Community Networks Promote Groupware in a Metropolitan Area

Fiorella De Cindio^, Oliverio Gentile^, Philip Grew°, Leonardo Sonnante^
^ Civic Networking Lab., Computer Science Dept., Univ. of Milan
via Comelico 39, I20135 Milano (Italy)
° Center for Continuing Education, City of Milan
via Decorati 10, I20138 Milano (Italy)

1. Introduction

The Rete Civica di Milano (meaning `Milan Community Network' and known as RCM) was inaugurated in September 1994 at the Civic Networking Laboratory of the Computer Science Department of the State University of Milan, Italy. RCM was inspired by Internet and by community networking experiences in the United States and Canada [CCN93], [Sch94]. At that time, it was easy to foresee social advantages for the Milan metropolitan area, as well as educational opportunities for students who wanted to work on theses and other projects involving what was bound to be a burgeoning field.

Today, RCM's mission can be summed up as follows: "RCM is a project designed to offer a free, effective, and easy-to-use on-line environment to various members of the community, private citizens, non-profit organizations, governmental institutions, and companies, thus guaranteeing the right of on-line citizenship to all." [CDG95]

In offering RCM to the public, we have from the outset emphasized two closely related aspects:

· Two-way communication. Compared to other media providing broadcast communication to an essentially passive audience, computer networks can and should be distinguished by their ability to give everyone a chance at self-expression, thus encouraging the development of an active citizenry.

· User-provided content. It is important for every on-line citizen to feel committed to sharing with others the information at her disposal. While information provided by government is welcomed, it is important that it not be the network's sole stock in trade.

These aspects are anything but original. They were at the basis of the Internet's success in its earliest applications such as email, newsgroups and FTP. Those applications may now, however, be somewhat overshadowed by the boom of the Web, which tends once again to put forth a passive approach to the network, a change that we feel may alter its fundamental nature. The success of a community network depends, in our view, on the ability to focus on its users. For that reason the slogan La rete siete voi ("You are the network.") appears on the RCM desktop [CDG95].

Shortly after the launch of RCM we began to realize that, in addition to its primary social aims, RCM could play a role in the promotion of groupware in the Milan metropolitan area, which is the center of the Italian economy.

In Italy as elsewhere, groupware has been on people's lips for a decade, as the most promising innovation to meet the needs of both large and small organizations. That general conviction has perhaps struggled harder than expected to be translated into practice. Neither investments nor results have attained the level anticipated. In addition to the reasons thoroughly explained in [Gru94], the following factors would seem to bear special relevance to the situation in Italy:

· The adoption of groupware applications is often touted as a radical change. Though the management of a private or governmental organization may acknowledge the need for such change, on the other hand, it often considers the move a leap into the unknown. In part this is due to the fact that there is often no way to actually test the functions of the software packages to be adopted.

· Groupware applications are often presented as something designed to improve an organization's in-house communications. However, any organization, in either the private or public sector, is increasingly just one node in a complex system (made up of other local, regional or national government entities, of other companies in the same corporate group etc.).

· Initial investment is rather high. When coupled with uncertain results in terms of savings and profits, this factor is a further disincentive to adopting groupware packages, especially in the climate of economic uncertainty and instability in which Italian organizations operate.

In this context, it soon became apparent to us that RCM could help overcome these obstacles. The fact that for completely independent reasons, indeed partly by coincidence, we had chosen to build our BBS around SoftArc's FirstClass software [SA92], i.e. a groupware package [SA95], was probably a significant contributing factor.

We noticed that many members of the public, logging on to RCM, were discovering the potential of a simple cooperative work environment. People first log in (free of charge, it should be noted) for reasons that are at the heart of RCM's raison d'être, i.e.:

· Citizens are moved by curiosity, desire to improve their social life, their interests, a need for information or simply because they are urged to do so by a friend.

· Non-profit associations want to make themselves known and create awareness of their activities within the local community.

