Modeling Human Activity Systems for Collaborative Project Work: An IS Development Perspective

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the emerging knowledge economy (OECD, 1996), as the possibilities of the information revolution challenge our ongoing efforts in information systems (IS) design, as witnessed by the continuous shift of IS support from a principle of automation (Venkatraman, 1994) to the practice of informating (Zuboff, 1988) and knowledging (Savage, 1990), it is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of our computerized support by the sense of achievement we get from getting them to work. Indeed, many of today's information systems are difficult to learn and awkward to use; they often change our activities in ways that we do not need or want. The problem lies in the IS development (ISD) process (Lederer & Sethi, 1988; Vat, 2004c). Oftentimes, IS designers have to face convoluted networks of trade-off and inter-dependence, the need to coordinate and integrate the contributions of many kinds of experts, and the potential of unintended impacts on people and their social institutions. If project development for IS support is concerned with understanding, designing, evaluating and implementing interactive computer systems to match the needs of people, it is convinced (Vat, 2004b) that through maintaining a continuous focus on situations of and consequences for human work and activities, IS designers could become more informed of the problem domains, seeing usage situations from different perspectives, and managing trade-offs to reach usable and effective design outcomes. However, getting users' work right involves capturing and accommodating users' emergent (or subject-to-change) analytical activities, which are open-ended yet integrated and opportunistic yet coherent. IS developers must understand the intertwined regularities and idiosyncrasies of human activities and create software that support the right moves and degrees of agility at the right times and places and for specific purposes.

In this regard, the problem of designing IS support for knowledge work should never be thought of as something to be defined once and for all, and then implemented. Instead, it must be based on the observation that all real-world organizational problem situations contain people interested in trying to take purposeful action (Checkland, 1981, 1999). And the idea of a set of activities linked together so that the whole, as an entity called the human activity systems (HAS) from the viewpoint of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (Checkland & Holwell, 1998; Checkland & Scholes, 1999) could prove useful. In fact, as far as pursuing a purpose is concerned, a HAS model could be considered as a representative organizational scenario for exploring any situation-specific IS support, which is never fixed once and for all. In this paper, we are particularly interested in the IS design scenario for a group of people engaged in collaborative project work. Our discussion is elaborated in terms of a curriculum action research report relating our students' PBL (problem-based learning) course experience (Vat, 2000, 2001) to the IS design issues behind creating the necessary HAS models (Vat, 2005) to represent the various organizational dynamics of teamwork involvement (Vat, 2004f). Of particular interest here is a proposed actionable ISD framework, in which SSM is integrated as the essential strategy of requirements elicitation and analysis.

Research Background

The teaching of Software Psychology, or more properly renamed as human-computer interactions (HCI) (Vat, 2000, 2001) in the undergraduate curriculum has always been a challenge as it is composed of such a mix of elements as human factors, user expectations, man-machine interfaces construction, cognitive psychology, computer science, and those latest developments on contextual design in interactive systems. In the case of the author's teaching experience, since 1998, the pedagogy adopted to deliver such a course has been shifted from a conventional instructivist approach to the constructivist method of problem-based learning (PBL) (Greening, 2000; Ryan, 1993). …