Saturday, December 17, 2005

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reading :: The Agile Organization

Originally posted: Tue, 13 Dec 2005 01:28:07

The Agile Organization: From Informal Networks to Complex Effects and Agility

by Simon Reay Atkinson and James Moffat

The Agile Organization is primarily interested in applying insights of postmodernism and complexity theory to military organizations, and secondarily to applying the same insights to other organizations. "Postmodernism" here is used a bit differently than what we often see in rhetoric:

In this regard, too, the philosophy of Post-Modernism?that denies any single truth or belief?may also be reflected in our understanding of organizations and how they form and aggregate. The networks we consider are held together by certain trusts in which individuals believe. These trusts and beliefs are often different from those that define others and it is these that make the group or organization ?different.? Where these different organizations come into contact and/or overlap, certain rules of conduct are necessary to define how they work together if conflict is to be avoided. These rules need to reflect the underlying beliefs and truths by which the different organizations exist. (p.9)

This is a fairly good summary of the book's themes. The problem the authors face is that organizations are not as tightly structured or delineated as they were in the past because interconnections have become much easier to make. So organizations form and aggregate in different ways. And the common thread is "trusts and beliefs" and how they are negotiated. This is the turf of rhetoric ? the study of argumentation ? and the authors indicate throughout that after a long era of work rationalization, the centralized hierarchical structures that have often hedged in negotiations are breaking down. They list key properties of complexity that are emblematic of the "agile" organizations they study:

1. Nonlinear Interaction. The interaction between neighboring entities is nonlinear. Small changes can have large effects.

2. Decentralized control. The natural systems we have considered, such as the coevolution of an ecosystem, are not controlled centrally. The emergent behavior is generated through local interactions.

3. Self-Organization. We have seen how such natural systems with a large number of degrees of freedom can produce extended ordered structure, without the need for guidance from outside the system.

4. Non-Equilibrium Order. The order (for example the space and time correlations) inherent in an open, dissipative system existing far from equilibrium.

5. Coevolution. We have seen how such systems are constantly coevolving. Clusters or avalanches of local interaction are constantly being created across the system. These correspond to dispersed correlation effects in space and time, rather than a central imposition of large-scale coincidences in space and time.

6. Collectivist Dynamics. The cascades of local interaction that ripple through the system. (pp.36-37)

For all that, the authors lightly touch on what they see as the central way to understand complexity in organizations: mathematical analysis (p.43). This strikes me as counterproductive since such an analysis seems to assume stable nodes, and a truly "agile" organization's nodes would seem to be continually changing and defining one another. (See actor-network theory's work on defining actors.) Nevertheless, the authors have some really interesting insights. Take this section on work organization in industry, which sounds as if it has been taken from Victor and Boynton:

The linear production line in the car industry is a clear example of a series of bounded and unchanging specializations that form part of a management by detail (micromanagement). This works wonderfully well provided that everyone wants a black Model T Ford. However, in today?s and tomorrow?s market environment, demand is more likely to include small batches of complex products, each with varied characteristics. In this much more variable and dynamic environment, the response has been to abandon the production line in some cases in favor of a number of very specialized cells that can self-organize in different ways through a process of mutual negotiation. (p.92)

The authors go on to discuss how small organizations are initially bound by trust and kinship; as they scale larger, these bonds of trust tend to become formalized to allow scaling, and eventually "The network ceases to be self-organizing and scale free, and changes to being a network of formally defined locally clustered cells with longer range links between them: a Small World" (pp.110-111). This account of scaling is more structured than actor-network theory's, but perhaps less so than activity theory's. The problem, of course, is the ontological problem I mentioned earlier.

The authors also propose a proportional relationship between the system and the management process: the more agile one is, the more agile the other must be. "Each person in the chain was rigidly controlled within a tightly applied stovepipe and delivered an output as required by the input. There was little or no lateral movement?each function could be undertaken within the guidelines provided" (p.156). In the industrial age, neither management nor process were agile, and the result was "stovepiping," the partitioning of the organization into noncommunicative sectors (p.127). The Information Age model is decentralized, emergent management (p.130); the authors relate this model to the complexity concepts mentioned earlier through a succinct table (p.132). A little later, the authors provide an interesting analysis of British and US military agility that indicates a mixed bag. Agility will require changes for these organizations: "For both countries, it will require controlling less and commanding more" (p.167). They argue for "concessive" decision-making, which is

about trust: trusting in individual staffs and commands to do the right thing and so enabling one or another to lead, as guided by other involved and so pre-connected parties. Ultimately, it should allow command to exercise authority, seamlessly, across services, staffs, and nations. (p.181)

And that brings us again to trust. The authors argue that trust must be established and exchanged within one''s organization but also across organizations (p.188). And although the authors are particularly talking about military organizations, the lesson seems to be applicable to other sorts of organizations as well.

Overall, this was an interesting read, although a little light on the scholarly side.

Update: Simon Reay Atkinson emails:

Thanks for your positive review of our work - we appear to be scoring a few goals! You are right to conclude that we may be scholarly light but our intent was to take a few non-specialist horses to water and get them to drink a little at the well. We also hoped to raise questions particularly regarding Command and Control: to paraphrase President Clinton, 'It's Command and Control, Stupid'. That leads into some interesting questions and dilemmas - how, for example, does an organisation become more networkable. Back to Command and Control.

Yes, I thought this was a really intriguing point: the military can't get away from command, but it can rethink how command is accomplished. The Agile Organization argues that organizations need to concentrate on "controlling less and commanding more," devolving decision-making while retaining the overall command. That is, overly hierarchical organizations tend to micromanage through strict and often inflexible rules and command chains; flexible organizations set goals, but allow considerable discretion in terms of how the goals are accomplished. Atkinson and Moffat do a great job of demonstrating concrete ways in which this realignment works. And although they focus on military organizations, I can't overemphasize the intriguing connections with new economy/distributed work literature.

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Reading :: Rapid Problem-Solving with Post-It Notes

Originally posted: Tue, 13 Dec 2005 11:10:45

Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes

by David Straker

I wanted to like this book more than I did. In fact, I ordered it through interlibrary loan because it sounded so intriguing. In my research, I've been consistently impressed by how people invent solutions using post-its, and I've also studied how Contextual Design uses post-its in its affinity diagrams (a variation on the KJ quality method originated in Japan). So I had high hopes that the book would provide some broader insights along these lines, particularly insights that might help students think through issues of work fragmentation and/or through affinity diagrams.

And, yes, there is a lot of value in it: David Straker has put together a set of (generally) useful and easy to absorb tools for brainstorming, sorting and comparing, examining relationships, understanding affinities and grounded categories, and charting and planning actions. But the book has two problems.

One is that it's barely more substantial than a series of blog posts; the amateurish typesetting (it looks like it was composed in WordPerfect), spacious cartoons, and oversized headings seem like they're just trying to fill space, and compressing them to a reasonable size could have turned this book into a pamphlet or a modest website. The case study in the third section, and the three pages spent discussing the proper way to peel a post-it note, contributed to this impression.

The other is that post-its turn out to be the hammer that makes every problem look like a nail. The best fits for post-its were the sorting and affinity diagram/KJ tools. Other early tools seemed fine too. But later, the book goes very wrong by suggesting uses such as creating task timelines ? a use that really is much better done with a calendar or project management software.

Still, if the book is handy and if you're as interested in post-it notes as I am, you should take a look.

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Reading :: Robert's Rules of Order

Originally posted: Tue, 13 Dec 2005 10:52:52

Robert's Rules of Order (Newly Revised, 10th Edition)

by Henry M. Robert III, William J. Evans, Daniel H. Honemann, Thomas J. Balch (Editor)

Yes, you've heard of this one even if you haven't read it. Nearly every organization uses (or sorta-kinda uses) these rules to govern their deliberations. We certainly do in my department. And after four years of listening to our chair and parliamentarian making motions and correcting ? well ? mine, I decided that I really should become conversant with them.

I'm glad that I did. Robert's rules of order are really fascinating. They provide a procedural framework for governing and regulating deliberations, something that is vital so that organizations don't make decisions rashly, ride roughshod over minority factions, or revisit decisions ad infinitum. The rules are detailed and cover an incredible number of permutations, as you might expect from rules that have been evolving as long as they have.

