Fairness in the division and completion of collaborative work

  • Ryan Kelly

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Fairness is an important concept that regulates many everyday transactions in human societies. While a large literature on the subject of fairness exists within the social sciences, the subject of fairness has not yet been explicitly addressed by researchers working in the area of computer- supported cooperative work (CSCW). One reason for this is that fairness may not seem especially critical for collaboration and, therefore, appears irrelevant to technological design. Yet perceptions about what is ‘fair’ often influence decisions concerning the assignment of tasks, the investment of effort, and the distribution of rewards during collaborative projects. Additionally, making accurate judgements about fairness can be difficult in computer-mediated settings where awareness of shared efforts is limited. This thesis investigates the relationship between fairness and division of labour in collaborative work. We adopt a mixed methods approach to explore the prevalence of fairness in initial, distributive allocations of workload, as well as how fairness comes into play during the enactment of collaborative tasks. Our first study finds that initial allocations of work are made on the basis of fairness, and that perceptions about fairness in division of labour are linked to overall satisfaction with group outcomes. We then introduce a novel model of workload assignment based on the classic ‘ultimatum game’, and explore our model in a series of empirical studies using collaborative search tasks. Our findings provide further evidence of fairness norms in the allocation of work. We also report an emergent matching effect in participants’ task completion times, which we take as further evidence of fairness in the enactment of collaborative workloads. We then report a qualitative study of collaborative search tool use in everyday tasks. This study draws attention to the importance of context in determining the extent to which people police fairness, and provides numerous implications for the design of collaborative search systems. Our final thesis study explores the potential for supporting fairness during CSCW. We suggest that designers should provide awareness about individual contributions and should allow individuals to assess fairness via social comparisons. We report a study of how groups in the online game World of Warcraft use awareness mechanisms to keep track of individual contributions to the collective effort. Our study implies the potential utility of contribution meters while also shedding light on potential side-effects. The thesis ends by considering the implication of our results for current understandings of fairness. We propose a theoretical model that describes the process by which people assess fairness in the division and completion of collaborative workloads.
Date of Award2 Jul 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorStephen Payne (Supervisor)

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