Coordination: challenge of the nineties
Multimedia as a coordination technology

By Per M Schiefloe and Tor G Syvertsen

Towards a new  economic order
The organisational challenge
Effectiveness by coordination
The new information technologies
Communication media

Towards a new economic order

The economy of the industrialised nations is changing, rapidly and dramatically. Obvious signs are problems in traditional industries, low growth rates, fiscal deficits and rising unemployment. Popular as well as political understanding often interprets this as a cyclic problem, expecting that the reappearance of prosperity and new jobs is just a question of time. An alternative and more firmly grounded hypotheses is that we are witnessing signs of a dramatic shift in the fundamental structure of the economy of the modern world.

Ever since the transformation from agrarian to industrialised societies, growth and competitiveness have been based on increased consumption of natural resources, energy and labour, accompanied by a continuous flow of innovations and improved production technology. This is no longer so. Even if the innovation rate is higher than ever, the situation is characterised by reduced demand for traditional products, falling prices for many natural resources, global over-capacity and decreasing number of employees in the sectors of industry which laid the foundation for prosperity throughout most of the century. In the evolving global marketplace both specialising and competition is increasing.

What is evolving today is what we, somewhat incorrectly, may call a post-industrial society. The term is incorrect, insofar as industrial production still will be the backbone of most national economies. It is at the same time correct, taking into consideration two important facts. The first is that the industrial employment and the percentage of GNP based on material products are decreasing. The second is that the basic strategic commodity no longer is natural resources or low-skilled labour, but knowledge (Schwartz).

Evidence of this transition is easily observable. Industrial production is changing, from being labour-intensive to being knowledge-intensive. An illustrative example is that in a car, 40% of the cost is determined by materials and 25% by labour. In a silicon chip, less than 1% of the cost depends on materials and no more than 10% on labour, in the sense handling of material products. The rest is knowledge, materialised as the processing of information and labelled research, development, design, production planning, organising, marketing and communication.

The organisational challenge

Like it or not, the years ahead will be an era of change and competition.

When markets shift, technologies proliferate, competitors multiply, and products become obsolete almost overnight, successful companies are those that constantly create new knowledge, disseminate it throughout the organisation and quickly embody it, either in new products, modifications in existing products or improvements in production processes.

Performance and competitiveness depend on creativity and efficiency. Two elements seem to be decisive to obtain this.

The first is the ability to make innovative use of information technology. The second is an understanding of the tasks to be performed and the organisation which is to perform them. Combined, this makes possible the development and implementation of a technology that supports the 'three C's': Communication, Cooperation, and Coordination.

Organisations can be approached from different theoretical and analytical viewpoints. In order to grasp both complexity and interdependencies, it may be useful to picture a specific organisation as an open system, consisting of a few basic elements. At the same time it is important to keep in mind that this system is also an arena for action and for the pursuit of individual as well as collective goals.

Actors operating on this arena behave within the constraints of a set of intellectual frames, which may be phrased as cognitive structures.

Rebuilding and expanding Leavitt we can illustrate the main analytical elements of the organisation as in Figure 1.

A narrow definition of actors includes only those who are working in the organisation. A somewhat broader definition also includes others who have direct interests in the organisation and are in a position where they can exert direct influence, e.g. owners, local authorities and union officials.

Actors invest time, money, effort or prestige in the organisation in order to obtain some kinds of rewards. Rewards may be of different kinds; economical, psychological, political or ideological. The outcome of efforts may be observed as money or other material goods, power, reputation or as the fulfilment of more subtle psychological needs.

The interests of the different actors may be coherent as well as conflicting, actors may cooperate, compete or engage in internal struggles. They can operate as individuals, but are also prone to form alliances. Some organisations are harmonious and peaceful, whereas others only can be understood when considered as political arenas.

The technology is the purposeful application of machinery and equipment used for handling material products and information in order to produce the necessary goods and services, both for delivery to the external market and for internal consumption.

Parts of the structure may be mapped in an organisational chart, which depicts formal hierarchy and division of labour. Other parts consist of formal role definitions, rules and working procedures. Organisational structures may be more or less bureaucratic.

It is a well-known fact that the formal structure of an organisation is as a rule accompanied by informal structures, being manifested as informal groups and social networks. Diverse kinds of such informal arrangements may split or unite parts of the organisation and they may criss-cross and penetrate formal boundaries.

Informal structures play an important role in, among others, communication, decision-making, development and maintenance of culture, socialisation, rule enforcement and social control. In a system-oriented approach to organisations, the informal structure is often said to be part of the organisation's social system.

The tasks are the jobs to be done in order to produce goods or services for external markets or for internal consumption. Tasks may be decomposed into sub-tasks.