· Government organizations want to provide information and `dialogue' with the citizenry.

· Companies want to reach out to consumers.

Soon, however, people who log on realize that these functions could prove extremely useful to the organization they belong to.

Once we had observed what happened during the first few months of RCM and became aware of these needs, we began to realize that RCM could be major promoter of groupware on the metropolitan level. There are several reasons for this:

· In a single two-way communication environment, RCM links a broad group of people, half of which is made up of professionals in various fields.

· At the same time, in a gentle, friendly and highly motivating way, it teaches them how to use the basic functions of a groupware system.

· RCM trains people to work together and maintain a cooperative attitude.

We thus began to test this thesis, while monitoring the network to verify the RCM's effect as a promoter of groupware.

After a year of observation, also described in [Son96], we feel it can be stated that the hypothesis has been shown to be true by numerous cases occurring on the network, some of which are outlined in this paper.

This paper is organized as follows. Chapter two contains a brief presentation of RCM. Chapter three presents some examples of cooperative work using the network for support. Chapter four draws some conclusions and makes reference to earlier works.

2. The Rete Civica di Milano Experience

RCM was inspired directly by the model of North American community networks, both in the choice of BBS technology and in its objectives and founding principles. In particular, it has adopted the following features from that model, based on [Sch94]:

· Community-based. The participants have aspirations, needs, and issues in common.

· Reciprocal. Any potential "consumer" of information, commentary, issues, or questions is a potential "producer" as well.

· Contribution-based. Conferences are based on contributions from participants. Any input to the conference becomes part of the conference itself.

· Unrestricted. Anyone can use the community network. Furthermore, users have freedom from control on their postings, under the condition that they obey to the principles and rules fixed by network administrators.

· Inexpensive. The systems are free of charge or have a very low charge.

In technological terms, we nevertheless felt it necessary to keep up with the times, i.e.:

1. As BBS software, we considered it essential to adopt a windows-based environment. The choice of FirstClass was partly a coincidence (since the Department had purchased the server software and one hundred client licenses that had remained unused until then) and partly determined by the knowledge that the same software was used by the Open University (UK).

2. We immediately made RCM a node on the Internet, with the following services:

· TCP/IP accessibility with the proper settings of the communication software;

· Email for all users, through collaboration with an Internet provider;

· Read access to a series of newsgroups;

· Mirroring of some RCM conferences on Web pages linked to the home page of RCM itself (

While the first three services are part of FirstClass and its add-on modules, mirroring required development of a gateway called FC2HTML, which was accomplished using SoftArc's Gateway Toolkit. The features of this gateway are outlined in [CCD96].

RCM has outward links not only to Internet but also to OneNet, the worldwide network of BBSs that run on FirstClass software, for which it is the main Italian node.

Those who frequent the community network make up the `on-line community,' which is at the heart of the network's social structure. Its harmonious growth is the key to the success already achieved by RCM. The above-mentioned slogan and a registration procedure that includes proof of identification and a personal introduction to the others bear witness to that [CDG95]. Only officially registered users are allowed to make contributions to the contents of the network. As of the end of February 1996, more than 3300 users had officially registered, with average monthly growth running at more than 220 new log-ins.

The communication, discussion, and exchange of information that take place on RCM depend on registered members of the public. These activities occur in public or private (i.e. accessible only to a limited number of users) conferences. There are currently more than 400 such conferences, divided according to topic.

Topics for the various thematic conferences are proposed by the users themselves. When a substantial number of users shows interest in, and willingness to contribute to, a new conference, the person who proposed it, flanked perhaps by some of the other enthusiasts, become the moderator, i.e. the person delegated by the administrators to manage the area. Once the new conference is opened, it is placed in the topical area closest to its theme, so as to create an on-line environment (the `virtual city') in which it is easy to find one's way. This procedure means that the area is not imposed on those who frequent it, but rather is created by them and shaped according to their preferences from the bottom up. The administrators play only a guiding role, guaranteeing that the local netiquette is respected and the technical characteristics of each conference are adhered to. They thus stop at creating the conditions for growth of the `virtual city' just as is done, or ought to be done, in the case of real cities.

