A computer-based human communication system should be designed for people's use, in response to their perceived needs and communications styles; no single system can meet the needs of all groups and individuals. It might seem that a general electronic mail or computerized conferencing system with a standard set of features should be able to meet most communications needs, in much the same way that the telephone system meets the needs of a wide range of users. However, there are many communications structures found in everyday life, ranging from one-to-many news broadcasts, to the many-to-many patterns of town meetings, from the unstructured and informal gatherings at the local pub, to highly structured meetings using Robert's Rules of Order. Each of these is an example of a specific communications structure appropriate in some circumstances and quite inappropriate in others.
Within a flexible computerized conferencing system such as the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES), it is possible to tailor the features of the system to the needs of the users, rather than forcing them to adapt their communications behaviors to the system and its limitations. Current concepts and structures such as electronic mail and conferencing will be supplemented in the next decade by an ever-increasing array of specially designed structures to meet specific needs. Hiltz and Turoff (1978) discuss some of the promises and potentials for how human communication via computer will transform the ways we work, play, learn, and govern ourselves. They also discuss in some detail a variety of communications structures designed for group problem-solving and decision-making.
The major question addressed here is how these communications structures evolve. How are they initiated? Where do they lead? What forces govern their evolution? For a structure to be effective, it must meet the needs of the group using it. However, the perceived needs of a group may (and probably will) change over time. This means that as a group's needs change, either as it learns more about the medium or as its situation changes, the communications structure must EVOLVE to match those needs. Thus, the process of designing and implementing a communications structure becomes an ongoing process. Since it is generally recognized that the microelectronics and telecommunications "wave" of change we are now beginning to experience (Toffler, 1980) will transform the very fabric of our society, and since the communications procedures and structures we use in this electronic medium are going to evolve very rapidly in the next two decades, an understanding of the process of this evolution seems critical for our successful transition to a post-industrial, communications-era society.
A model of the ongoing process or design of these structures is introduced in Johnson-Lenz (1980c). Included there is the concept or GROUPWARE—the integrated, systemic whole made up of a group's processes and procedures, PLUS software to support those processes and procedures. Most specific software structures can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the characteristics of the group and its perceived needs for process. Thus, the system which evolves is not only the computer software but also the process and procedures followed by the group to achieve its purposes, with or without software support; hence the term GROUPWARE.
This paper traces the evolution or a particular communications structure, the TOPICS system, as well as the evolution of several groups using that system, each with its own unique and evolving groupware supported by the TOPICS software, and each contributing its own unique set or needs to the evolution or the software. The TOPICS system, resident on EIES, was designed and developed by the authors, in collaboration with the groups using it.
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Computerized Conferencing & Communications Center; Johnson-Lenz, Peter; and Johnson-Lenz, Trudy, "The evolution of a tailored communications structure : the topics system" (1981). Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center Reports. 14.