Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Reading :: Invented Here

Originally posted: Tue, 31 May 2005 09:47:56

Invented Here: Maximizing Your Organization's Internal Growth and Profitability

by Bart Victor, Andrew C. Boynton

My Tuesday oil change turned into a seven-hour ordeal, since the mechanic discovered that my Subaru's rear bearings were wearing out. (Apparently the Foresters have a problem with this.) The upside was that I was able to race through this book in addition to other work.

I wanted to go through the book primarily because Yrjo Engestrom has been citing it a lot lately. It's similar to Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy in many ways, although it's less scholarly and attempts more of a taxonomy of work structures. This taxonomy and its implied progression, I think, is what intrigued Engestrom. On the whole, it's not a remarkable "new economy" book, but it does have some insights.

Let's start with that taxonomy. The authors posit that work ideally takes what they simply call "the right path" (you can imagine the associations that occurred to me). This "right path" has several steps or capabilities:

  • Craft: "Craft work is the application of personal know-how, or 'tacit knowledge,' to create value" (p.19).
  • Mass Production: "Reuse of articulated knowledge. Large-scale production. Effective use of lower-cost, less experienced workers" (p.48).
  • Process Enhancement: "Process enhancers share the conviction that every process must contribute to satisfying the customer by constantly achieving higher quality. Process enhancers equip workers with tools and techniques to help them apply their practical knowledge to improve tasks and processes" (p.74).
  • Mass Customization: "Efficiently make precisely what the customer wants, no less, no more. ... The concept of customization has its roots in important research into flexible, efficient, and innovative capabilities" (p.91).
  • Co-Configuration: "With co-configuration, we can imagine creating products that are not only made to order for you, but continuously remake themselves as your needs change. ... They customize themselves, not just once, but constantly, in response to your need and want. We call this value customer-intelligent products and services" (p.196).

To their credit, the authors demonstrate in detailed case studies that a particular business might be suited for a particular step; there is no universal progression. (The "right path" metaphor appears to be misleading.) Some work has to be craft work; some work is best constructed as mass production; and so forth. Knowledge work, however, fits best as co-configuration work:

Co-configuration work occurs at the interface of the firm, the customer, and the products or services. It requires constant interaction among the firm, the customer, and the product. The result is that the product continuously adjusts to what the customer wants. Co-configuration creates customer-intelligent value in products or services, where the lines between product and customer knowledge become blurred and interwoven. (p.14)

Co-configuration is kept out of the taxonomy until the last chapter in the book, partially because according to the authors, it's not achievable in most industries. Let's set it aside for a moment. The others are discussed in some detail, including their advantages and disadvantages. Most interesting is Chapter 6, "Transformation Pathways," in which the authors envision these four steps/capabilities as a loop:

  • Craftwork transforms into mass production through development: "the articulated knowledge generated under craft is identified and solidified by development into an organizational machine" (p.126).
  • Mass production transforms into process enhancement through linking: "Linking creates a system for overlapping processes that managers can continuously improve" (p.126).
  • Process enhancement transforms into mass customization through modularization: it "transforms work by creating a network of modular processes that can respond to market demands, enabling a company to customize a product or service to meet ever-shifting market needs" (p.127).
  • And mass customization transforms back into craftwork through renewal: "bringing insights on the firm's capability limits and using them to direct a process of invention. These insights can arise under any of the other forms of work" (p.127).

The authors are clearly quite excited about co-configuration, although they include so many hedges about it that it almost appears illusory. Their example of a company that might achieve this sort of work is Microsoft, but I think a better choice would have been Google or Amazon, both of which have embraced an open systems approach (yes, co-configuration sounds a lot like what I was shooting for in Chapter 6 of Tracing Genres through Organizations).

Overall, I didn't see a lot here that I haven't gotten from The Support Economy or similar books. But the taxonomy is useful and the linkages among the types of work are interesting. I'll keep it on the shelf for a while.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

(CFP: Special Issue of TCQ on Distributed Work)

Originally posted: Mon, 30 May 2005 17:42:07

I'll be editing a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly on distributed work to be published in summer 2007. "Distributed work" is shorthand for much of what has been discussed on this blog over the last year and a half: the distribution of work across geographic, disciplinary, and organizational boundaries; the attenuation and coordination of different perspectives at work; the increasing fragmentation and tensions of work activity. I hope you'll consider sending me a proposal.

If you think you have something that might fit, please check out the call for papers and feel free to email me with questions. Looking forward to your submissions.

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Reading :: Inherit the Stars

Originally posted: Mon, 30 May 2005 19:48:40

Inherit the Stars

by James P. Hogan

I mentioned the science fiction books of my childhood several posts back. One book that stood out early on, because of the creepy cover art, was James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars. Who wouldn't want to read a book in which two astronauts excavate a 50,000 year old corpse in a spacesuit? I distinctly remember being intrigued by my older brother's copy when I was in third or fourth grade, and later I got my own copy (long since sold or given away). So when I saw this copy in the used book store for a dollar, I had to buy it.

I mostly wanted to scan the book cover to provide a new icon for my AIM. But since we visited family this weekend, I went ahead and brought the book for those in-between times. It's a surprisingly quick read, and illustrates both what's right and what's wrong about "hard" science fiction.

What's wrong is quickly apparent. In the first chapter, Hogan spends three pages detailing a transaction in which one character, on an intercontinental flight, places an order for a rental vehicle. Yes, three pages in which the character opens up his briefcase to reveal a screen in its lid, talks to the Avis rep on the videophone, runs his license and credit card through special slots in the briefcase, and enters his password: "Gray cast his eye rapidly down the screen, grunted, and keyed in a memorized sequence of digits that was not echoed in the display." Bear in mind that the book was published in 1977; the author got a lot of the details right, but not enough, and I just kept thinking how much easier it would be to use the Avis website. I can see why writers like William Gibson elide most of these details. But Hogan is all about such details, and the book consequently has a short shelf life.

What goes right, though, is that the book provides a sampling of several different scientific fields. What would happen if we discovered a 50,000 year old corpse on the moon? Hogan realistically portrays the coordination that would have to go on among different scientific communities (although I think he provides a two-dimensional portrayal of the controversies that would arise). We get to learn a little bit about evolutionary biology, astrophysics, chemistry, cryptography, and so forth. And we get the pleasure of watching this cross-disciplinary community solve a complex puzzle. The solution is pretty improbable, but what do you want. Hard science fiction is still science fiction, after all.

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