Posted by Rob Knies

Jonathan Grudin 

The annual Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conference focuses on technologies that affect groups, organizations, communities, and networks. When the folks behind the conference decided it was time to begin to honor influential papers in the field, it made sense to turn to individuals who have had a significant organizational effect.

After careful deliberation, then, it was only fitting that they turned to Jonathan Grudin of Microsoft Research.

In a release posted last week on the website of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Grudin was named winner of the CSCW’s first Lasting Impact Award.

The accolade, to be presented in Baltimore in February during the 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing—as the event was renamed before the 2013 gathering—recognizes the ongoing relevance of his paper Why CSCW Applications Fail: Problems in the Design and Evaluation of Organizational Interfaces, which appeared in the Proceedings of the 1988 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work.

Grudin, now a principal researcher for Microsoft Research, wrote the paper based on experiences he had while working at Wang Laboratories. It was published while he was with MCC, the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Consortium, based in Austin, Texas.

“In 1988, I was a software engineer at a company successful for its individual productivity tools,” Grudin recalls. “I was assigned a new focus, software to support groups. After a few failures in the marketplace, I wanted to understand why ‘groupware’ design was so difficult. I quit my job, analyzed our experiences, and drafted the paper before starting my next job.”

The ACM website took particular care to explain the significance of Grudin’s paper.

“This influential paper challenged why CSCW systems that seemed otherwise well-poised to succeed actually failed due to a variety of primarily organizational concerns,” the ACM announcement stated. “Grudin’s reasons for failure were generally applied to others to reconsider other system successes and failures. The concepts introduced in his article are still routinely invoked, both to explain system failure and to motivate organizationally oriented design.

“His work laid the framework for broad conceptual analysis of social systems from a perspective that was unusual at the time and that still needs to be communicated to new audiences of students and practitioners today.”

Of course, it hardly occurred to Grudin at the time that the nine-page paper he had written would continue to resonate a quarter-century later.

“I didn’t expect the paper’s impact to be lasting,” he says today. “I thought once we understood the problems, we should solve them and move on. But some of the challenges proved difficult to anticipate and address.”

The scope of the challenges Grudin identified will be underscored during CSCW 2014, scheduled for Feb. 15-19. His Lasting Impact Award will be presented by computer scientist Irene Greif, the founder of the field of CSCW. In 1975, she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the award ceremony, Grudin, an ACM Fellow and a member of the CHI Academy, will discuss the origins of the paper. Tom Finholt, professor and senior associated dean for faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, will outline what the data show about the impact of Grudin’s paper.

In addition, a panel discussion will look at today’s trends and technologies through the prism of the costs and the benefits they entail.

The Lasting Impact Award is to be awarded annually during CSCW to recognize a paper published at CSCW at least 10 years prior that has been extremely influential since its publication. The inaugural award was determined by a Lasting Impact Award Committee, consisting of 10 CSCW papers chairs, including Meredith Ringel Morris, Grudin’s Microsoft Research colleague.

The ACM statement indicates that the bar has been set high.

“This paper epitomizes the goals of CSCW,” it reads, “surfacing hidden social dynamics, revealing their impact, and, ultimately, turning those insights into design principles for new systems.”

Grudin appreciates that the award is being presented for “this unusual paper.”

“The research paper began with no hypothesis, no theory, and no research-literature study,” he says. “It ended with no statistics or system design. It was an analysis to help designers and developers avoid beating their heads against the same real-world wall that I had.”