Academic journal article Journal of Information, Information Technology, and Organizations

An Ethnographic Study of Conflict in Software Engineering Teams

Academic journal article Journal of Information, Information Technology, and Organizations

An Ethnographic Study of Conflict in Software Engineering Teams

Article excerpt


This paper describes an ethnographic study that involved observing seven software engineering (SE) teams. The teams were observed for the duration of their projects with the goal of gaining an insight into the conflict episodes that took place. The aim of this work was to examine whether or not certain forms of conflict are constructive or destructive in a cooperative SE team context.

SE is a team based activity; success is to a large extent dependent on how well team members interact and cooperate with one another over the duration of a particular project. Several scholars have argued that the social factors of SE are just as, if not more important than, the technical side of things (Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Curtis, 1991; Curtis et al., 1991; Neilsen, 1996). These arguments have led to the inclusion of group projects in many undergraduate and graduate level SE courses. The raison d'etre for giving these projects is to enable the students to gain experience in working as part of an SE team aiming to deliver a software solution. An aim is to encourage students to develop joint problem solving skills (Johnson, 1998).

Despite its obvious advantages, group work is not without its problems. A major issue to contend with during any group based activity is that of conflict. People are said to be in conflict when the actions of one person are interfering, obstructing, or in some other way making another's behavior less effective (Tjosvold, 1997).

Other researchers have looked at conflict specifically within SE teams (Curtis, Krasner, & Iscoe, 1988; Curtis, Walz, & Elam, 1993; Elam & Walz, 1988; Sawyer, 2001). The findings of these studies highlight that conflict and its management is a critical aspect of team-based SE. One study concluded by saying that how people work together is a stronger predictor of performance than the individual skills and abilities of team members (Sawyer, 2001). Conflict resolution is another important aspect to consider as failure to effectively resolve conflict will lead to feelings of anger and bitterness and damage team efforts (Curtis et al., 1993). If there are communication and coordination problems within teams, this serves to raise levels of conflict (Curtis et al., 1988). Ideally SE environments should not be conflict-free but conflict-managed environments (Elam & Walz, 1988). Conflict behavior was said to be a normal part of group interaction and was neither intrinsically good nor evil. Elam and Walz (1988) developed a descriptive conflict model (Table 1) which had four elements: time, people, content, and process.

The research described in this paper aims to build on these earlier studies. In particular it aims to build on the qualitative work of Elam and Walz (1988) by extending their descriptive model of conflict and focusing on conflict over a longer time period. This study also focused on specific forms of conflict and whether or not some forms can be beneficial. Therefore this work aims to examine the following research questions.

1) Are some forms of conflict more destructive than others in an SE team environment and;

2) Are certain issues more likely to lead to constructive or destructive conflict?

The remainder of the paper is laid out as follows: the next section describes the research environment; following on from this the conflict definitions used, then the methodological procedure, descriptions of the individual teams who were observed, an overview of the results, a discussion of the results and answers to research questions, the limitations and finally the paper is concluded and suggestions are made for future work.

The Research Environment and Subjects

The context for this study is the Software Engineering Observatory at the University of Sheffield. This is a research facility that is run by the Department of Computer Science's Verification and Testing (VT) research group. …

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