05. – 10. September 1999, Dagstuhl Seminar 99361

Social Thinking - Software Practice. Approaches Relating Software Development, Work, and Organisational Change


Ch. Floyd (Hamburg), N. A. Jayaratna (Perth), F. Kensing (Roskilde)

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Scope of the Seminar

During the last decade, the embedding of software into work practice has stimulated interdisciplinary cooperation between social scientists and computer scientists in areas such as computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) or human computer interaction (HCI). The discussion is largely driven by experiences gained in development projects. Key questions include: How can the perspectives and conceptualizations of different users and other stakeholders be taken into account? What is the relation between, on one side, reflective and analytic abstractions of the social sciences and, on the other side, generative abstractions developed by the designers in order to be implemented in and with a computer application? A coherent understanding of these and related questions is needed in order to provide suitable methods for software development.

Background: Social Thinking ...

Approaches developed in the social sciences for understanding human learning and communication, individual and cooperative work, and the interrelation of technology with organizations, provide a starting point for dealing with the problems at stake here. Although these approaches have been developed with no specific concern for computing, several of them have been tailored to the needs of software development and use:

  • Activity theory and developmental work research focus on the activities of individuals, portraying these activities as mediated by tools and taking place in a social context. For understanding and changing activities they rely on representations of complex activity networks.
  • Ethnographic workplace studies are concerned with how individual or collaborative work is actually being performed, in particular, they show the use of artifacts in work practice. Through participant observation, open interviews and other techniques they aim to understand work practice from the participants point of view.
  • Discursive approaches start out from the different perspectives of the actors involved, including their interests, and power relations. By facilitating communication, they aim to provide equal opportunities for participation.
  • Systemic approaches emphasize the interconnections between actors in organizations and between organizations and technology. They focus on different levels of reality construction inherent in human learning and communication, individual and cooperative work.

These approaches emerge from different, to some extent controversial, discourses in the social sciences. So far, their applicability to software development and use has largely been discussed in separate arenas.

... and Software Practice

While the discipline of software engineering is mainly concerned with the formal principles, the technical basis and the methodological support for software development, the reflection of software practice as a human activity needs to go beyond an engineering framework. Several aspects come into focus:

  • Software development is a continuous process based on human learning and communication, in which all activities contribute to insights into the desired functionality and use of the software to be constructed.
  • Methods and their underlying concepts are social vehicles for technical work. They embody a perspective on software development, concerning, for example, who is to be involved, which activities need to be supported and how, and what aims should be achieved.
  • Key activities of software development, such as requirements analysis, modeling and design, relate the technical domain of software functions and modes of human-computer-interaction to the social world of work and organizational change.
  • Software development incorporates organizational concepts. The use of software products constrains collaborative work and organizational development. Thus, reifications in software systems have an impact on the potentials of organizational change.

In order to take these aspects into account, social science approaches are needed as guidance for software development in social contexts.

Seminar Aim

The seminar was arranged so as to promote a conversation about social science approaches in their relevance to software development. On one hand, approaches from the activity theoretic, ethnomethodological, discursive, and systemic schools were presented in their applicability to software development. On the other hand, mutual understanding was facilitated by identifying complementary views and methods as well as incompatibilities. Seminar Program and Contribution of Participants

Participants had been invited to the seminar by Christiane Floyd, Nimal Jayaratna, Finn Kensing, and Lucy Suchman. Since it was intended to foster the interaction between different "schools of thought4 a group of researchers from different backgrounds were entrusted with the preparation of the seminar. The members of this group were Yvonne Dittrich (Ronneby), Ralf Klischewski (Hamburg), Olav Berthelsen (5rhus), Victor Kaptelinin (Ume5), Helena Karasti (Oulu), Jakob N8rbjerg (Copenhagen), Jesper Simonsen (Roskilde), Chris Westrup (Manchester), and Volker Wulf (Bonn).

After the opening on Sunday evening the course of the seminar followed the suggested themes of the day: "Making software4, "Social Thinking4, "Software as Social Change4, and Industrializing Software Development4. During the conference all participants played an active role, e.g. leading a working group, giving an introductory lecture or taking a part in discussion. Debate was enabled in plenary sessions as well as in small working groups from which the results of the discussions were presented orally and/or on wall paper. Friday morning was reserved for summing up and discussing further projects of co-operation.

All participants were expected to submit a position paper related to the seminars theme. Prior to the seminar, these papers had been presented on a web site accessible only by participants. Authors had the chance to submit a revised version of their position paper to be included in this report. Following the seminar a book will be published, and all participants have been invited to submit a chapter based on their position paper.

Christiane Floyd, Yvonne Dittrich, Ralf Klischewski

December 1999


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