What really got me interested, though, was when I began thinking of Robert's Rules of Order as a rhetoric text. It sets the ground rules to which interested parties agree so that they can productively deliberate, and the rules themselves also become evidence for meta-arguments about procedure. It would be fascinating to teach a class with this as the text, although I don't anticipate teaching that class.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Reading :: Swarming and the Future of Conflict

Originally posted: Sat, 03 Dec 2005 01:49:44

Swarming and the Future of Conflict

by John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt

Whereas the authors' Advent of Netwar focused on the organizational structure of networks, this RAND report focuses on the key doctrine of netwar: swarming. (This doctrine is what interested Hugh Hewitt in his book Blog.) Swarming is

the systematic pulsing of force and/or fire by dispersed, internetted units, so as to strike the adversary from all directions simultaneously. This does not necessitate surrounding the enemy, though swarming may include encirclement in some cases. Rather, emphasis is placed on forces or fires that can strike at will ? wherever they will. (p.9)

The authors concede that swarming has historical precedents, but "swarming could not come into its own as a major way of war, because its organizational and informational requirements are huge. Swarming has had to wait for the current information and communications revolution to unfold as robustly as did the earlier forms of fighting" (p.9).

Those earlier forms of fighting were the melee (every fighter for her/himself); massing ("stacked, geometric formations" (p.13)); and maneuver warfare. In contrast to these, swarming involves autonomous or semi-autonomous units in a convergent assault; amorphous but coordinated "pulsing" or striking from all directions; small, internetted maneuver units; integrated surveillance; and attacks that disrupt the adversary's cohesion (p.21). The authors give several good examples of each, including swarming (e.g., German U-boats, Parthian horsemen, ants, bees, wolf packs). The nature metaphors put me in mind of A Thousand Plateaus, although I doubt the authors have read that work.

Overall, this was an interesting and illuminating report, and I can see how this doctrine has influenced recent changes in the US military. I also think that Hewitt did have it largely right when he applied swarming to recent "blog swarms," although the swarming that Arquilla and Ronfeldt are discussing seems more coordinated and controlled than what Hewitt is discussing. I'm more interested in applying lessons to nonmilitary organizations, of course, and in that vein I see some similarities with pieces such as The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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Reading :: Advent of Netwar

Originally posted: Sat, 03 Dec 2005 01:31:37

Advent of Netwar

by John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt

This RAND report precedes the authors' Networks and Netwars and outlines much of what the authors discuss in their chapters from that volume, but in greater detail. What they discuss is, again, fascinating. In their estimation, netwar entails the blurring of offense and defense, spatial boundaries, jurisdictions, and all sorts of distinctions (p.13). This blurring has to do with the newness of networks as an organizational design (as opposed to social networks) (p.19). The networked form, they say, follows other forms ? tribal, institutional, and market ? and although it is not completely new, it is newly enabled by pervasive information technologies (p.33).

In networks, members collaborate heterarchically:

Its key principle is heterarchic collaboration among members who may be dispersed among multiple, often small organizations. Network designs have existed throughout history, but multiorganizational designs are now able to gain strength and mature because the new communications technologies allow small, autonomous, dispersed groups to coordinate and act jointly across great distances as never before. (p.33)

The authors follow this up with a nice tabular comparison of tribes, institutions, markets, and networks. This table compares key areas, realms, interests, values, risks, and so forth; one thing that caught my eye was the structural comparison of space, time, and action. The authors argue that power is migrating to actors who are skilled at developing networks (p.43) and that networks may lead nation-states to become leaner and work in concert with nonstate actors (p.45). Think in terms of Rumsfeld's "leaner" military, with its precision strikes, emphasis on communications technologies, and heavy use of non-governmental organizations and subcontractors.

In netwar, the authors argue, the targets should be information-rich components: for instance, don't eradicate smugglers' drug crops, target their electronic bank transfers (p.90). The tactics of netwar are oriented not toward destroying assets but toward disrupting communication and coordination.

The authors conclude that netwar is less like Clausewitz and more like Sun Tzu, less like chess and more like Go. Sun Tzu, they argue, understood the importance of information dominance to victory (p.101). >

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Monday, November 28, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Gonzalez and Mark on Managing Currents of Work)

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 20:32:14

I blogged recently about scholarship in fragmented work, particularly some recent studies by Gonzalez and Mark. Although I was really taken with this work, one point that bothered me was their use of the term "working sphere," of which I said:

Notice that the working sphere is primarily defined by the material and human concatenation rather than the orientation toward a particular goal -?although "motives" is slipped in there. This sounds much more like distributed cognition's functional units than, say, activity theory's activity systems. And without that strong object-orientation, it seems likely that the unit is going to have trouble being nailed down or explained. On the other hand, downplaying the motive gives the working sphere the same advantages as actor-networks, ontologically speaking.

Victor Gonzalez read the review and was kind enough to forward a new paper that expands on the notion of working spheres:

González, V. and G. Mark (2005): 'Managing currents of work: Multi-tasking among multiple collaborations' in European Conference in Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Spring Verlang, September 18-22, Paris, France. pp. 143-162.

(The paper has no page numbers, so I'll refer to the first page as page 1 and so forth.)

In this paper, Gonzalez and Mark continue using ethnography to review how workers switch among working spheres. From the abstract: "We discovered that to multi-task and cope with the resulting fragmentation of their work, individuals constantly renew overviews of their working spheres, they strategize how to manage transitions between contexts and they maintain flexible foci among their different working spheres" (p.1). And in the process, they define working spheres in more detail in respect to other analytical frameworks, particularly activity theory. In the first footnote, they say:

Compared with other types of conceptualizations, a working sphere is closer to the notion of activity as defined by Activity Theory, in the sense of connecting sets of actions toward particular objects (Leont?ev, 1978). However the notion of working sphere lacks an emphasis on high-level motives as the notion of activity does (e.g. becoming a project leader) and focuses instead on practical short-term purposes (e.g. enrolling and attending the training sessions on leadership). (p.4)

Yes, yes. The working sphere is "a unit of work that, from the perspective of the individual, has a unique time frame, involves a particular collaborative structure, and is oriented towards a specific purpose" (p.3). It may last for longer or shorter periods. Working spheres are like topoi or assemblages or (most strikingly to me) contextual design's focus areas.

So perhaps I have to withdraw my complaint that working spheres can be handled within activity theory's activity systems. Those triangles seem to be containing less and less these days, and I think that's partially because they were developed to deal with a different sort of work: stable, cyclical, developing over time. AT lacks a strong vocabulary and set of concepts for describing work fragmentation. And although scholars such as Nardi and Engestrom are working to address that issue with AT, I think it will take some development to get these efforts off the ground ? and common terms for describing this sort of oscillation among activities, terms such as "boundary crossing," evoke journeys across demarcated areas rather than the rapid focus shifts that Gonzalez and Mark describe. In fact, they remind me a bit of Bodker's work with focus shifts (again in an AT tradition), but whereas Bodker saw these focus shifts as resulting from breakdowns, Gonzalez and Marks see them as part of the normal flow of operations. And perhaps that's the way to deal with the question in an AT framework: to emphasize polycontextuality over border crossing, to see interruptions as the new state of things, and thus to imagine activities overlapping each other in a sort of polydimensional scheme.

Back to working spheres. Working spheres seem to be well suited for studying the contextual cues and assemblages of tools and practices that are necessary for polycontextual focus shifts. On the ground, workers perform this work in part through the continual review of overviews (not a surprise to anyone who has read Getting Things Done). These overviews can be local or global and can be reviewed at different levels of aggregation (p.12). And they're necessary for managing transitions from one sphere to another (p.16). Sensibly, the authors call for ways to mark, support, and facilitate interactions among these working spheres:

We argue that technological support should be oriented towards helping individuals maintain both local and global perspectives of their working spheres, providing the ability to represent information in portable devices that can be located on their desks or hung on walls, and be connected and synchronized with other tools such as email, electronic calendars, or other systems. Similarly, those technologies can serve to link and share information about the progress that individuals have in their personal working spheres to the systems used by the organization to manage and coordinate team projects or manage customer requests. (p.18)

Yes, yes. Again, this sounds a lot like contextual design's focus areas, although Gonzalez and Marks' account is less anecdotal and more theoretically founded. The authors see collaborations as the intertwining of multiple working spheres and argue that new resources must be provided to help workers transition among these working spheres. Certainly this makes sense, and again this connective work is not well theorized in activity theory (although again, scholars have recently been attempting to formulate theory in those terms). As I continue my own attempts to develop AT along these lines, I'll be looking at this work often.

