Friday, January 21, 2005

Reading :: Critical Transition from Developers to Users

Originally posted: Fri, 21 Jan 2005 10:00:03

Critical Transition from Developers to Users: Activity-Theoretical Studies of Interaction and Learning in the Innovation Process

By Mervi Hasu

Mervi Hasu is a researcher and project manager at the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at the University of Helsinki. This seems like a terribly interesting job to me. And I really can't get over how friendly and cheerful she looks. Really! She appears to be ready to spring off the webpage, shake your hand, and introduce herself. And I imagine she would have terribly interesting things to say.

I can make that statement with some certainty since I have read two of her previous articles, and they were fascinating. It turns out that those articles were based on her dissertation project, Critical Transition from Developers to Users. This dissertation is an 84-page "wrapper" for four articles the author wrote singly and in collaboration with others: her director, Reijo Miettinen, and Yrjo Engestrom. That is to say, it provides a literature review, discusses methodology and methods, and summarizes findings, but the articles themselves contain the cases. The articles are:

  • Miettinen, R. and Hasu, M. (2002). Articulating user needs in collaborative design: Towards an activity-theoretical approach. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 11:129?151.
  • Hasu, M. & Engeström, Y. (2000). Measurement in action: An activitytheoretical perspective on producer-user interaction. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 53, 61-89.
  • Hasu, M. (2000). Constructing clinical use: An activity-theoretical perspective on implementing new technology. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 12, 369-382.
  • Hasu, M. (2000). Blind men and the elephant: Implementation of a new artifact as an expansive possibility. Outlines, 2, 5-41.

I've read the two collaborative articles and they're quite good. The dissertation is good too, though not as interesting as the cases are. Partially that's because one of the most interesting ideas from my perspective -- activity networks -- is only hinted at rather than discussed in any detail. The notion is developed more fully in the Miettinen and Hasu article, but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I've complained elsewhere (in a book chapter currently in press) that activity theory tends to treat activity networks as "pipelines" in which the outputs of one activity become the inputs of another, neatly separating the activities even as researchers talk about these activities "interpenetrating." Miettinen and Hasu avoid the simplest version of this problem, but they don't treat the problem as well as they might. Figure 2 (p.135 of the article) even connects little triangles in what for all the world looks like a schematic or flowchart. Activity systems have traditionally been portrayed as undergoing contradictions that, at some point, become so unbearable that the activity collapses or transforms itself -- and one of the best studied types of contradictions is between activity systems -- so it's not surprising that Hasu takes this tack: "Typically, a pair of activity systems ? that of the developers and that of the users interacting in a situation - was chosen for more detailed analysis" (p.57 of the dissertation). This is too bad, since contradictions and pipelines are certainly not the only ways that human activities meet. I'm sure the activity network concept will develop further to better address the problem, under the pressure of actor-network theory and related approaches.

Back to the dissertation. Let me hit some of the highlights here. Hasu is at her best when discussing an activity-theoretical understanding of innovation. She draws heavily, as most people in this line of scholarship do, on Yrjo Engestrom. Engestrom is the author of Learning by Expanding (reviewed elsewhere on this site), and Hasu borrows from the notion of LBE to discuss innovation:

I will suggest an additional or complementary view on learning in innovation, according to which it is seen as a purposive activity carried out in order to recognize and proactively direct and develop the organization?s capabilities for mastering transitions, or the emerging trajectories and challenges of innovative activity. If transitions are essential, how can organizations better achieve a sense of recognition for them? How is the need for learning during a transitional stage recognized and mutually understood? I will suggest that research on learning and organizational change within activity theory and developmental work research (e.g., Engeström, 1987; Cole & Engeström; 1993) provides concepts and methodological ideas for the necessary new view of learning in innovation. (p.46)

Hasu nicely frames the problem here, and I particularly like the phrasing "emerging trajectories and challenges." When Hasu talks about innovation, she means technological change (her case is that of a neuromagnetometer under development for hospital use). This is related to the problem of ad hoc innovations that I've studied, but it's different in that these products are made to endure and to circulate into other activities. Hasu argues that activity theory provides an ideal framework for explaining how. Its studies

"involve the deliberate tracing and visualizing of disturbances and breakdowns in everyday work practices in order to create a sense of pressing developmental contradiction within the activity and to enlarge or reformulate ? expand - work practices. (p.48)

Notice that Hasu adheres to the notion of breakdowns as symptoms of contradictions. I've argued against this notion in my book, and I persist in thinking that it's a bad idea to assign one level of activity a necessarily causal role. But it's a natural assumption, one that I made in my own dissertation. In any case, Hasu uses the notion of contradictions to explain innovation:

As contradictions of an activity system are aggravated, some individual participants begin to question and deviate from its established norms. In some cases, this escalates into collaborative envisioning and a deliberate collective change effort from below (Engeström, 2000b).

Engeström (1987) proposed this as a historically new form of learning: expansive learning of cultural patterns of activity that are not yet there. An expansive transformation is accomplished when the object and motive of the activity are re-conceptualized to embrace a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode. Engeström (2000b) suggests that expansion involves horizontal or sideways learning and development. I further suggest that the notion of expansive learning is also relevant for understanding - and possibly in better mastering ? the challenges of critical transitions within the innovation process. (p.49).

This is a nice summary of learning by expanding, and it prepares us for the study's design. Hasu conducted an "ethnography case study" in which she observed the machine's use, interviewed its users and designers, and examined artifacts associated with it in different contexts. As one might expect, she observes that

Transitions are seen as inherently contradictory. From an activity-theoretical perspective, transition from one activity to the next involves participation in a new or emerging activity along with engagement in the previous one. It is assumed, therefore, that the transitional phase of the innovation examined in the present study does not take place without problems. It is also assumed that the transition constitutes a major challenge for the innovation network which was formerly oriented to the development of specific technology and basic research. (p.57)

I very much enjoyed reading this dissertation, but it really is a "wrapper" from my perspective -- I found that the really important and interesting work, theoretical as well as empirical and methodological, happened in the articles. So now I look forward to reading those remaining two articles.

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