by Thomas Kreifelts
The need for computer support in the management of distributed work is constantly increasing a fact illustrated, for example, by supraorganizational and international consortia which implement large-scale projects, or by governmental and parliamentary bodies which are distributed across various different locations and sites.The GMD Institute for Applied Information Technology has developed a computer tool for the support of asynchronous cooperation in geographically distributed teams, the Task Manager, with a specific focus on mobility, i.e. the system is operational on industry standard mobile system platforms and works under conditions of mobile use.
The cost for the development of systems which provide Computer-Support for Cooperative Work (CSCW) is notoriously high. Therefore, the ESPRIT III project EuroCODE ("CSCW Open Development Environment") set out to create an open, object-oriented development environment for distributed CSCW systems, the CSCW Shell. The Shell consists of toolkits in the form of class libraries, application frameworks, or services. The feasibility of the approach chosen is demonstrated by the development of various CSCW applications including video and desktop conferencing, hypermedia, workflow, and task management.
To specifically solve the problems of mobile task management, GMD developed two toolkits of the EuroCODE CSCW Shell: the activity coordination and mobile station support toolkits, both implemented in C++. The Task Manager has been developed as a demonstrator application based on these toolkits. It supports ad-hoc management of distributed work, particularly for teams that are widely dispersed over large distances and are working "on the move", i.e. at a customer's, at a construction site, or while travelling. In contrast to workflow systems, the Task Manager relies on end-user control, i.e. the team members themselves define and control the way in which the team cooperates.
With the help of the Task Manager, users may organize and manage cooperative activity, monitor its progress, share documents and exchange informal notes during task performance. The Task Manager distributes tasks, and the documents and notes attached thereto to the users involved in a consistent way. It is meant to support the management of work distributed in time and space ranging from project planning and management to drafting documents in a group.
The Task Manager is implemented as a distributed client/server system on a Windows/UNIX platform. The functional components include a document manager, an address book, and a notes manager on the client side, and wide-area task distribution, replication, and change notification services on the server side. Task Manager operation is independent of intermittent disconnection from the network; it features transparent connection over wireless communication lines, and user-controlled up and downloading of disk space consuming task documents to and from portable equipment. The Task Manager will be evaluated in a three month field test where it will be used in the supervision of a large-scale technical project.
Figure: The Task Manager Interface