External forces represent direct and indirect influences on the organisation, exerted by customers, suppliers, competitors, public authorities, unions, to name the most important. In the analysis of organisation this perspective is taken into account by treating organisations as open systems.

Cognitive structures are a common denominator for ways of thinking, for the accepted knowledge and beliefs, values, norms, language, myths and other elements usually summed up under the heading organisational culture.

The scientific understanding of organisation is necessarily built upon all these basic elements, the importance of which, however, may vary.

Effectiveness by coordination

There is widespread agreement among professional observers of business that successful performance in the fundamental arenas of the nineties requires flexibility and organic approaches, and that there is little room for rigid bureaucracy.

The effective organisations make optimal use of its human and material resources in a time- and cost-effective manner, where people work together to achieve goals. Success, and survival, also depends on the organisation's ability to develop itself, partly through innovation, partly through learning, by taking care of knowledge created and experiences made.

Working together, combining knowledge and transfer of experiences requires coordination. Following (Malone & Crowston 1992) we can define this broadly as 'the act of working together'.

If we look more closely into the concept, we can identify the components of coordination; goals, actors, and activities.

The goals are something to be achieved. In economical and technical reasoning organisational goals are usually taken for granted. Empirical studies have demonstrated that this assumption more often than not is a dubious one. Formulation and selection of goals is regularly a question of internal struggles, contesting interests and different perceptions of reality.

The activities are the actions necessary to perform the different sub-tasks of the goal. The actors are the participants, within as well as outside of the organisation, whose efforts have to be combined.

Actors and activities are linked by interdependencies. A more narrow definition based on this decomposition may be:

Coordination is the act of managing interdependencies between activities. (ibid.)

Compared to the traditional view, focus has been shifted from the components to the relationships between them, see Figure 2. This represents a more fundamental change than may be apparent at a first glance; the dynamics of a system are determined by the relationships between the components of the system, not by the components themselves.

Coordination within an organisational system can, broadly speaking, be obtained in three different ways.

Coordination by market is the most decentralised form, based on the assumption that coordination will be an automatic outcome, produced by the pursuit of individual actors' self-interest. Borrowing a term from microeconomics we may speak of coordination by the invisible guiding hand.

The establishment of internal markets represents a new development in intra-organisational coordination. By introducing consumer sovereignty and a price system, the aim is better mutual adjustments and thereby more cost-effective use of the organisation's resources.

The traditional form for coordination is through hierarchy, i.e. by means of bureaucracy and overt control mechanisms. Such bureaucratic operation involves the breaking down of complex tasks in a number of sub-tasks, which are distributed to different actors by a set of rules, governing responsibilities and content of work.

Dealing with complicated tasks under complex or changing conditions demands flexibility. Necessary coordination in such cases are mostly obtained through informal mechanisms. The decisive elements are personal relations, based upon trust and knowledge and expressed through open or hidden social networks. Such informal social systems often play an important and sometimes crucial role in the coordination of complex organisational activities.

For all these mechanisms coordination technologies may be a relevant topic.

The new information technologies

The basic principles of coordination are not new, but their relative importance are changing according to the shifts in economy, markets, technology and culture.

A major transition in the information and communication technologies is appearing just now, which will have a profound effect on coordination and thereby organisation of work. The following sections will address the characteristics of the novel technology, some implications for the organisations, and the location of multimedia as a part of the whole picture.

Back in the late seventies, the Japanese electronics corporation NEC developed a strategy for what they call C&C technology, where C&C denotes Computers and Communications. At that time only a few visionaries could point out the direction so clearly as NEC did, but today the trends of development have become evident to most of us, and we see a merging of computing, telecommunications, publishing, and broadcasting into a new, global digital medium for information and communication. A comprehensive presentation of the technology and some of it's implications is found in Scientific American, September 1991.

Computing has, during the past three decades, evolved from specialised calculating devices used by a few experts, into general information tools used by everyone. Computers and software enhance our individual capabilities in performing daily work like writing, drawing, calculating, filing, and so on. Word processors, spreadsheets, computer aided design tools, databases, etc. have been made easily available by personal computers and graphical user interfaces. This technology has already entailed profound changes in the organisation of work; tasks that previously were handled by assistants like draftsmen, clerks or typewriters are now performed by the professionals themselves (e.g. engineers) as an integrated part of the information process.

