Irene Greif: Pioneer in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work

Last Updated: November 11, 2019 4:13 pm
Irene Greif: Pioneer in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work

Irene Greif: Pioneer in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work

Have you ever collaborated on a group project at work or school? Maybe you’ve used tools like Google Docs to share text or Skype to hold a conference call. 

In various ways, your interactions with colleagues or classmates have likely been mediated by technology. If you work remotely, you’ve probably relied on those tools to communicate with people around the world in real time or even with coworkers in the next cubicle.

But before we could communicate across time zones and conflicting work schedules, people like Irene Greif had to analyze human behavior and create computer systems that could make our collaborative work more efficient. A pioneer in this field, Greif coined the term “computer-supported cooperative work.” So, we have people like her to thank for the software that eventually evolved into the online collaborative tools we use today!

An Early Love of Numbers

Raised in New York, Greif was good at math from a young age. Her mother, an accountant, would often give her strings of numbers to add up, which Irene enjoyed doing. Her mother also encouraged Greif to get her teaching credential, so that she could be independent and have a steady job. She attended Hunter, an all-girls school for gifted students. There, through a partnership Hunter had with a nearby college, Greif had access to an IBM 1401 computer, where she learned how to use punch cards and program in zeroes and ones. Her interest in math complemented the emerging field of computer science: “Programming had a lot of that feeling of being systematic, and at least in the early days, a lot of that kind of playing with numbers feeling.”

Studying at MIT

After high school, Greif chose to attend MIT, which in the late 1960s and early ’70s was primarily attended by men: She was one of only 50 women in a class of 1,000. In those days, computer science was still an emerging field, as Greif noted in an interview: “I started college before there were really computer science majors. So, I majored in math but kept dabbling in computers. By the time I was in graduate school I was a computer science student.” She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at MIT and in 1975 became the first woman to receive a PhD in computer science from MIT.

A Professor and a Researcher

With her doctorate degree, Greif decided to become a professor, teaching at the University of Washington before returning to MIT. However, she soon realized that she enjoyed research more than teaching and shifted her roles. Although she worked at MIT for 10 years, only a few of those were as a professor; the rest were as a research scientist. Later, she joined Lotus Development Corporation, a company that contributed to advances in office-work related computer interfaces. Its products included Lotus Notes, a brand of groupware, and its 1-2-3 spreadsheet application; “the first feature-heavy, user-friendly, reliable and WYSIWYG-enabled product to become widely available in the early days of the IBM PC, when there was no graphical user interface.” She also directed the Product Design Group at Lotus until IBM acquired the company, and she became an IBM Fellow and the director of collaborative user experience. 

While doing research, Greif started to discover correlations between human collaborative behaviors and computer-related activities: “The issues of distributed computing were interesting to me technically, but I started to see parallels between the ways that people were kind of coordinating different copies of databases and the ways that people would do coordination problems in the world, like the way people would coordinate calendars.” Eventually, Greif began to see that much of what humans did collaboratively could be codified to the point where computer systems would be able to enhance those activities.

What was needed was a new field of study where human behavior could be analyzed and supported by computer systems: “I was never trained as a social scientist, but I found that there were people who had questions in common and we were able to build a research field that was at the intersection of sociology, anthropology and computer science.”

At a 1984 conference in Massachusetts, Greif first presented the term to describe her field of study as Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, or CSCW. Spearheading this field, Greif feels great pride: “Computer-supported cooperative work is a field that didn’t exist before. So, it’s a sub-specialty in computer science. But it is the field I created. So that’s the main accomplishment of my life.”

Challenges in Developing CSCW Systems

Unfortunately, designing systems to support group work wasn’t always straightforward. Greif noted that when people were asked what the procedure was for distributing information within the company, they would describe a particular system. But when observed, they rarely followed that procedure, needing instead to troubleshoot or talk about how to accomplish other tasks. When computer systems were built to supplant those procedures, there were problems, because the procedure (and therefore the computer system) didn’t take into account those extra tasks.

Greif also met resistance from colleagues. While at Lotus, Greif worked on Lotus Notes and wanted to add additional features for users. Early on, she recognized the power of a real-time chat system in the workplace, something like Gmail’s Instant Messenger. But not everyone saw this as a useful feature: “We knew synchronous communication would be a very important facilitator of work, a complement to Notes. But every time we would try to show anything like a chat in the company, it would look like games, like AOL chat for teenagers, and it would be made fun of.” Despite these challenges, Greif persisted in her work.

Today, we take for granted the fact that we can send an email to a group of co-workers to arrange a meeting, share a spreadsheet to gather information, or use an online signature tool to sign forms. Before these systems were in place, people would often distribute information around a company manually, for example, by walking around an office with a form for people to sign. Greif’s research aimed to build systems that made these tasks more efficient. Her ideas laid the groundwork for much of the tools we use today to facilitate the work we do with other people.

By learning how to code with Tynker, kids can develop the skills they need to make the next big advancement in collaborative tools and design new ways to use technology! What will your kid create once they’ve learned to code?


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