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The Portland Experience: a report on a distributed research group

International Journal of Man-Machine Studies
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/0020-7373(91)90042-6
  • Communication
  • Computer Science
  • Design


Abstract From 1985 for three years, the System Concepts Laboratory (SCL) of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center had employees in both Palo Alto, California, and Portland, Oregon. The Portland remote site was intended to be a forcing function for the lab to focus on issues of interpersonal computing in a geographically distributed organization. Interpersonal computing supports people communicating and working together through computers; it includes tools to support interaction separated by time and/or space as well as face-to-face interaction and meetings. A consultant to the laboratory took on the role of outside observer to provide insight into questions about the process of working in a distributed organization and about tools for supporting collaboration in a distributed organization. The primary collaborative work of the lab itself was design. The major tool that developed to support the cross-site environment was Media Space, a network of video, audio and computing technologies. With the Media Space, SCL members were able to make significant progress in supporting their distributed design process. The SCL experience adds to the existing knowledge of collaboration by focusing on intellectual effort where the primary resource is information. The activities of the lab depended on reciprocal interdependence of group members for information. Their work required them to be in touch with one another to share and coordinate information, yet lab members were often not together physically or temporally. The SCL work forced the boundaries of social place to extend beyond the boundaries of physical place.

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