Reading :: Expanding the Scope of Localization

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 19:50:26

Expanding the Scope of Localization: A Cultural Usability Perspective on Mobile Text Messaging Use in American and Chinese Contexts

by Huatong Sun

Huatong Sun's dissertation won the 2005 CCCC Outstanding Dissertation Award in Technical Communication. It's easy to see why. This dissertation examines a spreading form of textual communication ? text messaging on mobile phones ? and uses it to provide considerable insight into usability and localization. In fact, this is exactly the sort of work I'd like to see more frequently in computers and writing studies: careful, systematic, empirical work that examines new forms of textuality, develops systematic ways to understand and study it, and unfolds its implications for written communication. And what new textuality is more widespread and more suddenly used than SMS? By breaking away from the big screen and the hoary textualities that are the staple of computers and writing studies ? MOOs, MUDs, online chats used in classrooms ? Sun demonstrates how to make computers and writing studies newly relevant, applicable, and ? dare I say it? ? useful.

Using a combination of activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies, Sun examines texting in China and in upper New York state, and of course finds cultural differences. But she also finds similarities. One striking similarity is that text messaging is so difficult. In Chinese and in English, each character often takes more than one press on the phone's keyboard (although, as she points out, there are some ways such as predictive typing that can lessen that burden). Texting is far more difficult than it needs to be. Yet texting has taken off at an incredible rate due to its advantages and the degree to which people can customize it. So we find that the Chinese tend to perceive and write text messages as a form of ci, a classic poetic genre "used for expressing feelings of the common people and portraying mundane life details" (p.164), while U.S. users tend to use text messages to perform small talk. And particularly in her case studies of U.S. users, Sun investigates how text messaging interacts with other communication technologies such as IM and voice; one couple, for instance, texted each other until peak hours were over and they could talk more cheaply (p.182). "Affordances of each technology are used here to arrange a stronger rhetoric," Sun argues, then proves it (p.183).

Just a note: Sun is one of a string of smart, innovative graduate students that Bill Hart-Davidson mentored during his stay at Rensselaer. I'm envious of Bill's obvious talents as a dissertation director, and I continue to be impressed with his students' work, especially Sun's.

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Reading :: Networks and Netwars

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 22:19:13

Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy

by John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

Although I was not that impressed with Hugh Hewitt's Blog, I was intrigued by his references to John Arquilla. Arquilla works (or worked?) for RAND, where he developed the concept of "netwar," a type of low-intensity conflict made practical by new information technologies:

To be precise, the term netwar refers to an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age. These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed organizations, small groups, and individuals who communicate, coordinate, and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, often without a precise central command. Thus, netwar differs from modes of conflict and crime in which the protagonists prefer to develop formal, stand-alone, hierarchical organizations, doctrines, and strategies as in past effots, for example, to build centralized movements along Leninist lines. Thus, for example, netwar is about the Zapatistas more than the Fidelistas, Hamas more than the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the American Christian Patriot movement more than the Ku Klux Klan, and the Asian Triads more than the Cosa Nostra. (p.6).

And, it might be added, about al Qaeda. In fact, bin Laden makes several appearances in this volume, which was written before September 11 but published shortly afterwards; the editors include an afterword discussing the attacks. And reading this volume has helped me to understand both al Qaeda and the US military response much better. The netwar strategy places a premium on decentralizing control, capability, and decision-making, and that decentralization is made possible by pervasive "internetting" or intercommunication among nodes. Think in terms of Afghanistan, where US special forces were authorized to infiltrate in small bands, keeping constant communication with air cover and authorized to negotiate with locals. Or think in terms of how the Iraqi army immediately dissolved when US forces reached Baghdad, leaving the invading forces with the problem of building security forces from the ground up while insurgents conducted irregular, improvised attacks. "Many ? if not most ? netwar actors will be nonstate, even stateless. Some may be agents of a state, but others will try to turn states into their agents. Also, a netwar actor may be both subnational and transnational in scope" (p.7).

In their introduction, the editors describe various network topologies. Smugglers may arrange themselves in a chain; a franchise or cartel might arrange itself in a hub with actors tied to a central node or actor; and militant peace groups may arrange themselves in an all-channel network in which every node is connected to every other (pp.7-8). The third is the most difficult to organize and sustain, but also the most powerful, as it offers "no precise head or heart that can be targeted" (p.9). In addition, organizations may form hybrids of these basic types. And, the editors caution, hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks (p.15). They helpfully outline prominent cases of netwar, from the Zapatistas to Chechnya to the Battle for Seattle (p.17); most of these are examined in subsequent chapters.

The rest of the book consists of case studies with interesting implications. In "The Networking of Terror in the Information Age" (pp.29-60), Michele Zanini and Sean J.A. Edwards argue that combating terror networks must involve monitoring changes in IT use (p.52) and targeting information flows (p.53). In "Transitional Criminal Networks" (pp.61-97), Phil Williams likens criminal networks to "boundary spanners" (p.77) that cross borders and markets. He identifies several different business roles, including organizers, insulators, communicators, guardians, extenders, monitors, and crossovers (pp.82-83). In "The Emergence and Influence of the Zapatista Social Netwar" (pp.171-199), David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla examine the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico, leading with the intriguing thesis that "social newar is more effective the more democratic the setting" (p.171); they demonstrate that the Zapatista insurgency's success rested on its ability to network with sympathetic NGOs that helped to turn the public's sympathy their way. They also call the Zapatistas the world's first "postmodern" insurgency.

Perhaps the most intriguing case study is of the "Battle for Seattle," the protests that occurred in that city in conjunction with the WTO summit in 1999. In "Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics" (pp.201-235), Paul de Armond dissects the conflict in detail, demonstrating how an all-channel network organized itself, constructed a strategy and tactics, and outflanked the Seattle response at every turn.

One of the most interesting overview chapters is Luther P. Gerlach's "The Structure of Social Movements: Environmental Activism and its Opponents" (pp.289-310), in which the author argues that networks are segmentary (composed of diverse groups), polycentric (having multiple, often competing leaders), networked (with mutiple linkages) (pp.289-290). Part of what makes these organizations so effective is that leaders may be charismatic and compelling, but they do not carry a movement on their own; movements are loosely affiliated but split and divide based on affinities, leading them to spread like kudzu (or, if you prefer, rhizomes). Interestingly, groups are interlinked through personal relationships and sustained by "living links" such as "traveling evangelists" (p.296) ? something that I certainly have seen in large organizations. The looseness and leaderlessness of these organizations lead to system reliability: organizations can both learn from and disavow failures, leading to relatively low-risk, high-yield development of the organization as long as the narrative is skillfully managed. Disavowal and emulation result in a sort of trial-and-error learning (p.305).

Let's sum up. What strikes me is that the all-channel communication model, the confusion of boundaries and peripheries, the headless/leaderless organization, and the devolution and distribution of authority and control, sounds a lot like some of the more ambitious new economy work. If you read Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy, for instance, they push the idea of small, flexible federations that come together temporarily to serve one customer's need, then disperse. Some of the "new economy" work in activity theory goes in this direction too. That wouldn't surprise Arquilla, who thinks that netwar is a precursor of larger changes.

Something to watch out for, though, is that the nodes of these networks don't seem to be well theorized. One problem that actor-network theorists have encountered is that their work is read as if "nodes" = human beings; their idea was that nodes were actors, which could be humans, nonhumans, or combinations; the idea was to leave the unit open in an ontological sense. I don't think that's how Arquilla and Ronfeldt are using the term; I think their nodes really are humans and/or aggregations of humans. And that means that the nodes are relatively fixed, closer to an activity network than an actor-network. Yes, it makes a big difference theoretically. >

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reading :: Breaking Up (at) Totality

Originally posted: Tue, 08 Nov 2005 21:22:42

Breaking Up (At) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter

by D. Diane Davis

I haven't read much thoroughgoing feminist theory since grad school, but what really struck me about authors such as Cixous and Kristeva was that they sounded like Terry Gross trying to tell a penis joke.

You know what I mean if you've listened to much NPR. Gross starts by introducing the interviewee, using her trademarked Very Thoughtful tone of voice. At some point she decided to inject her own (inevitably orthodox) views, which she always telegraphs with a nervous chuckle and a series of hesitations, then delivers with a leading question. That question is stated, withdrawn, and restated in rapid fire, as if posing a leading question in three different ways will somehow camoflage it as a leading question or make it any less of a statement. "So (heh hah), don't you think that ? have you ever ? do you wonder if ?" And when Gross is unsure or insecure, her voice grows even more thoughtful and her vocabulary even more academic. If she were to tell a penis joke, it would take ten minutes and she would radiate nervous discomfort all the way through.