In addition to private citizens, various organizations are active on RCM. These include non-profit groups (especially volunteers), government entities, and companies. The membership of these organizations is shown by a conference in their name and is part of the social aims of RCM. Associations (currently numbering about fifty) and companies (currently about ten) are generally represented by one conference in which they put information about their activities and another, known as the `hot line,' where anyone can file an on-line request for information, ask questions, or raise for discussion items related to the activity of the organization. Other companies (currently about twenty) have no conference of their own but place want ads or commercial messages in the appropriate conferences. When germane, a conference run by a group or a company is included in a thematic area. The conference on environmental issues, for example, contains the conferences of groups such as the WWF and companies such as DuPont. The placement of a conference in a specific context helps enrich debate on a certain topic, since it brings with it the contribution of `experts in the field' with various perspectives.

The membership of government bodies is part of what makes RCM a `civic' experience. It is essential in order to reinforce the spirit of democracy and especially to bring about all the two-way communication services that RCM is designed to offer. As things stand, local government organizations (the City of Milan, the Province of Milan, the Region of Lombardy through its Department of Culture) and the Chamber of Commerce have opened spaces of varying sizes. Their natural propensity is for providing information and they are somewhat less inclined to participate interactively, although all of them have opened or are opening `hot lines,' which often prove to be major attractions, for obvious reasons.

3. Examples of Cooperation on RCM

A few cases that show how RCM has helped introduce various kinds of organizations to networking and groupware technologies follow. Others can be found in [Son96], and more are being added day by day.

3.1 The `Virtual Cooperative'

Let us start with the first example, in chronological terms, of telecommuting that occurred on RCM, shortly after it opened. A group of six users, who, it should be noted, had met on line and had not known each other previously, organized a `virtual cooperative' called Orsa Maggiore (or `Big Dipper'), whose aim was to explore the potential inherent in the network of relationships that made up RCM by working jointly on their projects. Specifically, this group cooperated on two publishing projects, a textbook and the translation from English of a book on mountain climbing, commissioned by two major publishers who were interested only in the output and not in production method. Both works were produced according to prevailing standards and successfully submitted to the clients.

At first the group began work using only email with attached files. Later, to facilitate cooperation among the members of Orsa Maggiore, a dedicated conference was opened along the lines described below, which are a model that can be applied in general.

The mechanism that allows a particular group of users to carry out activities independently from the rest of the network lies in the creation of a private conference accessible only to members of the group, each of which may have different responsibilities along with different sorts of special permissions (i. e. right to read messages, contribute to the conference, create new conferences, etc). The conference may contain additional subconferences for further specialization. The conference manager may be given permission to create new subconferences and modify access permissions, so that the group is completely independent within its own area.

The significance of this experiment lies first of all in its success (The jobs were finished and turned in.) and secondly in the demonstration that RCM provides easily accessible and practical opportunities for cooperation. What RCM offers, therefore, is much more than a means of communication, though that is important, of course. It is a way to establish contacts and interact with people who have different professional skills. These contacts can then be put to work in the same context.

3.2 Associations of Volunteers

The reasons for an association to open a conference on RCM have already been mentioned. It remains to be emphasized that some associations find in RCM a tool for reconciling their need to be visible to the rest of the world with their need to communicate with their members in a space where admittance is limited. This proved to be the case for CILAP (Collegamento Italiano di Lotta Alla Povertà, literally `Italian link in the war on poverty,' the Italian chapter of EAPN). CILAP joined RCM out of a desire to coordinate its member associations, groups, and cooperatives, as well as to increase its visibility in the city and to stimulate discussion of its activities. It sought to avoid closing itself in a network useful only for organizing and in-house communication. The chance to use an existing structure, thus leap-frogging the challenge of technical know-how, led CILAP to choose RCM rather than organize its own independent self-run network. The case of CILAP also illustrates the learning potential of the community network. According to the manager of the CILAP conference, "RCM was the example and the stimulus for a renewal of operating procedures within CILAP. It was not an idea to get across but a chance for real change that was feasible, within reach, cheap, easy to phase in (We need not all be ready at once.), and experimental even for CILAP. It was a good starting point for all those who were taking their first leap into computers, always open and public (and thus easy to get accepted by those who fear information technology)."