Until now, the computer has been used either to automate routine work, or to enhance the capabilities of individual knowledge workers like writers, engineers, scientists. The new paradigm of computing, based on networking, will enable an organisation to augment its capabilities and performance in a similar way. Some of the basic characteristics of the new paradigm are as follows:

The prevailing paradigm of computing has for some years been based on large, centralised computers for corporate tasks like accounting, and small, disconnected computers for individual tasks like word processing or drafting. The next paradigm is based on many computers, people and other resources effectively connected in a network enabling groups of persons to augment their cooperative efforts.

Electronic mail and various conferencing systems are in common use within the research community and at alert corporations. New functionality is constantly added, like decision support, and multimedia communication to support the sharing and cultivation of tacit knowledge.

Many people consider information technology as a novelty, invented after the second World War. In fact, digital computers is basically a new generation of information technology. The powers and capabilities of this technology exceeds the previous ones by orders of magnitude, but the basic purposes remain the same: information and communication. In fact, any information is produced for the purpose of communication, in time (storage) or space (between humans, or computers).

The oldest known information technology has been found in the remnants of the ancient town of Uruk between the rivers of Eufrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). Uruk was one of the first permanent settlements we have any knowledge about, and the archaeologists have uncovered some small clayboards with engraved signs and symbols. The clayboards dates back to the Sumerians (about 3000 BC), and this primitive information technology was probably a significant factor when human development suddenly took a new direction.

The apparently trifling clayboards revealed the invention of cuneiform writing, a technique for symbolic representation of abstract ideas, like numbers. This represents a major leap in human development.

Far older depictions exist, like cave paintings dating back 30000 years, or the stone carvings like the ones that are used to symbolise the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, but these are mainly pictures of concrete, physical objects like animals and hunters.

This primitive information technology enabled the exchange of ideas between individuals without being in the same place at the same time. People in distant places and future generations could learn from the progress and failures of others, and share their insight and skills. Those who were able to reason could collect facts from everyday life, and extract those parts that were prominent and could contribute wisdom. This simple technology must have been of profound importance for the advancements of the civilisations in Mesopotamia, by the Nile, in India and China, and in Central America.

The next invention in information technology was perhaps papyrus, and this technology was used in more refined forms for centuries, until Johann Gutenberg developed his famous printing technique based on moulded character types of metal. Before, books had been printed from woodcuts of complete pages, or neatly copied by hand. The new technique enabled large-scale production, and hence cheaper distribution of books.

In the beginning, the new printing method was used to reproduce older, religious writings. Not only the content, but also the style was imitated. Gutenberg's famous 42-lined bible from 1455 is probably the best example of incunabulas, as these early printed books are called. The monastery typography with intricate characters was, however, not very well suited for the new printing technique. The more interesting applications of Gutenberg's technique did not occur until people liberated the printing from the constraints posed by the religious substance, the hand-written style, and the Latin language.

The Gutenberg art of printing was a crucial factor for the revolutions during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; within religion, philosophy, science, and technology. The dissemination and discussion of new ideas, the advancements of science and technology, and the accumulation of knowledge and experiences, were deeply dependent on the printed book.

Diderot and D'Alemberts Encyclopaedia, compiled in 28 volumes in the period 1751-72 is the most eminent example of the impact that the printed book had on the available knowledge in the western world. What followed was a fundamental change of man's conception of himself and the world - the individual man with a free will was born - and soon came the industrial revolution. One can speculate why the industrial revolution did not arise in China which in many respects possessed favourable conditions compared to Europe - our guess is that the Gutenberg printing technique could only be efficient with the alphabet, with a small number of basic characters that can be combined into any number of meaningful words and sentences. The Chinese character set would be too numerous for efficient moulding and typesetting, just because each character conveys a lot of information.

Communication media

The vehicle for any coordination is communication, and the characteristics and quality of communication is determined by the medium, hence the technological structure of information is mainly a matter of media. Digital media facilitates the management of information stored in digital form, where the basic elements are the bit and the pointer. (It is remarkable that any kind of information structure can be built from these two simplest elements one can imagine).

Digital media can be classified in three categories according to the primary purpose or properties:

In a historical perspective, the three categories of media have been inseparable, and perhaps more important, the information has traditionally been an integral part of the medium. With the emergence of the computer as a medium, it is for the first time possible to separate the information itself from the presentation of it. Access and display is performed by different mechanisms, and the same information can be used in many different ways. This principle is illustrated in Figure 3. A simple example is a text that can be displayed as characters on a screen (or paper), but the same text can also be (dis-)played as speech by a synthetic voice generator.

The tremendous potential of this separation have not yet been realised, because digital information systems to a large extent have been imitations of the manual information processes based on paper as information medium (similar to the medieval incunabulas). In the first software systems for newspaper typesetting, the lines appeared from the bottom end of the monitor, probably because this resembled the sequence of typesetting with letter cases. Another example is software systems for library services, which usually have imitated catalogue cards on the screen.

