Irene Greif
The IBM researcher pioneered a new field of computer-centric collaboration that would ultimately change the way people work
Irene Greif leaning against a wall decorated with framed posters

As computer networking grew into a powerful force for business productivity in the 1980s, software designers homed in on how these electronic connections could spur collaboration. Irene Greif emerged as an early pioneer in computer-aided teamwork and brought a more people-centric approach to software design.

In her efforts to create new types of collaborative human-machine systems, Greif drew on experience watching computers and people doing overlapping office tasks. Computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), a name she first used during a 1984 workshop on collaboration, evolved into a research field that would inform development of a burgeoning class of shared-productivity software.

CSCW married sociology, anthropology and computer science. It focused on learning how people actually work with computers, rather than how they say they work. “You learn very different things when you talk to people or interview them about requirements as compared to when you watch them,” Greif said. “People are just not usually very aware of what they’re doing to make work happen, especially in group settings.”

This may be a common refrain among today’s “design thinking” adherents, but at the time, an observational, highly iterative approach to gathering requirements and building products was unusual. The typical route was to ask customers what they wanted and go build it. In Greif’s method, however, customers, designers and developers collaborated in a shared process. For her pioneering work in CSCW, IBM named Greif an IBM (Lotus) Fellow in 1999. She became the fourth woman to hold the distinction.

From MIT to Lotus

Long before there was CSCW, Greif was a mathematics standout at Hunter College High School in New York, where she also had her first exposure to a computer, the IBM 1401. The affordable, general-purpose machine brought heavy-duty data processing into the business and academic mainstream in the 1960s and piqued her interest in computer studies. Her mother, an accountant, encouraged her in math, giving her long lists of numbers to add up as a young girl. “I’d feel like I was doing something really cool and like my mother,” Greif said.

Greif entered MIT as an undergraduate to study mathematics — computer science hadn’t yet emerged as an academic major. By graduate school, she was a computer science student, and computers would become her vocation. In 1975, she became the first woman to earn a PhD in computer science from MIT, graduating with a dual degree in electrical engineering.

Doctorate in hand, Greif took a faculty job in computer science at the University of Washington. She returned to MIT two years later as part of the university’s electrical engineering and computer science faculty. She was appointed as a principal research scientist and ran a team in the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science that developed systems to allow co-authoring and shared and real-time collaboration.

She soon realized that she enjoyed research far more than teaching and began transitioning from theoretical work into research of what then was called “office automation,” or how to improve operations using machines. This is when her work on CSCW started. In 1987, she edited Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, A Book of Readings, published a year later as the first book in the field.

Greif left MIT in 1987 to join Lotus Development Corporation, lured by the opportunity to work on Lotus Notes, a real-world group product that would be sold commercially. She joined the research and development team, which she called “a greenhouse for product ideas,” and spent her early days figuring out how networking could improve personal productivity tools like Notes.

In 1975, she became the first woman to earn a PhD in computer science from MIT, graduating with a dual degree in electrical engineering
Advancing collaboration with Domino and Sametime

As Lotus pivoted toward collaboration — moving, in effect, from software to groupware — Greif’s expertise began to shine. She and the team produced Version Manager for the hugely successful 1-2-3 spreadsheet program. Version Manager introduced features to allow the tracking of group feedback and input on spreadsheets — especially popular for tasks like company budgeting. Group enabling soon followed for all Lotus products.

Version Manager’s success earned Greif her own team. In 1993 she formed the Lotus Research Group, which became known as a world-class research and development organization. As head of the Lotus Product Design Group, she played a key role in the strategy for Domino, a Lotus web-based business collaboration suite that included enterprise-grade email, workflow and security features. Her evangelism of synchronous communications, or chat, led to Sametime, Lotus’s real-time communications platform and the first channel for delivering Lotus Notes mail on the PalmPilot.

Her research into how people collaborate using email helped change the course of its development. “We had amazing output for a tiny group,” Greif said. In 1995, IBM bought Lotus for more than $2.5 billion.

A rising star at IBM

Greif quickly distinguished herself at IBM. The company successfully nominated her for an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) fellowship, adding the honor to her prior selection as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Greif’s Lotus Research team merged into the broader IBM Research group, and she was named head of collaborative user experience. Her mandate included building group-working communities and research programs across the company. In 2007 her team, in partnership with IBM’s Visual Communications Lab, delivered Many Eyes, a service that connected groups to data graphics to help them collectively analyze information.

In 2008, the company opened the IBM Center for Social Software in its Watson Cambridge research center and named Greif its director. She won the Women Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology Leadership Award that same year.

Greif, who retired in 2013, was also elected by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to its ranks in 2010, one of the highest professional distinctions that can be awarded to an engineer. She was also inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

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