression, alienation and detachment at work. This
in turn leads to failure or poor quality in what the
group is trying to achieve.
2.2 Too Much Methodology
(Ciborra, 2002) strongly argues that the worlds of
management and IT have become preoccupied with
methodologies, theories, models and procedures -
and, as a consequence, measurement. He claims that
in many cases, there has been little or no measurable
gain from all this effort.
(Kent, 1978) takes a similar view, and warns
against the tendency to try to force reality to fit our
models. Part of the problem arises because, for those
of us who are academics, our promotion prospects
depend on getting papers published; the chances of
getting a paper accepted by referees – if it has a
simple formal model in a single coherent area - seem
higher than for a paper proposing a more
interdisciplinary idea. Likewise, consultants often
need to have a technical or management bandwagon
which one can jump on in order to get business.
Especially with the more creative types of group
work, an emphasis on procedures seems counter-
productive. Instead the emphasis ought to be on
selecting from available tools and resolving issues
by discourse. However too many tools can bring
problems just like too many methodologies. There is
a limit to what we can add to the users’ toolboxes,
especially if they give contradictory results. The rate
at which users can absorb new tools and
methodologies is also limited.
2.3 Too Much Measurement
It has been observed for many years that each time a
bad outcome happens, management culture tends to
demand a new control system to ensure it doesn’t
happen again, with the consequent increase in the
data that has to be collected. As a result, humans in
groups pay more attention to ensuring acceptable
values of these measures - rather than achieving the
primary business function of the group.
An interesting statistic in Australia is that the
administrators, as a percentage of all university staff
have increased from 40% to 60% in 8 years (and
even this does not recognise the mass of
administrative and reporting work that has been
thrown onto academics). When challenged, the
Education minister commented that if we want best
value for the education dollar, then we need this
level of control. But absolute student achievement
standards are not measured.
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In fact we are seeing a philosophy develop that
says that what we can’t or don't measure isn’t
important. Our promotion prospects seem tied only
to achieving figures.
2.4 Legacy Management Culture
Some problems of group work derive from the
darker side of common management “culture”.
“Seat of the Pants” style, reacting to crises.
Management often takes the line “don’t give
me all that stuff – my intuition works best”.
This may be valid - but only up to a point.
Divine Right of Managers – “management
should have the right to manage” – in other
words, “I want to run this group like an army
do what I say without question”.
Deterministic management, i.e. the delusion
that we only have to set a plan, or put a
procedure in place, and it will just happen. Risk
management is sometimes considered, but often
leaves out many of the ways in which things
can go wrong.
Micro management and over-control – the idea
that we can get more deterministic results if we
impose tighter control.
Throwing burdens on front line workers – the
idea that the job of applying control can,
without penalty in lost time and work
fragmentation, simply be thrown onto the front
line workers.
Organisational Learning (or lack of it) – the
idea that if we ourselves didn’t invent an idea,
it can’t possibly be applied to our situation.
Pressure on the human – if things aren’t
happening as we want, just applying more
person-to-person pressure will solve it.
2.5 Human Frailty
There is a group of ills that relate to the tendencies
towards expediency and bravado that exist in most
of us.
We are driven by headlines – maybe because of
time pressures, we only read or hear the
headlines, and don’t look into the “why” or
read between the lines.
Spin – a profession seems to have grown up in
always finding words to make black sound
white. However spin eventually leads to
credibility gaps, and is hence unsustainable –
people eventually realizing that things aren't
like what they were told.
Believing one’s own Bullshit – not seeing that
much of what we say is probably nonsense, but
wanting to maintain our prestige or pride.
The Backs to the Wall syndrome – when things
are going badly, there is a higher motivation to
improve, but also to cheat.
The Golden Age syndrome – when one holds a
commanding competitive position, e.g. in
military, manufacture, raw materials, fuel, or
entertainment terms, there is more temptation to
rest on one’s laurels and pretend it’s all due to
our superior culture (e.g. Rome, British
Litigiousness – resorting to lawyers and hence
spending big sums so as to be seen to be
“fighting all the way”. This not a level playing
field – the big groups can always get away with
spending more on lawsuits than the small
Jargon and general language misuse - we are
tempted to hide behind specialist jargon, which
often seems geared to limiting the contribution
of fellow group members who don’t have that
speciality. The result is often uncertainty and
2.6 The Failure of IT so Far
Within the research group of which this author is a
member, (Shumarova and Swatman, 2007) found in
the literature little evidence of practical evaluation of
many CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative
Work) initiatives, except on use of the main
commercial groupware tools, such as Lotus Notes or
Microsoft Outlook, or simple communication aids.
