Meetings of the Board: The Impact of Scheduling Medium on Long Term Group Coordination in Software Development
Despite a wealth of electronic group tools for coordinating the software development process, instead we find technologically adept groups preferring to use what seem to be outmoded “material” tools in critical projects. The current ethnographic study investigates this apparent paradox. We begin by building up a detailed picture of the overall software development process and identify critical general problems in achieving coordination. Coordination problems arise in software development not only because of the complex dependencies that hold among the work of different individuals, but also for social and motivational reasons. We identify the central role of the schedule as a coordination device, but find that its value can be undermined because the schedule is often neither accurate, current nor credible. As a result, the schedule is not used as a resource for individual or group planning. We then compare coordination in two development groups, one using electronic and the other material scheduling tools. We found that the medium of the schedule has a major impact on coordination problems. The size, public location and physical qualities of material tools engender certain crucial group processes that current electronic technologies fail to support. A large wallboard located in a public area encouraged greater responsibility, commitment and updating and its material properties served to encourage more reflective planning. As a result the wallboard schedule was both accurate and current. Furthermore, the public nature of the wallboard promoted group interaction around the board, it enabled collaborative problem solving, as well as informing individuals about the local and global progress of the project. Despite these benefits, however, the material tool fell short on several other dimensions such as distribution, complex dependency tracking, and versioning. We make design recommendations about how the benefits of material tools could be incorporated into electronic groupware systems and discuss the theoretical implications of this work.