Diane Davis, on the other hand, knows how to tell a really ribald penis joke. And, yes, that is a compliment.

Diane happens to be in the office next to mine. She's smart, animated, extroverted, and in constant motion. If you want to get a sense of her, you really should read this book. It's less colloquial than Diane is in real life, but it retains her gusto and iconoclast outlook. But perhaps "iconoclast" is not quite right. The book is about disrupting established, patriarchal modes of discourse ? hence the feminist theory ? but its goal is to encourage new sorts of conversations through affirmative laughter. Diane goes after this goal by drawing on Deleuze, Haraway, and similar scholars to explore themes of heterogeneity and multiplicity. She encourages us not to "fear fluidity" but rather to examine rhetoric ontologically, relying less on unified subjects and more on metaphors of fluids and clusters. The book "after an instantaneous gestalt switch rather than a long-term political program; we are after tactics rather than strategies" (p.56). The inventive use of typography throughout allows her to underline her points playfully. It's a bit like watching Rip Taylor.

Actually, the typography is symptomatic of Diane's extroversion. And like many extroverts, I think she has a hard time understanding that her vision of writing as uninhibited, orgiastic, excessive, festive, etc. is not especially appealing to introverts like myself. To an extrovert, introverts seem to be filled with fear and that's what makes them reserved, uninterested in engaging in the Burkean parlor, more inclined to strategy than tactics. No, introverts often find public engagement draining; festivals and parlors are tests of psychic endurance. Metaphors based on those sorts of events are therefore extremely unappealing to introverts ? accomplishing precisely the opposite of what they intend, binding rather than liberating, exhausting rather than rejuvenating. Characterizing this reaction as fffffffear is a bit unfair.

Despite the metaphor, though, the book really is valuable. Diane thinks about issues of power and privilege ontologically, and in doing so, levels a sharp critique of composition pedagogies (including feminist pedagogies) that often hits its mark. Don't be put off by the gnome on the front cover (not Diane's choice, by the way). Take a look.

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Reading :: Blog

Originally posted: Tue, 08 Nov 2005 20:45:41

Blog : Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World

by Hugh Hewitt

Near the end of this book, published in early 2005, Hugh Hewitt discusses the implications of the blogosphere for one particularly relevant sector:

When the first Supreme Court nominee of the new media era arrives, watch the blogs explode with commentary and investigation. Everey opinion the nominee wrote or case on which the nominee participated will serve as fodder for the new media. Anita Hill would not have lasted a weeked with the new media on her case. But a flawed nominee will melt more quickly than a Popsicle in Vegas in July. ... It will be a magnificent battle of text merchants. (p.148)

And so it came to pass. First Roberts, then Miers, and now Alito are being subjected to blogospheric examination. But it's worth noting Hewitt's role in Miers' inquiry: faced with a pick who appeared underqualified, whose position as President's counsel raised real questions about the separation of powers, Hewitt fell in line behind the nominee. Blogger Qando describes Hewitt in this way:

If you were to combine all three Powerline bloggers, Sean Hannity and any given Republican Party Chairman in some sort of GOP experiment to create the most reliable Republican pundit'd have Hugh Hewitt: the distilled essence of The Party Man.

I point out this issue not to hammer on Hugh Hewitt as a person but to illustrate one of the problems with Blog, his book on the blogosphere. Blog really does have some interesting insights and even flashes of brilliance. But it is also frequently blinkered because Hewitt really is a Party Man: he casts things in terms of Right and Left, he identifies Right as right, and he identifies the President as Right. So other dimensions of the political discussion ? in the Miers case, the good and proper perpetual antagonism among branches of government, which transcends party lines ? gets lost in his analysis. Symptomatically, he describes Andrew Sullivan as a "onetime conservative" ? after all, Sullivan used to support the administration, which made him conservative, and now he doesn't, which made him liberal. Yes?

No. But this limitation, which causes Hewitt to gravitate to heroic bloggers on the Right, diminishes the insights of the book only a little. Hewitt cites two ways of understanding the blogosphere as a transformative moment, a moment in which "everyone can be a journo" if they have a cameraphone and a blog (p.x), every reader can be an ombudsman and editor (p.37).

One way is by seeing the blogosphere as symptomatic of a Reformation. In Chapter 2, Hewitt retells the story of the Protestant Reformation, noting how the printing press provided the means for relatively cheap reproduction of texts and therefore routed around the bottlenecks that had allowed the Catholic Church to monopolize information. Once the printing press made the Scripture available to the masses, the principle of sola scriptura became a workable principle and the priesthood of the believer became tenable. That is, the printing press allowed Christians to decentralize church authority. This metaphor is somewhat illuminating, though I suspect it's not especially accessible to those without an evangelical background.

The other way is by seeing the blogosphere in terms of military strategy. In Chapter 1, which I found the most interesting chapter in the book, Hewitt calls on conflict theorist John Arquilla's work to provide a strategic vocabulary. Hewitt quotes Arquilla, who sounds a bit Harawayan:

Networking means much the same for the military as it does in business and social-activist settings, not to mention among information-age terrorists and criminals: monitoring the environment more broadly with highly sophisticated sensors; expanding lateral information flows; forming and deploying small, agile, specialized teams; and devolving much (but not all) command authority downward. But it also has a doctrinal implication that these other types of actors are learning faster than the U.S. military: It's a good idea to become adept at "swarming."

Swarming is a seemingly amorphous but carefully structured, coordinated way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable "pulsing" of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. It will work best ? perhaps it will only work ? if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. The aim is to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, attack it, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse. (pp.3-4)

Let me emphasize that Hewitt is quoting Arquilla here; these are not Hewitt's words. Hewitt's contribution here is not in originating the idea but in applying it to the blogosphere. Although the idea doesn't really fit ? the blogosphere is not divided neatly into warring camps except in the minds of Hewitt and similar partisans ? it provides some insight into blog swarms.

Both ways of understanding the blogosphere emphasize decentalization of authority, and this is a theme that runs through the book. Hewitt contends that decentralization of authority has been most obvious in journalism so far, but it is spreading across other information fields as well (p.94). So the second half of the book is all about managing organizational identity in the face of this new decentralization. Hewitt really embraces what has elsewhere been called the "hyperlinked organization", encouraging blogs at all levels of the organization, as well as discussing strategies for dealing with blog swarms. (One is simply being truthful; here, he sounds a lot like The Cluetrain Manifesto.) In fact, he says that CEOs should blog honestly and daily (p.124).

Blog, in fact, was published by Thomas Nelson publishing, whose CEO has been blogging for a while on the theme of "working smart." I ran across this blog via a link from 43 folders and have checked in occasionally; after reading Blog, I'm fairly certain that the author began blogging on Hewitt's advice. It's relatively secular. (In fact, the CEO took a lot of heat in his comments section a while back when he announced that his company would donate Bibles to Katrina victims. One commenter asked: Why Bibles? Why not the Koran? The CEO replied: Um, because we publish Bibles. Like the commenter, I hadn't realized that fact until I read the reply.)

The second half of the book loses steam. In fact, Hewitt is clearly blue-skying the implications of blogging for different sectors in Chapter 12, probably because the book wasn't long enough. But the first half of the book is certainly worth reading.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Reading :: Essentials of Strategic Project Management

Originally posted: Tue, 01 Nov 2005 20:56:51

Essentials of Strategic Project Management

by Kevin R. Callahan, Lynne M. Brooks

I know very little about project management, but I've been meaning to learn, both for my own edification and for better understanding organizations. So I went to the library and picked up ? I'm not ashamed to admit it ? the thinnest two project management books I could find. One was Essentials of Strategic Project Management, which turned out to be a good move. Essentials is a short read broken into assimilable chunks. And although it's pitched to larger organizations, the principles are applicable to academic organizations as well.

The book sets up a typology for managing projects: "STO," which stands for the strategic, tactical, and operational levels of planning. The strategic level is managerial and involves initiation and planning of projects. The tactical level involves some planning as well, and also execution; project leaders handle this work. Finally, the operational level, which is handled by team members, involves some execution as well as closing and control (p.32). The typology, of course, is a way of ensuring a division of labor and (not incidentally, though this is dealt with gently in the examples) avoiding compulsive top-down micromanagement.

Once the typology is described, the book discusses how to mesh it with the organization type and the organization's overall business strategy. Coherence is a big theme here, not surprisingly, and the authors devote a lot of thought to reconciling the different components of a complex organization.