The number of volunteer associations on RCM leads to the conclusion that the community network can really represent an important resource for such organizations. They are known as aid societies or third-sector organizations precisely because they operate on the market but on a not-for-profit basis, yet provide social services, especially to those layers of society most in need of assistance. These groups typically have limited financial resources but draw on a wealth of human resources that they owe to the fact that people active in such organizations are there out of conviction and bring their enthusiasm. The importance of these societies has increased in recent years, in step with the retreat of the welfare state and the need to fill in the gap lest the quality of life for the less privileged deteriorate as a result [Pio95]. It is thus of fundamental importance to provide such organizations with an infrastructure that is within their financial means and allows them to adopt the networking and groupware technologies on which their ability to carry out surrogate function may depend.

3.3 The CMB Cooperative

Cooperativa Muratori e Braccianti (CMB) is a large construction cooperative with headquarters in Reggio Emilia, various branches, including one in Milan, and job sites throughout Italy. When a new job site is opened, the installation is equipped with at least one personal computer and one or more phone lines. The PC is used to process and store data from headquarters. The data used to be transferred on floppy disks sent by courier or hand carried by personnel. Although it is easy to imagine the savings of time and money that could be achieved by transferring files over the phone lines, no one at the cooperative's data processing center had proposed using the technology. When one of the managers of the cooperative found out about RCM a few months ago, he realized that it held great potential for the business. In the space of a few months, the cooperative had graduated from using RCM to installing a Novell server at its headquarters that could be accesseed over the phone lines. This is a small example of how the spread of networking know-how among non-experts gives them first-hand experience of the advantages of new technologies for their work. Today, many of CMB's `sister' cooperatives are following its example.

3.4 Local Government

Starting with their first approach to the Rete Civica di Milano and other networks, several local authorities and government organizations viewed the network basically as a new tool for distributing information about their territory, be it a city, province or region, and government-sponsored activities. They were initially more reticent to open `hot lines,' i.e. establish a dialogue with the citizenry, and took some time to come around to the idea. This sort of interactive structure has now been set up on RCM with the following government agencies:

· The Culture and Accountability Department of the Region of Lombardy has not only set up a hot line but also uses RCM to publish legislation, especially regional laws, and to publicize its programs.

· The City of Milan has opened a hot line with the deputy mayor, though it works indirectly in the sense that questions are sent to the deputy mayor's private mailbox. Inquiries of general interest receive public replies in a conference, while others are handled privately.

· The Province of Milan has set up a hot line with its press office.

· The Chamber of Commerce manages conferences for the public relations office, the directory of services, and its calendar of events.

It is worth noting that these government projects have involved a number of upper-echelon civil servants, who thus experienced the advantages of network communications and begun to use the system for private exchanges of messages and files, without waiting for their organizations to acquire in-house email systems. (Italy lags in this area; neither the municipal nor the regional administration has its own mail system, for example.)

In addition to the two objectives that led government organizations to open conferences on the net, supplying information and interacting with members of the public, a third purpose has emerged: It is a way to speed up the introduction of new groupware technologies within government itself, even when these agencies are not yet so equipped themselves. In the public sector and among civil servants, there is often a resistance to innovation. However, in this case, we have found (and perhaps encouraged somewhat) a strong willingness and even determination within these organizations to experiment with the new services. It is worth mentioning three different situations where this has been the case:

1. The Culture and Accountability Department of the Region of Lombardy, in the wake of its experience with RCM, has decided to install its own FirstClass server to improve communication with other local government offices, the province, the city, and other branches of the regional administration.