In the new framework of digital information as depicted in Figure 3, paper is regarded as a presentation medium, being static and separated from the stored information structures.

A medium is used to communicate information between different systems (people or computers) holding different models, and the new medium is characterised by the flexibility, dynamics and responsivity towards the user of the medium. The medium is a carrier of symbols between the sender and receiver in a communication process, where effective communication requires a common understanding of the syntax and semantics of the notion. Symbols are always interpreted within a cultural framework, and body language demonstrates how sharp communication can be at the informal level, whereas the very formal communication via a database may be very fuzzy because the context is not shared between the sender and the receiver.

In a historical perspective the symbolism has been developed to match the medium:

When looking at the recent developments in computer graphics and virtual reality technologies, exciting opportunities for the creation of new languages based on powerful, dynamic symbolism will be available in the near future.

In the context of coordination, we suggest to regard the networked, multimedia computer as a medium for communication, not as multiple media (multimedia).

The new medium is distinguished by the properties of being responsive, dynamic, and flexible, and it may be used to simulate or replace other kinds of communication (like telephone or television), but it can also be used in innovative ways that utilises the characteristics of the medium.

The success of the Apple Macintosh computer has been attributed to the graphical user interface which facilitates direct manipulation of objects on the screen. While this kind of interface was instrumental for implementation, the more important part was the desktop metaphor, that is the underlying conceptual model of a virtual desktop.

As the personal computer has provided a virtual desktop, the computer networks will enable a similar concept of the virtual organisation where the computer screen and other access devices provide windows into a virtual space of information, actors, and activities.

Until now, this incredible new medium has mainly been used to imitate paper based documents like passive drawings, specifications and descriptions. These are two-dimensional projections matching the capabilities of paper as a medium, and on a communication principle where the sender determines the information needs of the receiver. Both these principles are absurd when considering the immense capabilities of the new medium for representation and conveyance of information and knowledge.

Drexler is speaking about the new medium as 'magic paper' (Drexler 1990), which is in essence the Memex, proposed by Vannevar Bush in his famous article As We May Think that appeared in the journal Atlantic Monthly in August 1945. In retrospect, this apparently modest article should be regarded as a cornerstone in the building of modern information technology. Memex is an abbreviation for 'Memory Expander', a vision of the computer as a mechanism (or medium) for augmentation of the capabilities of the human mind. A few years later, this article triggered the marvellous works of Douglas Engelbart. Ted Nelson coined the word hypertext in the early sixties, grown from the seeds of Vannevar Bush.

Hypertext is a non-linear text (or information) structure, where information elements are linked in a multi-dimensional network. Hypertext is an information structure, while multimedia is a blended presentation (or display) format for this information. Hypermedia is the combination of hypertext structures and multimedia displays. The main purpose of hypertext is to build semantic information structures, while multimedia mainly apply to the presentation mechanisms, refer to Figure 3. The importance of structure as a major semantic mechanism is emphasised by a definition of meaning:

Coordination processes

The act of coordination may be described in terms of successively deeper levels of processes, each of which depends on the level below it. Table 1 is taken from (Malone and Crowston 1990), who have identified four process levels with different characteristics, and increasing complexity from bottom up.

According to this scheme, we see that the structuring of information becomes crucial to the bottom layer, and to the language definition part of the layer above. Multimedia communication, like desktop videoconferencing, may in particular apply to the group decision making layer, where the potential may be substantial for geographically dispersed groups, and large teams working together over long periods of time in continuos decision-making processes like engineering design of complex technical systems. In such situations it is also required to operate on a shared, digital model of the physical system, with common, global views (or windows) for communication, negotiation, etc.

The communication layer may be expanded to the three-layer scheme found in Table 2.

To get an understanding of the differences between the various levels of communication, consider the numbers 1.82, 22144819511, and the character string 'John Smith'. These are three data items, and they provide no information at all (one may try a qualified guess that 'John Smith' is the name of a man, but replace it with 'Llongsangelhagb Ashnam' and it is easy to realise that the information is not a part of the data item, but reside in our cultural minds). If we add a relationship by saying that 1.82 is a length measured in meters, some information is provided, but still very little, just a reference to the SI system of units. 1.82 meters may be the height of a person named 'John Smith', or perhaps his personal record in high-jumping. The number 22144819511 may be a social security number, a telephone number, a bank account, or whatever. There is nothing in the data items that can tell the information, because the information content is determined by the relationships between the data items, and by references to the external world (like the system of units).