One of the more thought-provoking sections for me was the one on project maturity. Apparently project management maturity in organizations has five levels:

  1. Initial Process
  2. Structure Process and Standards
  3. Organizational Standards and Institutionalized Processes
  4. Managed Process
  5. Optimizing Process

By my reading, my organization is between levels 1 and 2. And although academic units are certainly different from business units, I still think there's a lot to learn from the maturity model set forth here. I'll have to do some meditating on this.

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Friday, October 28, 2005

Reading :: The Cluetrain Manifesto

Originally posted: Fri, 28 Oct 2005 09:37:10

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual

by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger

In the Acknowledgements of this book, the authors thank "Dan Gillmour, who despite strong reservations about The Manifesto's style, deemed it significant enough to cover it in the San Jose Mercury-News" (p.185). I know what Gillmour means. This book's style varies across the four authors, but Christopher Locke sets the tone in his chapters, which tend to discuss how important it is to get away from business-speak and write in our own authentic voices. Here's a sample:

But maybe ? and it's a big maybe ? companies can get our of their own way. Maybe they can become much looser associations of free individuals. Maybe they can cut "their" people enough slack to actually act and sound like people instead of 1950s science-fiction robots. Gort need more sales! Gort need make quota! You not buy now, Gort nuke your planet!

Easy there, Gort. Calm down boy. Here, chew on this kryptonite.

Everybody's laughing. No one gives a rat's ass. So here's another question. Perhaps you even thought of it yourself. How come this book ended up in the business section of your local bookstore instead of under Humor, Horror, or True Crime? Hey, don't look at us. (p.182)

And it goes on in this vein. Despite Locke's appalling ignorance of 1950s science fiction conventions, the thing that really jumped out at me was how mannered the style is. The authors are fairly obsessed with authenticity, insisting that the marketplace is a conversation and that conversations are between (authentic) people rather than inauthentic corporate drones. But despite this expressivist orientation, the style is so excessively performative that it sounds as inauthentic as what it replaced. But also quite familiar. Compare it to the text on the back of the Gloomaway Grapefruit Body Souffle jar my wife bought some years ago:

Scoop. Stroke. Smooth. When a bad day leaves you thinking enough is enough, you'll know why they say I love juicy. Lively Grapefruit spontaneously creates a sense of optimism and contentment. Your whole being is nurtured in silky-softness. Laugh and let go. The sad stops here.

The text is a little more sedate, but the half-baked jump-cut mass culture references, slightly reoriented phrases, and forced informality is still here. Locke's authentic voice sounds a lot like ad copy written to Gen-Xers.

Unfortunately, the book is a lot more repetitive than ad copy. It seems as if every page contains one of the following: the phrase "markets are conversations"; a reference to authenticity; or the claim that employees and customers are laughing at executives, who are really just frightened little boys. In fact, Locke seems obsessed with the third point. The quote above gives the faintest glimmer of the frequency with which this theme is raised, in lengthy and explicit terms. That leads me to think that he's really describing his own fears and assuming everyone else shares them. When you're obsessed with everyone else's opinion of you, of course you'll try to show that you're clued in via your concepts and your style. And when you think that everyone is similarly obsessed, of course that will become your main theme, the thing that you believe will motivate them to change. It's an extrovert's view of the world. As an introvert, I found it tedious.

But like Dan Gillmour, I found worth in the book as well. Clear away the repetition, posturing, and etc. and you'll find a fairly prescient view of how new media had begun to change business. The book mostly focuses on marketing and services, but it also has broader applications.

For instance, in his first chapter, Locke manages a relatively coherent discussion of how global competition led to micro markets, resulting in problems for command-and-control management (p.13). Locke points to Total Quality Management as one noble but failed experiment in trying a more "conversational" model, even pointing to it as a precursor of the open Internet conversation (p.14). "Top-down command-and-control management has become dysfunctional and counterproductive," he declares (p.21). He expects more and more market share to be taken by microsize competitors which can spring up overnight and reconfigure themselves quickly because of Internet business dynamics. "The Net will cause radical discontinuities, catastrophic breaks in the already crumbling facade of business-as-usual," he says (p.25), providing an early vision of what Zuboff and Maxmin would later call "federations."

In a later chapter, Doc Searls and David Weinberger argue that advertising is no match for the "word of web," the communication among customers that allows them to quickly share experiences and expertise. One example is Amazon's ratings system. Elsewhere, I've made a similar argument about software documentation.

Weinberger argues later that organizations are becoming "hyperlinked," which is to say, each person in an organization can have connections to those within and outside that organization (p.155). Someone deep inside a product development team can discuss products directly with customers, for instance, bypassing managerial barriers. He looks forward to an "economy of voice" (p.158) in which organizations are valued because of the conversations in which their members engage. Unfortunately this can take an ugly turn:

In a hyperlinked organization, voice plays the old role of the org chart, telling you whom you should work with. That Mary is the Under-VP of Expectation Deflations for the western semi-region tells you nothing. That Mary is wicked smart, totally frank, and a trip to work with tells you everything. (p.148)

Everything? What this tells me is that Weinberger's ideal organization is a meritocracy in which the measure of merit is extroversion, not expertise or reliability or the other things we typically associate with workplace merit ? and that, in my experience, people in hyperlinked organizations tend to seek out.

The Cluetrain Manifesto can be a painful experience to read, though probably not for the reasons that the authors expect. But it also has some insights that could be useful ? not least insights into the mentality of those who have enthusiastically hyped the Net Economy.


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Monday, October 24, 2005

Reading :: Digitizing the News

Originally posted: Mon, 24 Oct 2005 10:28:55

Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers

by Pablo J. Boczkowski

Digitizing the News is an interesting account of how newspapers have attempted to move online. Boczkowski's first three chapters give us necessary background, while the next three describe case studies conducted at three newspapers conducting online experiments in the late 1990s. Towards the end of the last case study we find out that one of his informants and mentors was Jeff Jarvis ? which may give you an idea of Boczkowski's take on these online experiments.

Boczkowski first gives us a history of newspapers' online experiments, starting with Videotex in the early 1980s and moving up to the late 1990s. Papers originally saw online media as a way to repurpose content. But then papers began to recombine content by customizing general products (ex: delivering particular kinds of stories to particular readers); providing vertical information streams on one subject (ex: city guides); providing a network of content across locales (ex:; and providing archives of past stories. Finally, they moved to recreating, providing content developed primarily or exclusively for the site; this involves making the byproducts of newswriting available, but it also means opening ways for users to generate content. This involves unbundling a unitary media artifact (p.64).

The last part ? the ability of users to generate content ? is the kicker, of course. As Boczkowski says, newspapers are used to generating a unidirectional information flow. But with user-authored content, suddenly there can be a multiplicity of information flows, often poorly integrated (p.96). As Boczkowski explores in the last case study, these user-authored flows hae traditionally been placed under heavy editorial control, but an explosion in user-authored flows has made that control untenable (p.152). Boczkowski talks about "gate-opening" (as opposed to gatekeeping). "Workers thus open up the online paper to contributors, turning it into a space for knowledge creation and circulation. ... The shift from traditional gatekeeping to newsroom routines centered on the facilitation and circulation of knowledge produced by a vast and heterogeneous network of users-turned-producers" (p.158). In dailies,

the editorial function has been constituted as mediation work, the product defined as a unidirectional flow of generalized content, and readers inscribed as content consumers rather than producers. To manage such a production system, dailies, like many firms since the nineteenth century, have become organizational hierarchies with centralized authority and relations of dependence among the various levels. (p.164)

Yes, and this organization has outlasted the print media whose characteristics helped to shape it. Boczkowski urges a different approach, which he calls "distrubuted construction":

the thrust of distributed construction is that, given certain conditions, content production in new media does not happen inside a firm's newsroom but results from the interactions with users. ... distributed construction illuminates new engagements between media organizations and consumers who contribute to the production process while making a living some other way. (p.166)

Boczkowski gets the term "distributed construction" from "distributed cognition." Unfortunately, this is characteristic of his analysis: in later chapters he draws from distributed cognition as well as from actor-network theory and articulation work, but doesn't seem to delve deeply or gain many insights from them. That surprises me, since Trevor Pinch served as his dissertation advisor.

Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, especially for people who are interested in new media.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Reading Roundup: Czerwinski and Mark on Fragmented Work

Originally posted: Tue, 18 Oct 2005 23:33:06

After reading the New York Times article on fragmented work, I looked up two of the researchers quoted in the article. Some interesting stuff here.

Czerwinski, M., Horvitz, E., and Wilhite, S. (2004). A diary study of task switching and interruptions. In CHI ?04: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pages 175?182, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press.