2. The City of Milan has decided to use RCM's environment and organizational structuring of information as a tool for information gathering and internal communication. This is being phased in step by step, and the city plans to acquire its own FirstClass server to be run by the Department of Institutional Communication.

3. The state-run Milan Board of Education has recently seen in RCM an interesting opportunity for bringing schools on line.

3.5 The City Schools On-Line Project

The interest of schools is also seen in another project known as "City Schools on-line." This can be considered a simple example of cooperative work among local government offices that plans to link some of the schools run by the City of Milan Department of Education. Under the project, the network will be used on an experimental basis to exchange information and conduct joint administrative and didactic activities. The project was accelerated by the choice of RCM as a groupware tool, whereas the earlier plan had involved installing a UNIX server at the City Department of Education. The existence of RCM freed the managers of the project from technical hindrances and made it possible to begin experimenting immediately.

The first aim of the project is to show how the transmission of documents between various school offices can be sped up, made uniform, and simplified. A second objective is to set up a centralized data base (on the network server, for example) and link into other data bases already extant or under construction on other networks. From a pedagogical point of view, the project is primarily oriented toward analyzing the educational potential of networks.

Currently, on-line services offered by participating City Schools include a hot line with schools run by the City Department of Education, i.e. a conference for direct exchanges with individual schools, and an electronic form users can fill out to request certificates from their school. For the time being, they must then pick up their certificates in person. Other services will be opened on the basis of the activities of individual schools and the requests users send in to the hot line.

4. Conclusions

A study done by Gartner Group [GG95] for the Groupware '95 conference emphasizes the need to increase not so much the quantitative spread of groupware systems but their qualitative implementation. Although investments in groupware are rising dramatically (with growth of more than 300% in the next eighteen months and a further increase after that), the reason for adopting groupware systems are still poorly understood. The Gartner Group report points to three phenomena in particular.

· Superficiality: The number of organizations involved is large but the average number of people is small (only one hundred). The penetration rate is low because installations larger than a single department (from fifty to two hundred people) require the involvement of a central computing system, while these are typically tied up with efforts to standardize the mail system at the moment.

· Timing: The organization's overall strategy may be out of phase with the desire of non-technical staff to introduce groupware quickly.

· Expectations: Non-technical users may tend to overestimate the ability of groupware to solve organizational and coordination problems, compared to what currently installed systems can do.

In terms of the specific Italian situation, the only study we were able to find, despite contacts with the major consulting firms in the field, was that carried out by Reseau [MSM94] in mid-1994. That study points to a need to encourage investments in new cooperative technologies even in quantitative terms.

Reseau's sample consisted of fifty subjects, 62% large companies (i.e. with more than 500 employees regardless of revenue), 28% mid-size (between fifty and 500 employees with revenues of more than 40 billion lire), and the remain 10% small companies (fewer than fifty employees and revenues of less than 40 billion lire).

The rate of adoption of groupware solution worked out as follows: 28% are using groupware, 20% are evaluating it, 12% plan to adopt it within a year, 8% think they will have it within three years, and the remaining 32% is not using it and has no plans to.

A comment on the representativeness of the sample is in order. As Reseau itself admits, the sample is more technologically advanced than the Italian average. Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare Reseau's data with Gartner Group 1994 figures. While companies that have no plans to adopt groupware combined with those whose plans are up to three years in the waiting represent 40% of the Italian sample, the same was true of only 10% of companies worldwide.

On the basis of these figures, of the experiences outlined in section three, and of these months' management of RCM, we can identify four main factors that have eased the move from the use of the network for social and community purposes to its application to cooperative work:

1. Within a single on-line environment that plays host to an organization, the organization finds means to carry out both internal and external activities. As a result, greater integration is achieved between the two. Groups also gain an electronic communication connection to other institutions in the city, more and more of which are join RCM. Furthermore, in this fashion, they overcome the dichotomy between organizations as closed systems - with internal conventions, norms of behavior, know-how, etc. [DDSVZ86] - and organizations as open systems [Hew86].