There have been a number of suggested
improvements to groupware, e.g. (Bellotti et al,
2004; Muller et al, 2004), but these prototypes have
only been evaluated done using temporary “interns”
and then seemingly abandoned. At the time of
writing, there have been few signs of these ideas
becoming part of mainstream commercial tools.
More fundamentally, (Hirschheim and Klein,
2003) think the whole field of Information Systems
is in crisis. Their argument is that the internet has
failed to introduce an improvement in “rational-
critical discourse”. Instead, it has become simply a
tool for supporting commercial buying and selling; a
medium for publication by government, industry and
pressure groups, or a data communications medium
to support formal processes. Applications have been
restricted to short-term efficiency.
3.1 The Implied Philosophies of
Current Business Practice
Even the natural language we use to converse with
other humans assumes a culture and a default
philosophy, derived from a melange of inherited
religion and scientific rationalism. It is possibly at
this level, rather than in formal systems, where
Heidegger or others can maybe take us.
Using small groups has often been advocated as
a good approach to collaborative activity. They
maintain motivation better and can resist imposed
vested interests. However they do not address
competitive power or economies of scale; and, if
priorities change, a group may be reluctant to
disband itself.
Current business practice favours large
hierarchies, e.g. armed forces and multinationals.
Success depends on a clear command structure,
implying subordination of the individual to the big
group's aim. This may be assisted by a prescribed
religion, a mission statement or company slogans.
Management in such groups has become a key
concept, e.g. (Drucker, 1954) - although this is often
perverted by human egos and hidden agendas. Strict
hierarchies have had a generally successful run over
the course of history, but today they may fail
because people today no longer accept things just
because someone tells them - they can find a
different view in a Blog or Wiki.
3.2 The Implied Philosophy of Science
and Technology
The contrasting philosophy of science and
technology, sometimes derided as Cartesian
Dualism, has had a major influence on the evolution
of modern life and society. It can be seen as a
reaction to the monopolizing of all knowledge and
interpretation by religious and monarchic
hierarchies. The essence is that reality is only that
which we can observe or prove logically. Scientific
methods have been applied to Management and IS in
the form of such initiatives as Procedure Manuals,
O&M, OR, Computer Systems (including
programming, systems analysis and databases),
Business and Information Strategy Planning, BPR
and Workflow.
However as everyone knows, failures are
frequent and human commitment is often half
hearted. This may be because the underlying
theories and models depend on gross simplifications
of reality, and often attempt to force reality to fit the
process logic. This is particularly true of methods for
designing systems that can be implemented on
computers. UML, for example, may be a good fit for
object oriented technology, but it misses many
perspectives that should be considered to ensure
success of the total system.
3.3 The Implied Philosophy of the
Semantic Web and Related
This includes such concepts as Knowledge
Management, Organisational Learning and Artificial
Intelligence. Any ontology has to be based on some
or other approach to structuring the real world.
However much of the technology is still dependent
on inexact natural language, and is complex to build,
maintain and understand.
In spite of this, ontologies are one of this
author’s topics of recent interest, and it is critical to
a current project to develop usable software support
to categorise the mass of data that assails us, and to
enable us to cope with our overload.
Table 1 shows a model I have been working on
recently, which gives priority to the many
relationships that do not often get considered in most
IT-based models.
Table 1: Relationship Types in this author’s proposed
Ontology Structure.