This article does a good job of using and explaining diary studies, an intriguing data collection method that has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that participants have control over the data collection and what and how they choose to code can be as instructive as the data itself. The result is that participants choose their own scale and definition for tasks, events, and details.

Most intriguingly, the authors provide a prototype application for helping participants switch tasks.

Hutchings, D. R., Smith, G., Meyers, B., Czerwinski, M., and Robertson, G. (2004). Display space usage and window management operation comparisons between single monitor and multiple monitor users. In AVI ?04: Proceedings of the working conference on Advanced visual interfaces, pages 32?39, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press.

Czerwinski and her colleagues have used other methods as well. In this article, they use Vibelog to log system events in order to get a sense of how participants used screen real estate. They demonstrate through several intriguing visualizations that the larger the screen real estate, the more productive the participant tends to be and the more likely s/he is to recover from interruptions. Of course, logging system events has the opposite problem from diary studies: you get a precise idea of what happens on screen, but not much insight into what's happening offscreen.

Bradner, E. and Mark, G. (2002). Why distance matters: effects on cooperation, persuasion and deception. In CSCW ?02: Proceedings of the 2002 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work, pages 226?235, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press.

In this article, Bradner and Mark are interested in how perceptions of distance affects interactions. They investigate with a straight-ahead experiment: a participant sits in a room with a terminal and interacts cooperatively (via either webcam or IM) to solve problems with someone at a distance. The participant is told that the participant is either in the same city or across the country. The greater the perceived distance, the less cooperatively the participant tended to interact.

Gonzalez, V. M. and Mark, G. (2004). "Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness": Managing multiple working spheres. In CHI ?04: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pages 113?120, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press.

Here, the investigators turn to shadowing as a data collection method. In their in situ study of 14 information workers over a seven-month period, they concluded that people organize work in large, thematically connected units that they call "working spheres." Workers switch among an average of ten working spheres.

The term brings to mind other units of analysis, such as activity systems. But Gonzalez and Mark mean ways in which people divide their work (ex: central, peripheral, personal) rather than stable cyclical object-oriented activities:

We define a working sphere as a set of interrelated events, which share a common motive (or goal), involves the communication or interaction with a particular constellation of people, uses unique resources and has its own time framework. With respect to tools, each working sphere might use different documents, reference materials, software, or hardware. It is the whole web of motives, people, resources, and tools that distinguishes it from other working spheres. (p.117)

Notice that the working sphere is primarily defined by the material and human concatenation rather than the orientation toward a particular goal -?although "motives" is slipped in there. This sounds much more like distributed cognition's functional units than, say, activity theory's activity systems. And without that strong object-orientation, it seems likely that the unit is going to have trouble being nailed down or explained. On the other hand, downplaying the motive gives the working sphere the same advantages as actor-networks, ontologically speaking.

The authors also note that many artifacts both signal and describe work: post-it notes, planners, printouts, and email inboxes. Finally, they provide a nice succinct definition of work fragmentation based on the appropriate literature (p.119). They found that workers tended to switch between working spheres about every three minutes.

Mark, G., Gonzalez, V. M., and Harris, J. (2005). No task left behind? : Examining the nature of fragmented work. In CHI ?05: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pages 321?330, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press.

This article appears to be describing the same study as the one above. The authors argue that there are two components to work fragmentation: (a) time spent in the activity and (b) frequency of interruptions.

We define work fragmentation as a break in continuous work activity. Studies continually describe how the work of information workers is characterized by spending short amounts of time in tasks and switching frequently. This has been found with managers [7,13,23], financial analysts [6], software developers [18], and even telecommuters [8]. Studies have also reported on the interruptions that information workers experience [4,7,16,20]. (p.321)

They invoke the literature on work fragmentation more thoroughly here, and argue that "managing multiple activities is becoming more recognized as a basic characteristic of work life for information workers" (p.321).

Mark, G. and Poltrock, S. (2003). Shaping technology across social worlds: groupware adoption in a distributed organization. In GROUP ?03: Proceedings of the 2003 international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work, pages 284?293, New York, NY, USA. ACM Press.

The authors are here concerned about spatial and temporal distribution of work, particularly in distributed organizations:

Distributed organizations can be considered to be fluid organizations. The boundaries between work units may be in continual flux as teams reconfigure to incorporate expertise drawn from any geographical location in the company. Distributed organizations do not have one adoption context, but many, depending on for example, whether people are working with colleagues who are collocated or remote. Thus, various contexts and group configurations are involved in adoption decisions. We propose social world theory as a framework for understanding technology diffusion across distance in a distributed organization. (p.285)

They see social world theory as a complement to working spheres. My inclination is to subsume both in terms of activity systems and networks: it would allow them to get to the main idea of a social world as a unit of collective action, describe multiple adoption contexts (p.285), and describe action as fluid, diverse, and multiple (pp.285-286). Nevertheless, the piece is really valuable for thinking about how human activity is changed by distributed work.

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Reading :: Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication

Originally posted: Fri, 14 Oct 2005 09:47:14

Innovative Approaches to Teaching Technical Communication

by Tracy Bridgeford (Editor), Karla Saari Kitalong (Editor), Dickie Selfe (Editor)

I really liked Brad Melenbacher and Stan Dicks' chapter in this collection, which describes a framework for conducting service learning-oriented research. The framework integrates a variety of user-centered design and usability methods, and the appendix does a nice job of summarizing usability principles. What Melenbacher and Dicks provide is not a how-to, but a 50,000 foot view of what a solidly integrated course looks like.

If only the rest of the collection followed suit! But the chapters mostly fall into the pattern set by innumerable pedagogy articles: they describe tips, tricks, and palliatives aimed at making TC assignments easier to swallow. If you've been itching to bring literature into the TC classroom, compel students to write autobiographies, or oversee their role-playing, this collection is for you. Otherwise -- the Melenbacher and Dicks piece is Chapter 13, pp. 219-237.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Reading :: Capital, Vol.2

Originally posted: Wed, 12 Oct 2005 20:12:30

Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume 2)

by Karl Marx

As I said in my review of Capital Vol.1, I'm not an economist and my primary interests are in how Marx describes work organization and (more generally) sociological development. Vol.2 doesn't give me a lot to go on here, since it is primarily concerned with describing how commodities circulate. Nevertheless, it hes some interesting points that relate to my current projects.

My current projects have been centering around work fragmentation and knowledge work. As I said in my review of Vol.1, Marx is dealing with industrial capitalism, and capitalism has changed a bit since then. In particular, Marx makes the following assertions:

  • In the transport industry, production and consumption are simultaneous (p.135). This assertion also seems to have direct implications for the communication industry.
  • "Continuity is the characteristic feature of capitalist production" (p.182).
  • The more perishable a commodity is, the less appropriate it is as the object of capitalist production (p.206).
  • Capitalism reduces transport costs by increasing the scale and developing transportation and communication infrastructure (p.229). It seems to me that distributed work results from a radical increase in communications infrastructures, a distribution of means of communication, and communication itself as production.
  • Workers are drawn from a latent surplus population into new lines of work, then released after the inevitable crash (p.391). In distributed work, to what extent is this cycle regularized and how has it changed the nature of work and learning?

I'm still trying to wrap my head around Marx's insights, but it seems to me that he still has a lot to say in terms of how we understand work. The hard part for me is in figuring out ? without any economic background ? what transfers and what has been obviated. >

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Reading :: Power and Legitimacy in Technical Communication, Vol.2

Originally posted: Wed, 12 Oct 2005 20:28:22

Power and Legitimacy in Technical Communication: Strategies for Professional Status

by Teresa Kynell-Hunt (Editor), Gerald J. Savage (Editor)

Technical communication is still trying to establish itself as a field, as we're told in this collection, much of which is devoted to figuring out what to do to advance that goal. But the collection illustrates in quite direct fashion why that goal is going to be difficult to achieve. The authors come to the question from a variety of theoretical (and sometimes atheoretical) perspectives, draw from different literatures, conceive different roles for technical communicators and TC researchers in the academy, chart different courses, assert different values.

Now, it's easy as a reviewer to pick apart collections, which are very difficult to keep cohesive. But in the best collections, the chapters achieve some sort of coherence through a shared, established theme or set of themes ? and they sustain that coherence through dialogue. This collection doesn't do that; "power and legitimacy" turn out too be too weak to hold it together, and dialogue is almost entirely lacking, with so little shared across essays that they don't even seem to come from the same field. So Beth Thebeaux launches an extended attack on theorists and urges us to get back to serving industry rather than reading fiction or dabbling in postmodernism; Jimmie Killingsworth urges us to bring science fiction into our classrooms; Jerry Savage invokes postmodernist theory to critique TC in industry; and nobody responds to each others' points.

