Coordination Theory and Collaboration Technology

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Thomas Malone. Coordination Theory and Collaboration Technology (Erlbaum, 2001)

Bio from

Coordination Theory

“Thomas Malone: What I mean by coordination theory is that body of theory and principles that help explain the phenomena of coordination in whatever systems they arise. Now what do I mean by coordination? We define coordination as the management of dependencies among activities. Now how do we proceed on the path of developing coordination theory? The work we've done so far says that if coordination is the managing of dependencies among activities, a very useful next step is to say: what kinds of dependencies among activities are possible? We've identified three types of dependencies that we call atomic or elementary dependency types. Our hypothesis is that all the dependencies, all the relationships in the world, can be analyzed as either combinations of or more specialized types of these three elementary types. The three are: flow, sharing, and fit. Flow occurs whenever one activity produces some resource used by another activity. Sharing occurs when a single resource is used by multiple activities. And fit occurs when multiple activities collectively produce a single resource. So those are the three topological possibilities for how two activities and one resource can be arranged. And each of them has a clear analog in the world of business or any of the other kinds of systems we talked about.

Flow is probably the most obvious. It happens all over the place, and in some ways is the most elementary of all. Sharing also happens a lot whenever you've got one resource shared by multiple people or activities, whether that resource is a machine on a factory floor, a budget of money, or a room, or whatever needs to be used potentially by multiple activities. The least obvious is the last one called fit. A good example of where that occurs would be if you have engineers designing a car. One engineer is designing the engine, another engineer designing the body, and so forth. There's a dependency between the activities of those engineers that arises from the fact that all of the pieces have to fit together in the same car. So the idea is that, for each of these types of dependencies, there's a family of possible coordination processes that can be used to manage it. For instance, with a sharing dependency, one way of managing that is by first come, first served. Another way of managing that is by priorities: the [people with the] highest-priority activity get to use the resource as long as they need it, as long as there's no other higher-priority activity there. And for each of the other types of dependencies you can have a similar kind of family of coordination processes for managing them, some of which are centralized, some of which are decentralized."