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May 26, 1994

GROUPWARE GROUPIES SHOW HOW COMPUTERS CAN BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER IN ?13m UK STUDY

By CBR Staff Writer

The UK Department of Trade & Industry staged a two-day conference and exhibition in London for the discussion of groupware and the progress of its CSCW Computer Supported Co-operative Work initiative, and to give those involved in the computer business an opportunity to see for themselves what the eight consortia that make up the CSCW programme have been developing over the six months since the project began. The 42 companies that make up the consortia have been faced with the challenge of developing new approaches to technology by combining computers, telecommunications and new attitudes to work practices while embracing all fields of new technologies such as virtual reality and mobile computing. The Business Flight Simulator consortium originally set out at the start of the year to bring together technologies that would aid organisational training and management education. The consortium, which is led by ACT Business Systems Ltd along with Bull Information Systems Ltd and City University Business School, began with an idea of examining the traditional problems of business meetings on the basis that a Victorian businessman would not feel out of place in a modern meeting. They looked at the way that war rooms were organised and run in the 1940s and found highly efficient systems that co-ordinated the war effort with the use of multimedia of the time – telegraph with simultaneous speech and text usage as well as three dimensional display models. The answer they came up with was a meeting system, called the electronic boardroom, in which each participant has a LAN in a suitcase or rather each has a portable personal computer hooked up to the other members of the meeting scattered around the world, so people are not tied to a fixed meeting location – some people maybe at head office connected via a local network, others on a wide area network and the rest mobile. Another aspect of the system is aimed at keeping the energy of the meeting going by circumventing the problem of only one person being able to put their idea across at a time.

By Abigail Waraker

On their personal computers, all participants type in their ideas simultaneously on a particular issue so that all ideas appear on the screen together, both saving time and giving equal weight to each person’s views, and thus getting around the problem of that one person that always thinks what he has to say is most important. The basis is that this rapid typing session then gives rise to discussion once all the key ideas have been consolidated on screen. The downside, however, as raised by one of the conference attendees, is that if you do manage to get a group of people together you don’t want to be spending too much time facing a computer screen. Another option is that one participant can have a document he wants to discuss displayed on the screens of all the participants and each person can indicate with their cursor which figure, for example, is the one they are talking about. This makes communicating much easier even if everyone is not physically present. During this project so far, there has been a shift away from the original target of the Flight Simulator as an aid to training and education towards more interest in using it to address these real business problems, in electronic meeting support or as a demonstration of how an organisation can get an advantage out of the integrated use of a variety of groupware products. The Sycomt consortium made up of Digital Equipment Corp, the University of Lancaster, National Westminster Bank Plc and cybernetics specialist Syncho Ltd is working on developing a system to support group work in retail banking in a project that originated about two years ago. Lancaster University and Syncho have carried out two studies into retail branch banking at NatWest using ethnographic cybernetic studies. The ethnographic study being one that looked at how people work in their working environment and the management cybernetics study observing ways in which organisational units within a business contribute to the business as a whole. The

aim is to help offer advice on how a company can be restructured without losing the hidden advantages that underlie the way the business is already set up. It is still in the process of making full conclusions from the studies, although DEC is also using the results towards aiding the design of its LinkWords groupware product. Other consortia in the project include Virtuosi – made up of British Telecommunications Plc, BICC Group Plc, GEC Plessey Telecommunications Ltd and Lancaster University – is using networked virtual reality to support co-operative work across disparate groups. And the Duck consortium headed by MARI Computer Systems Ltd is developing current technology to develop something along the lines of a multi-user emulation of a computer-aided designer’s log book. This stores a history of how a finished design was arrived at, so that the train of thought can be followed and that knowledge can be used in future design projects to help give a competitive edge. The Department of Trade & Industry Computer Supported Co-operative Work project is set to run for three years. The government is providing a total of ?5.7m in funds for the project, with a further ?7.3m being put up by the participating organisations.

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