Monday, May 16, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Engestrom on co-configuration work)

Originally posted: Mon, 16 May 2005 19:22:33

Last week I read a few more articles meant to help me understand the relationships between activity theory and actor-network theory. Things have bogged down a bit as I've been trying to digest these many articles as well as well as rereading Latour's Pandora's Hope, one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. I'll have to post supplemental notes on it soon, since the first review really doesn't do it justice. But in any case, let's look at the article in today's reading roundup:

Engestrom, Y. "New forms of learning in co-configuration work."

This isn't really an article -- it's a paper that Engestrom presented at a seminar in 2004. Although it's only ten pages long, it's full of insights.

Engestrom starts with Victor and Boynton's "historical framework for the reintegration of organization, work, and learning" in which they "identify five types of work in the history of industrial production: craft, mass production, process enhancement, mass customization, and co-configuration" (p.1). (I haven't read Victor and Boynton's book, but it sounds of a piece with Zuboff and Maxmin's.) Engestrom's Figure 1 helpfully depicts these types of work, along with descriptions of each. Under co-configuration, the description is "Dialogical configuration knowledge."

The question, then, is one that Engestrom has become increasingly interested in addressing: how do we account for work-based learning in what some gloss as the "new economy" or the "knowledge economy" or "distributed capitalism" -- or if you prefer, the "control society" or the "informatics of domination"? Engestrom is clearly positioning third-generation activity theory for the challenge, and the term "dialogical" signals that he sees Bakhtin's dialogism as continuing to be a key part of adapting this third-generation AT appropriately.

What is co-configuration work? Engestrom quotes Victor and Boynton:

The work of co-configuration involves building and sustaining a fully integrated system that can sense, respond, and adapt to the individual experience of the customer. When a firm does co-configuration work, it creates a product that can learn and adapt, but it also builds an ongoing relationship between each customer-product pair and the company. ... a living, growing network develops between customer, product, and company. (Victor & Boynton 1998, p.195)

So the customer becomes a "real partner" with the producer; producers form "a strategic alliance, supplier network, or other such pattern of partnership" (p.2). And here Engestrom firmly pegs this work to knotworking. (I'm starting to see not just a trend but also a strategy on Engestrom's part, a strategy to reposition developmental work activity as a player in the new economy. I'm also starting to see why Engestrom wants to pick off actor-network theory as a potential rival in this area.) And Engestrom adds:

A precondition of successful co-configuration work is dialogue in which the parties rely on real-time feedback information on their activity. The interpretation, negotiation, and synthesizing of such information between the parties requires new, dialogical and reflective knowledge tools as well as collaboratively constructed functional rules and infrastructures. (p.3)

That reflective work happens across as well as within activities (p.4), meaning that the next generation of expansive learning "puts the horizontal and inter-organizational dimension of learning in the center" (p.4). Yet expansive learning is still taken as "a sequence of learning actions ascending from the initial abstract 'germ cell' to the concrete whole of the system to be mastered" (p.4) -- what Engestrom has often called "ascending from the abstract to the concrete." The notion of a germ cell is a bit questionable in my mind given the apparent reliance on linearity of development (common to dialectic), but I need to do much more thinking on the subject.

In any case,

learning in co-configuration settings is typically distributed over long, discontinuous periods of time. It is accomplished in and between multiple loosely interconnected activity systems and organizations operating in divided local and global terrains and representing different traditions, domains of expertise, and social languages. Learning is crucially dependent on the contribution of the clients or users. Learning is embedded in major transformations, upheavals, innovations, implementations, and movements. It takes place in heterogeneous patchworks and textures of small and large, unnoticeable and spectacular actions, objectifications, trajectories, and trails. (p.5)

Engestrom proposes that "the expansive learning required and generated by co-configuration work" has three features: It is transformative (broadening the shared objects of work with new and adapted tools); horizontal and dialogical ("crossing boundaries and tying knots between activity systems operating in divided multi-organizational terrains" (p.5)); and subterranean (blazing "cognitive trails" that constitute the "invisible, rhizomatic infrastructure of new forms of expansive learning at work" (p.5)). The last one is a bit puzzling, since "rhizomatic infrastructure" seems to be a contradiction in terms, but it's interesting to see how Engestrom is pullling other perspectives into activity theory. Engestrom is a great synthesizer, and sometimes I think his reach exceeds his grasp, but he certainly has developed activity theory quite a bit through this synthesis.

Brilliant stuff here, but then Engestrom has to follow up with a blatantly incorrect critique of actor-network theory: "there is a risk in focusing exclusively on actors. The professionals and their discursive interactions may appear as somewhat omnipotent constructors of their activities and social worlds. From the point of view of activity theory, this would mean that the material grounding and stubborn system dynamics of practical activities are lost or ignored, the resistance of objects is forgotten" (p.6). But this is a description of constructivism, not actor-network theory, and Latour makes a nearly identical argument against constructivism in Pandora's Hope! How often Latour and his colleagues have made this same point, clarifying that "actors" are not just humans or professionals, but also nonhumans or objects that continually resist! How often actor-network theorists argue that we are not omnipotent constructors, not by a long shot! Not to mince words: This is just a sloppy critique, not up to the quality of the rest of the piece.

So let's get back to the rest of the piece. Engestrom argues that rather than following the actors, we should follow the objects of work activity. Professional work is socio-spatially distributed, "forming long chains of interconnected practical and discursive actions" (p.6). The objects of work are "heterogeneous and internally contradictory," enduring, and constantly reproduced (p.6). The object is the key to understanding change and learning, and "expansive learning is above all stepwise explanation of the object" (p.6). so Engestrom suggests that we

(1) follow the objects of co-configuration work in their temporal and socio-spatial trajectories, (2) give the objects a voice by involving the clients or users in dialogues where the object is negotiated, (3) expand the objects by organizing intervention sessions where the producers and clients construct new shared models, concepts and tools to master their objects. (p.7)

All right, although "give the objects a voice" sounds more like giving the participants a voice; I wish Engestrom would be more careful to delineate what he's doing from ANT's related project.

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