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.

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