Major Group Minor Group examples
"is-a" type
Specialisation, Generalisation,
Instantiation, Membership
"part-of" type
Inclusion, Containment, Bounding,
"is-with" type
Connection, Interfacing, Fitting, Holding,
Owning, Proximity, Familiarity
"is-like" type
Similarity, Differentiation, Identification,
Relative space/time position
Processing Sequence, Dependency, Simultaneity,
Derivation, Condition, Repetition
Transformation Production, Manufacturing, Consumption,
Metamorphosis, Movement
Interaction Communication, Transaction, Agreement,
Contention, Reaction, Competition,
Cooperation, Trust
Planning Desire, Intention, Responsibility,
Limitation, Requirement, Design,
Commitment, Dreaming, Fearing
Representation Naming, Representing, Observation,
Recording, Imagining, Signification
Measurement Measurement, Estimation, Prediction
Reasoning Interpretation, Summarisation,
Justification, Causation, Solution,
Understanding, Hypothesis
"is-useful-for" type
Purpose, Potential
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This relationship-oriented ontology is subject to five
basic rules:
1 a relationship is a "thing", just as an entity is
2 a relationship can participate as a slot in
another relationship
3 a relationship can have attributes
4 a relationship can have many "slots"
5 any classification of relationships is fairly
arbitrary, and each type has aspects of one or
more parent types
Potential relationship slots include two or more
things that are being primarily related, agent or
actor, theoretical basis or assumption, date-time-
place (possibly "from" and "to" and "reported"), and
the source of the alleged relationship ("says who?').
In my ontology I separate the "lexical" text
strings (or other signs) - that enable context to be
recognised - from the ontology classes and instances
themselves. I have also attempted to take notice of
Mereology – the study of the many variations in
“part-of” relationships, e.g. (Lewis, 1990).
However if any these models become too
prescriptive, they too may still fail, as they become
too diffuse and complex for any automation, and at
same time too mechanistic to recognise all
experience and motivation.
3.4 The Philosophies behind
Organisational Semiotics,
Language Action Perspective
and Activity Theory
Among conscious attempts to introduce philosophy
into IT, Organisational Semiotics (Stamper, 1973)
proposed a "ladder" with 6 steps - with Pragmatics
and Social World added as extra steps above the
normal ontological ones of Empirics, Syntactics and
Semantics. He also proposed a notation "Semantic
Normal Form" and a methodology "MEASUR".
More recently, (Cordeiro and Filipe, 2004b)
proposed a Semiotic Pentagram Framework.
Language Action Perspective (LAP) claims a
philosophy derivation from the earlier Speech Act
theory. It is already available in group support in the
form of the Action Workflow tool (Medina-Mora et
al, 1992). Methodologies based on LAP include
DEMO Business Process Modelling (Dietz, 1999)
and BAT (for Inter-organisational coordination)
(Goldkuhl, 2006).
Activity Theory was originally proposed by
Russians (e.g. Leont'ev, 1977) and since championed
by (Nardi, 1996) and (Engeström et al, 1999). This
has less of a strictly philosophical basis but
consciously models more perspectives than most IT
methodologies. The work of the FRISCO group
(Hesse, 1999) and the Theory of Organised Activity
(Holt, 1997) should also be mentioned here.
All these theories seem totally creditable as
contributions to improving IS development, and
their best features can possibly, as suggested by
(Cordeiro and Filipe, 2004a) be combined. But the
question is, why have they not become part of the
mainstream? According to (Lyytinen, 2004), the
reason for the failure of LAP is a mixture of not
having been enshrined in a widely used commercial
package, a failure in the diffusion of information and
the inability of the existing knowledge networks to
cope. As an ex-consultant, I ask myself "could I go
out to clients with these theories and expect to get
enthusiastic involvement from client personnel?"
3.5 Heidegger and "Grand Name"
Even as a non-philosopher, I can see many
advantages in considering philosophies such as
utilitarianism and pragmatism in relation to
supporting group work.
Figure 1: An Attempt to Diagram some of the Main
Concerns in Heidegger’s Ontology.
falling prey
innerworldly things
idle talk
authentic inauthentic
familiar tools
conscious observations
What is at
What is
- being there,
But, as presented in the literature, they do not
appear to me to answer the challenge I have just
stated. I am also unsure how well they address the
inevitable need for "trade-offs" between a multitude
of different utility measures.
As an illustration, I have attempted in Figure 1
below to show diagrammatically the essence of
some of what is said in Being and Time (Heidegger,
1926), as interpreted via (Scott, 2007) and (Heath,
2003). However I would claim that any attempt to
bring Heidegger directly into most of what we do as
system designers will not be accepted, because of
the problem of intelligibility of the language used.