The individual essays tend to be interesting, sometimes even thought-provoking. Thebeaux's essay in particular, an extended straw person argument, is entertaining and had me composing responses in my head. But as a whole, there is no whole.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Reading :: Literate Lives in the Information Age

Originally posted: Mon, 03 Oct 2005 08:58:59

Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States

by Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher

The book Literate Lives is a set of 20 case studies selected from over 350 people who filled in questionnaires or conducted interviews with the authors over a six-year period. It has many virtues, summed up nicely by the conclusion. Here, the authors discuss how these case studies cover the years during which personal computers came on the market and became pervasive.

Today, personal computers have become embedded so deeply in the landscape that they are disappearing, becoming invisible, much like electricity or cars or ballpoint pens, all emergent technologies from previous periods in U.S. history. When this disappearing act is complete, when the memories of what some have referred to as the computer revolution have faded, these first-hand accounts of people's lived experiences will help us remember how computers dramatically altered our lives, and literacy, at one particular point in history. (p.211)

A virtuous project indeed, one with considerable promise. Selfe and Hawisher further connect these micro-level case studies with the broad sweep of technological and social change during the times they cover, a technique that helps us to contextualize them.

But virtues without moderation can become vices. The broad sweep or macrolevel picture comes from the extensive digital divide literature, particularly the series of reports entitled Falling Through the Net published during the Clinton years. The statistics in these reports are closely reflected in the 20 case studies, so closely that the case studies' microlevel narratives appear to be selected primarily to illustrate the extant macrolevel data. And that's exactly what they do. The problem is that we already know the stories from the macrolevel data; the case studies don't appear to have anything further to offer, or at least we don't discover anything more about literacy from the case studies than we do from reading the statistics.

The case studies would be much more useful -- and differentiated from the macrolevel narratives, and lifelike, and surprising -- if they were more systematically analyzed. We get narratives of how the participants first encountered computers and how they gained access to different programs, but not much detail about how these literacies can be categorized, mapped, or systematically studied. The case studies, as Selfe and Hawisher tell us in the conclusion, are analyzed along the axes of race, sex, and class -- not a very sophisticated analytical framework. Imagine what this book could have been if it had adopted Stuart Selber's comprehensive and well developed "multiliteracies" framework instead.

For me, this was the most disappointing aspect of the book. Its corpus could have been a goldmine with some systematic analysis, shedding insight into the interplay among literacies across different generations and cultural lines. But instead we get a stream of narratives with lingering attention on the race/gender/class struggles and with frequent adjectives such as "courageous," "undaunted," and "inevitable." You know these stories, you've seen them on American Dreams. They hold no surprises -- and in a study like this, that's the most disappointing thing of all.


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Monday, September 26, 2005

Reading :: The Rhetoric of Risk

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Sep 2005 08:46:08

The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments

by Beverly J. Sauer

The Rhetoric of Risk won the NCTE 2002 best book in scientific and technical communication. It's easy to see why. In scope and in breadth, it's impressive; in overall project, it does a lot to make rhetoric and professional communication directly relevant to other fields. The particular field Sauer is addressing is the mining industry, specifically the tangle of regulations that surround its practices and ensure safety. Sauer methodically works through various genres, including training documents, procedures, maps, and post-mortality reports, to examine how well these work.

To make sense of these, Sauer describes a six-part cyclical rhetorical transformation of knowledge:

1) Local documentation

2) Accident reports

3) Statistical reports

4) Policy and regulations

5) Practices and procedures

6) Training and instruction

These types of documents, she says, all feed into each other; local knowledge becomes instantiated in national policy and vice versa. But this explicit, textual knowledge can't represent everything; workers' embodied knowledge is also important, and difficult to represent outside of gestures. One of her most interesting claims, in fact, is that judgement in assessing risk is based on three warrants: embodied knowledge ("pit sense"), scientific knowledge, and engineering expertise. Two of these can be described textually, but pit sense tends to be described and represented through gestures. Sauer investigates these gestures thoroughly in Chapter 7, in which she demonstrates that the presence and absence of gesture can reveal the understanding of risk.

The book's not perfect. One thing that bothered me was that Sauer would occasionally make broad pronouncements about what "activity theorists" think, and each time her sole cite was a chapter by Edwin Hutchins, who is not an activity theorist! But overall it provided an illuminating view of regulation and documentation in a massive, risk-heavy, slowly changing industry.


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Saturday, September 24, 2005

Reading :: Dialogic Inquiry

Originally posted: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 11:01:15

Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Socio-cultural Practice and Theory of Education

by Gordon Wells

As the title implies, Gordon Wells is mostly interested in how education is conducted. He works within a Vygotskian framework, drawing heavily on cultural-historical activity theory to conceptualize knowledge and to think deeply about how people learn. The book turns out to be both interesting and valuable, particularly the theoretical framework developed in Chapter 1.

Here, Wells draws on Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and Halliday, turning up what I thought were some striking parallels. Based on this discussion, he argues that we should think not of knowledge but of knowing, a collaborative attempt to better understand and transform their shared world" (p.76). Only individuals know, but they do so in shared activity. Knowing is "a goal-oriented social process mediated by representational artifacts" (p.83). And knowledge is developed in a "spiral of knowing" (p.85), which appears to be based on Ilyenkov by way of Engestrom.

As we get into the book, the theoretical work continues. For instance, Wells productively examines classroom activity at the three levels of activity (activity, action, operation), and makes the point that these are not just hierarchically related, they are different perspectives (p.169). He addresses the issue of scope in activity (p.180). He argues that genre "provides a way of characterizing the organization of the chosen actions and operations in terms of socially shared specifications of the constituent elements and their sequential arrangement" (p.181). And he acknowledges that there are different perspectives on the enactment of an activity system, depending on who occupies the subject position.

In other words, Wells, presents a sophisticated understanding of activity theory and grapples with many of the questions that "third generation" AT has been addressing. If you're interested in seeing AT's potential for informing educational research, take a look.


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Reading :: Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism

Originally posted: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 10:23:22

Mikhail Bakhtin : Between Phenomenology and Marxism

by Michael F. Bernard-Donals

Just after the beginning of the fall classes, I placed this book on the counter in the department's office along with my other stuff so that I could go back and make coffee. (I drink a lot of coffee, and the DRW buys the good stuff.) As I'm about to pour myself a cup, I hear my colleague Trish Roberts-Miller say, "Oh! Clay, you're teaching Michael Donals' book? That's great!" Apparently they taught together in Missouri. Small world.

I wasn't teaching from this book, though. I picked it up because I had become very interested in the difference between dialogics and dialectics and I wanted to know what others thought about it. Bernard-Donals doesn't address the question head on, but he does have some really interesting thoughts on how Bakhtin is situated. Some of these thoughts are quite foreign to me: I came to Bakhtin from the perspective of North American genre theory, which emphasizes sociocultural explorations of lived activity. Bernard-Donals, in contrast, comes from the perspective of literary criticism. Consequently, he cites a stableful of scholars whose work I haven't read and don't plan to read (Althusser, Eagleton), and what he means by "Marxist" tends to be deeply grounded in these critics' work. Consequently, "his" Bakhtin sounded quite a bit different from "mine."

Bernard-Donals' argument, in a nutshell, is that Bakhtin occupied an ambivalent position between phenomenology and Marxism. He drew on phenomenology for his exploration of individual human cognition and human aesthetics. But when he turned to social aspects and formations, he drew on Marxism (pp.2-3). Bakhtin, however, never reconciled the two -- and consequently, different camps "read" different Bakhtins.

All right, I thought to myself as I read this. I'm not terribly familiar with phenomenology, and I'm cautious about what is entailed by Marxism in literary criticism -- and Bakhtin, though we tend to consider him a language philosopher, mostly worked through literary criticism. So let's see how this develops.

The first three chapters primarily deals with the issue of phenomenology, and Bernard-Donals has lots of interesting things to say here about individual cognition (with some footnotes on Vygotsky; see p.30). He does a good job of explaining the difference between dialogue and dialogism, for instance (p. 34). And, although he doesn't bring in dialectic specifically, he suggests in his discussion of answerability that one's situation and interpretation never match (p.57). He hits his stride pretty well here.