2. FirstClass provides basic groupware features, i.e. email and conferencing with potential differentiated access, through assignment of permissions on a group basis and thus defined roles within the conference. In addition, it manages simple workflow by automatically addressing special form messages. These features are enough to learn the essentials of on-line cooperation. On the other hand, more advanced features such as meeting scheduling, voice annotation, and project management are lacking. As shown in [Gru94], it is precisely those functions that meet with the greatest resistance in gaining acceptance among the members of a group.

3. The majority of organizations that enter into relationships with RCM do not have the means or know-how to manage their own communication server. It is an enormous advantage for them to be able to rely on an outside provider that can also offer some small technical advice. This is especially true of small organizations and the small to mid-size companies, that make up such a significant part of Italy's economic output.

4. It is very easy to step up from managing a conference or group of conferences on RCM to installing one's own FirstClass server to run a local net, once traffic has reached the level needed to justify the move. In a phenomenon known as `scalability,' RCM thus serves as a proving ground that leads to the purchase of an in-house system.

RCM sets out to host all the community groups and social organizations in the city, both on its own server and on those set up by others that are destined to become part and parcel of the network itself. Moreover, management experts agree that companies especially and organizations generally are evolving towards a structural model similar to what is known as the commitment paradigm [RB94]. In a future where public and private enterprises, profit and non-profit organizations, base internal communication and management on their own groupware systems, there is likely to be a useful role for a city-wide infrastructure made up of a community network that can act as the least common denominator between all the various systems and makes it possible to cooperate even with those who have no groupware system of their own, i.e. private citizens, small organizations, and so forth. Indeed, the Internet already plays this role on a worldwide level. RCM would do the same on a local basis. RCM's connection to Internet and its accessibility from Internet mean that it will play this role not as an alternative to but as an integral part of the worldwide network.

Finally, the RCM experience seems to hold out the prospect of a third way vis-à-vis the dynamics of adopting groupware within an organization. This issue has been analyzed in various earlier works [MC90], [Orl92], [Gru94]. Grudin and Palin in particular [GP95] analyze a case of successful groupware adoption, but also warn against generalizing the factors behind that success to other environments. According to Grudin, the characteristics of groupware, which is midway between a single-user application and a large system, leaves doubts about whether it is best to allow users complete discretion in choosing such applications (as happens in the former case) or whether management must undertake the huge commitment of mandating the use of one groupware application within an organization.

On the basis of the experiences described above, we would propose an intermediate path between user discretion and organizational mandate, i.e. experimentation. The management of a group, or non-technical staff, at any rate, should have the chance to try out a simple and immediately available communication technology like that provided by RCM. Getting used to basic groupware functions can prove invaluable both for learning and for experimenting. It is educational for individuals, who can learn the mechanisms of on-line communication, which is, all things considered, a different way of communicating, by using a system that is within reach of all. It is useful as an experiment to find out what groupware is and how it can be of help to the organization. Introducing a support system for cooperative work requires a complete change in management perspective on the organized human activity its promotes. The change should be undertaken in a climate of awareness throughout the organization. RCM offers itself as a proving ground for preliminary investigation, prior to making the commitment required to install a more complete and complex system.

5. Acknowledgments

Let us begin by thanking all those who supplied the information needed to describe their experiences on RCM: W. Cavalieri, F. Chiabrando, M. Colaci, M. Ferrandi and G. Maino. Heartfelt thanks go to P. Rivizzigno and A. Santangelo for their precious assistance in gathering data on the market for groupware. We would also like to thank G. De Michelis, the staff of the Cooperation Technologies Lab of our Departiment and B. Caravita for their advice, as well as all RCM staff and sponsors for making this paper possible.

6. References

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