The only sensible course would seem to let the
developers of the next generation in IS
methodologies take what advantage they can of the
best of these ideas, just as Dietz, Stamper and others
have tried to do. But the lessons regarding adoption
that were raised by Lyytinen in 3.4 above must still
be noted.
This section introduces two possible models that
address some of the additional perspectives
suggested by a more philosophical approach, based
on this author’s reading and working experience.
4.1 The Cycle of Human Endeavour in
Figure 2 shows a rich picture illustrating this
author’s view of the cyclic nature of human
endeavour where a group of humans, possibly aided
by machines, is working to a plan in order to
produce a result. Clearly the group doing the work
has to balance a diverse range of influences. The
screw-tightened vice represents the “squeeze” of
pressure on the group, which partly reflects pressure
on their manager. The asterisk in the “The Result”
cloud is there to remind the reader that results are
not only what the bean counters measure – they
reflect whatever reaction anyone affected has to both
the outcome and the way it was done. The customer
reacts to product or service quality, but the
stakeholder and manager may only react to the data
the organisation deems it should measure.
If things do not go well, then pressure from the
stakeholders, customers or the media pressurises the
organisation (or external regulators) to introduce
extra measurement and control procedures. These
rarely ever get rolled back, so there is a gradual
proliferation of overheads and “dumbing down” of
the group’s contribution.
This example shows how in some of the
considerations that are addressed by the philosophies
in sections 3.3 to 3.5 above can be brought into the
designer's consideration. The challenge for the
designer is to recognize which of these
Direct influence
Reporting of
measurements and
other data
Consultancy and
Pressure on the
group or
Figure 2: Cycle of Human and Group Endeavour.
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Figure 3: Overlapping Roles and Motivations.
considerations are critical to the success of any
proposed support system - something that asking the
people involved does not always easily reveal.
4.2 The Structure of Roles and
Figure 3 is a Venn-style diagram that shows a wide
selection of roles that humans in a group may play
(many of them simultaneously). What motivates
individuals in a group is therefore a complex matter.
Some examples of motivation that may apply are
ensuring personal safety, reducing uncertainty,
saving enough for a rainy day, building a strong base
for later, achieving ambitions, completing
milestones, enjoying the present, providing for one’s
children, getting promotion, gaining fame, seeing
procedures observed, achieving targets, reducing or
avoiding pain or embarrassment, not to be shown up
as a loser, avoiding climb-downs.
As the last two models demonstrate, we should
include the "missing perspectives" in our models.
Projects and systems may fail because they do not
take these perspectives into account. Examples are
that a solution may simply take too long to achieve;
control and data collection turns out too expensive;
or genuine concerns do not get raised. Sometimes,
they are left out because they are not considered
measurable, or not on the list of KPIs (key
performance indicators) - but they can still cause
We should accept that human nature may be
changeable, but only very slowly. We should
deliberately encourage a “Plan B” discipline, and
recognize humans’ need for an “escape route”. We
should understand how to concentrate on getting the
critical things right, rather than correctly following a
procedure. We should understand that we, as agents
of change, are also part of the problem. We should
also understand that language may be critical in the
communication between, say designers in two
organizations A and B, or between users, technical
specialists, decision makers (and those that have
influence over them) within the same organisation.
We should try and make work enjoyable and
“fun”. The chairman of one of my former employers
once declared that the mission of the company was
“Interesting Jobs for Interesting People”. Maybe the
financial “bottom line” should be a constraint – not
the be all and end all.
Our common motivation as humans is that we all
have to make the best of our brief life here on earth.
As the subtitle of Townsend's second book “Further
Up The Organization” (Townsend, 1988) says,
“How Groups of People Working Together for a
Common Purpose Ought to Conduct Themselves for
Fun and Profit.”
Those of us who are academics need to take
Lyytinen's lesson (Lyytinen, 2004). Theories and
models are not enough unless there is a path for
knowledge diffusion and clear motivators for users
to adopt them. Of course, we are "part of the
problem" and are driven by our own motivations,
e.g. to "publish or perish" and bring PhDs to
All our efforts to support group work to date are
built on some implicit or explicit philosophy.
However any additional invocation of philosophy
should not be directed towards preparing more
models and theories, but to remind us of what
perspectives we are not yet covering.
Philosophies such as those from the "grand
names" are probably too far removed from what we
in IT have to do from day to day, although it would
certainly help if they were easier to understand.
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