But just as he does, he gets a stone in his shoe. In Chapter 4, he turns his attention to the Marxist texts. What are Bakhtin's Marxist texts, you may ask. Simple: the ones that don't bear his name.

That's right, he's referring to the three books that were ostensibly written by the other members of Bakhtin's circle, Voloshinov and Medvedev, both of whom were card-carrying Marxists. These texts have long been disputed -- which is to say, they seem to strongly reflect many of Bakhtin's ideas, and they are certainly better than the other books by their putative authors, but Bakhtin was silent on whether he had actually had a hand in them. They are markedly different from Bakhtin's other books in that they quote Marx and Engels, invoke dialectic (positively), discuss ideology, and follow the sorts of moves that got books published in Stalinist Russia. It's worth noting, as many have, that these books (published in 1927-1929) were quite different from Bakhtin's Dostoevsky book, published in 1929.

So when Bernard-Donals notes the strong Marxist cast in these texts, and the relative absence of phenomenology, one would expect it to be a strong argument against Bakhtin's authorship of them. Bernard-Donals actually addresses the controversy: "That Marxism and the philosophy of language and The formal method bear the name of authors other than Bakhtin does not seem reason enough to remove these books from the Bakhtin canon" (p.88). He acknowledges some of the proofs against Bakhtin's authorship, then argues that Bakhtin's overall project is "at least in some respects fellow-traveling with historical materialism" (p.88). Yes, but that isn't proof that Bakhtin did or did not write the disputed texts. Somehow, the question gets lost and Bernard-Donals emerges at the end of the paragraph simply assuming that Bakhtin really was the texts' author! Perhaps there is an argument here that simply eludes me.

To be fair, Bernard-Donals argues that Bakhtin treats language as "ideological material" in other, undisputed books as well as the disputed ones. But that resemblance -- which is not surprising, given the pervasiveness of the Marxist project in the Stalinist years, the Marxist orientation of the Bakhtin circle, and the consequent elevation of the questions that Marxism tended to ask -- seems to be miles away from actual proof. Not all materialist theories are dialectical materialism. Not all sociologically oriented theories are Marxist.

And so the second half of the book frustrated me. Bernard-Donals concludes, after comparing Bakhtin's work with that of historical materialists, that Bakhtin "did not offer a theory of social transformation per se" (p.132). He offers criticism of this gap. But this is what distinguishes Bakhtin so sharply from the Marxist project, isn't it? Bakhtin turned from dialectics to dialogics, from the Engelsian evolution of everything to the ritual decrowning of Rabelas, from the scientific monologue envisioned by Vygotsky to the circling, circulating, unfinalizable dialogue in Dostoevsky. >

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Reading :: Rapid Contextual Design

Originally posted: Thu, 01 Sep 2005 09:36:57

Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design by Karen Holtzblatt, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, Shelley Wood

Somehow it's appropriate to read this book after Aristotle. Like Aristotle's Rhetoric, Rapid Contextual Design has a few striking ideas and a lot of exhaustive advice about the details. It is indeed "a how-to guide to key techniques." And they're generally quite useful.

In fact, what I've always liked about contextual design is that it's sort of ethnography light: easy to grasp, rapidly deployable. It's not as rigorous as good ethnographic research, but it doesn't require a PhD either. I've found it to be a good way to introduce students to the concepts of fieldwork, although I'm careful to stress that one CD course does not make them qualified anthropologists. What I inevitably find, though, is that students have trouble with the details: how to conduct an unstructured interview, how to run an affinity session, how to walk the wall and do visioning. That's where this book really shines: it's full of advice about things as diverse as inductive coding, arranging for site visits, tactfully getting interviewees back on track, and constructing paper prototypes. Much of the advice is just as applicable to other types of field research, and I'm certainly going to be passing it along to my students this fall.

Contextual design itself continues to evolve in its techniques and rationale. Look carefully and you'll find some subtle adjustments to how the authors portray the methodology and how they justify its parts. They've also added some common HCI techniques: profiling and scenarios, for instance.

I don't see this book making it into heavy rotation on my shelf, but I imagine I will look at it whenever I teach this class or use CD on my own. >

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Capital, Volume 1

Originally posted: Mon, 29 Aug 2005 09:36:26

Capital, Volume 1

by Karl Marx

Yrjo Engestrom has said more than once that to understand activity theory, you have to read Marx. And unfortunately my formal education didn't include Marx. So with some trepidation, I undertook the book on my own.

My feelings are mixed. Libraries have been written about the book, countries have reworked their economies around it, and entire fields have sprung up around it. So what can I say about it? Let's delineate the scope of this review a bit. I'm not a political theorist, economist, or sociologist, so I'll tend to skip over these aspects. Instead, I'll focus on Capital's impact on the sorts of things I've been studying: activity theory, dialectic, work organization, and work structure.

In those terms, I found Capital somewhat underwhelming -- simply because I've heard most of it before, from people who have drawn heavily from Marx's work. Braverman, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky, Leont'ev, Ehn, Bodker, Kyng, Engestrom, and even Zuboff and Maxmin have addressed Marx's masterwork so thoroughly, and fields such as sociology and cultural studies have drawn so freely from it, that reading the book gave me a sense of deja vu. (Engestrom was wrong, then, in a sense.) At the same time, Marx's painstaking description of the labor conditions of industrial capitalism gave me great insight into why Marx was so motivated to change things. When Marx drifts too far toward polemic, engaging in hasty generalizations and straw man attacks, it's worthwhile to keep in mind the conditions that he opposed.

Marx starts with the familiar-in-retrospect contradiction between use-value and exchange-value (p.126 -- actually the second page of Marx's text, which follows a lengthy set of prefaces and introductions). According to Marx, use-value comes from the abstracted human labor materialized in it, and the value of an article is determined by the amount of labor necessary for its production (p.129).

Commodity production necessitates a division of labor because it calls for heterogeneous forms of labor (p.132). Later, Marx argues that the division of labor is "an organization of production which has grown up naturally, a web which has been, and continues to be, woven behind the backs of the producers of commodities" (p.201). Marx describes this web as a chain of producers who in turn consume the products of other producers (p.201), and he later argues that "there develops a whole network of social connections of natural origin, entirely beyond the control of the human agents" (p.207). Marx gets into some really interesting discussion along these lines later, when arguing that manufacture takes two forms: heterogeneous and organic. Heterogeneous manufacturing is like watchmaking, in which different streams of supplies eventually come together (p.461); organic manufacturing involves the same material being progressively transformed, allowing the different stages to be isolated and to yield a chained division of labor (p.463) in which work that had been accomplished in one place, by one person, is distributed in space and time (p.464).

The division of labor is further discussed on p.456, where Marx really begins to analyze how industrialism had changed labor; he argues that each option becomes crystallized into an exclusive function of a particular worker (also see p.457). I can see how the notion of chained activity systems comes from this early industrialist understanding of human activity, and I can see why Zuboff and Maxmin argue that these conceptions have reached the end of their shelf life -- something that particularly leapt out at me in Marx's Ch.13.

One oft-quoted passage of Capital is Marx's comparison between bees and human architects; he argues that the architect conceives in advance, then constructs, whereas the bee works by instinct (p.284). The object of labor, he says, is anything that labor separates from its connection with the environment (p.284) -- a great summary of what others such as Ilyenkov would later develop theoretically and what activity theorists would eventually turn into the focus of activity theory. In this understanding, instruments of labor -- which can include even the earth itself (p.285) -- indicate the social relations among laborers (p.286). Notice that here we see the three points of the minimal activity theory triangle: subject, object, and mediational means! It's a short, sophisticated discussion of labor that neatly prefigures so much in the activity theory tradition. Indeed, Marx even makes the point that a product can shift from tool to object and back again (p.288, 289), that the object is "soaked" in labor (p.296), and that the product of the labor represents definite masses of crystallized labor time (p.297).

Underlying the above work, of course, is dialectic. Marx didn't discuss dialectic much -- more's the pity, since Engels took up the slack, and not well in my opinion -- but he has some interesting examples of how irregularities and conflicts led to more accurate investigations of friction (Arkwright) and steam (Watt) (pp.498-499).

As I said, Capital is a rich and fascinating book, and even though it sounds familiar from cover to cover, that's only because it prefigures so very much of what came later. In reading it, I found myself understanding activity theory, dialectic, participatory design, new economy literature, and so forth in new ways. It's a struggle -- nearly a thousand pages -- but the prose is surprisingly easy to follow and the examples are generally quite clear. Now I wish this book had been part of my formal education; it's a pity I waited until now to read it.

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