The relationships between data items are usually not provided with the data, so we need some kind of interpreter in order to understand them. Most interpreters are social and a part of our culture, and we are not used to think about them as such. A telephone dictionary is for example an interpreter that relates the names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Exchange of information between a sender and a receiver is usually based upon the assumption that both parties have compatible interpreters, otherwise misunderstandings may occur. This kind of information exchange is typical between different computer programs, where the definition of the data structures reside in the programs, and are not part of the data that are transferred between them. In this case only predefined information structures can be exchanged, and any new structures require modifications to be made to both programs before data transfer can take place.

At the upper level of communication, intended for sharing of knowledge, the definition of the information objects, the various relationships between them, and references to the context should be added. These kinds of mechanisms could allow the information to be explored, and understood even if the structures are not predefined. It is, however, necessary to build any new structures in terms of existing ones, by combination, specialisation or abstraction.

The area of knowledge representation has been explored for decades by researchers in so-called 'Artificial Intelligence', and a number of approaches and techniques are available. The paradigm of object-oriented modelling seems to become the merger of several programming techniques, and multimedia information types like speech and video provide possibilities to add informal communication which may speed up the process of human interpretation and understanding of the meaning embedded in the information.

Coordination and group decision-making in complex processes like engineering design require a common understanding of information structures with multiple views, for instance various engineering disciplines (process, instrumentation, electrical, etc.), or different levels of aggregation (e.g. levels in an organisation).

Breakdown of a communication process may be caused by several reasons, like terminology, concepts, references, context and noise. The basic elements of understanding may be illustrated in a simplified, schematic view by Ogden's triangle as shown in Figure 4.

The concept is the abstract idea created in one's mind (or maybe in a computer system). Concepts are usually abstract categories that are represented by certain patterns in the brain (or electronic states in a computer), and are most likely to be a combination of function and structure (Minsky). For example a stool and a table may have the same structure, but the functions are different, and thereby the concepts are related, but different.

A concept is communicated by a term, like 'stool' or 'table'. There may be several terms denoting variants of the same concept, like 'office chair' or 'rocking chair'. A term may comprise combination of words, or completely different sets of symbols like traffic signs, icons, or ritual expressions. The appearance of a term is based on a medium to carry the term, and a notation which is the encoding. A word may be spoken or typed, representing the same term in sound waves and printed characters, respectively.

The third vertex of Ogden's triangle is the reference, which provides the cultural and contextual frame for interpretation of the term and thereby understand the meaning by creating the intended concept.

Misunderstanding occurs frequently because the same term is used for different concepts (e g the term 'structure' has different meanings in structural engineering and in computer science), or when the frame of reference is different.

Figure 5 illustrates how the term 'oil rig' may be interpreted differently in the North Sea and in Oklahoma.

Communication and coordination problems frequently occur because the sender and receiver side have incompatible Ogden's triangles. The terms may be well understood in a technical manner, but the concepts and the references may be quite different.

Multimedia communication may relieve some of the problems in communication over distance or time, because the high bandwidth allows conceptual and referential frames to be captured and transmitted as supplementary information elements that the receiver can explore. In a synchronous communication mode, the receiver can simply ask for explanations of terms that are not comprehended.


Whereas coordination represents a major organisational challenge, new technologies for communication and information handling represents a hitherto mostly untapped potential for approaching this. Their orders of magnitude are probably more powerful than any previous organisational technology. Their impact on organisations may correspond to this. Introduction of new coordination-effective technologies will lead to new coordination-intensive structures, giving little room for traditional ways of working and administering. Changes may be painful, for many organisations so painful that they have small possibilities for survival. In such profound processes of change, the introduction of technology alone will not be sufficient. What is needed is an adaptation of technology to organisation, and vice versa, as Michael Schrage has pointed out:

A major challenge is to combine the introduction and application of these technologies with an insightful redesign of the organisations around their core values and their critical information.

Efficient communication and coordination is not a matter of technology or geography, but of values, attitude and behaviour. Poor communication capabilities can never be overcome by adding more technology.

The skilful use of multimedia communication is not a straightforward undertaking, but requires a combination of competences not unlike what is found in a film team. Very few individuals or organisations possess these competences today, and new educational schemes need to be developed in order to meet the needs of the rather near future.


Coordination is the management of interdependencies between actors, activities and resources in an enterprise. The number of actors, their properties, and the number and type of relationships between them may vary.

The performance of coordination depends on several factors:

In PAKT we realise that these elements can not be understood independent of each other, and that coordination in the real world can only be understood by considering the elements as mutually dependent. An implication is that a scientific approach with the objective of creating generic knowledge of coordination assume a multi-disciplinary competence from information technology to social science, and including engineering skills in bringing the knowledge into operations for changing the world.


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