Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading :: Activity theory in practice

Activity Theory in Practice: Promoting learning across boundaries and agencies
Edited By Harry Daniels, Anne Edwards, Yrjo Engestrom, and Sten R. Ludvigsen

Here's a joke I heard some time ago. What's the difference between a Star Trek fan, a Trekkie, and a Trekker?

A Star Trek fan dresses as a character and goes to a Halloween party.

A Trekkie dresses as a character and goes to Star Trek conventions.

But a Trekker dresses as a character and goes to ... the Renaissance festival.

If there's a similar division among activity theorists, call me an AT fan. I see activity theory as a useful framework with great explanatory power for certain situations, particularly situations involving cultural-historical development in and among organizations. But I don't see it as a theory of everything (see my book Network). The authors of this collection, however, are more like AT-ers: they closely follow the Helsinki school of activity theory as developed by Yrjo Engestrom (p.1) and implemented in research centers in England, Finland, Northern Ireland, and Norway (p.2).

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Trekkers spend a lot of time developing ways to reconcile incoherencies in the Star Trek universe (called "retroactive continuity" or "retconning"), and similarly these AT-ers are putting much effort into the relatively new issue of "how to capture the generation and mobilisation of knowledge in practices that span different settings. This problem arises from the changing world of work where complex problems call for multifaceted responses that can be in tension with the long-established social practices of settled work settings" (p.1). That is, they are attempting to develop third-generation activity theory, which grapples with the issue of internetworked systems of activity: "the development of practices across organisational boundaries" (p.1). Following Engestrom, they are developing activity theory to address the complexities of knowledge work, which tends to involve a high degree of interdisciplinarity, boundary crossing, mobility, customization, and change. Indeed, the theme of knowledge work comes up again and again in these papers, most of which employ variations of Engestrom's Developmental Work Research (DWR) (p.6).

For instance, in "From Diagnosis to Clients," Virkkunen et al. discuss how physiotherapy educators and workplaces co-construct the object of collaborative development. Right out of the gate, they note new developments that have been characterized as the "information society" and the "knowledge society" (p.9). And "the trend is from the production of standardised basic commodities to the production of specialised, unique or custom products" (p.11). But "Globalisation and the information-technology revolution have brought somewhat contradictory challenges to professional education" (p.12), challenges that, in true Helsinki School fashion, the authors display on a matrix with two dimensions: special v. basic and general v. dedicated (p.13). Using the Change Laboratory method of intervention (p.15), the authors worked with the educators to develop and reorganize teaching (p.22). It's a textbook example of using the Change Laboratory to address boundary-crossing issues.

In "The Meaning of Physical Presence," Kallio describes how pulp mills that implemented new software would ask engineers from a software company (Metso) to introduce the software on site - a role that the engineer could theoretically perform remotely. Kallio asks: Why did they insist the engineers come on site? Intriguingly, Kallio argues that the engineer had to help construct a joint object of activity, an object toward which the pulp mill and Metso were both oriented (p.39-41; see diagram p.41). Furthermore, the engineer had to provide a joint language with which the two entities could examine and transform the object (p.40). Not surprisingly, Kallio describes this work as co-configuration (p.41), and demonstrates that it extends into long-term cooperation. Kallio provides the usual 2D matrix (p.45) to describe the different types of logic at work.

Home care of the elderly is the subject of the next chapter, Nummijoki and Engestrom's "Toward Co-Configuration in Home Care of the Elderly." Here, the authors argue that
Co-configuration requires new kinds of agency from both the client and the provider of the service. The client must continually assess his or her own needs and experiences and take initiatives to shape the service accordingly. The service provider must be willing to change the shape of the service and experiment with new patterns of service when a need arises. (p.49)
The authors are intrigued by this idea of new agency and explore it in this study. Specifically, they look at home care of the elderly in the City of Helsinki as it worked before and after a Mobility Agreement (p.50). They begin by illustrating the contradiction in the object of current home care: the home care service sees the object in terms of duties, while the client sees it in terms of their own life (p.51). After discussing the problems with the current situation, they explain how they used the DWR cycle to design the Mobility Agreement (p.54). The authors then examine transcripts from pre- and post-agreement visits, noting layered development in home care.

In the next chapter, "Expansive Learning, Expansive Labour," Warmington and Leadbetter examine multi-agency children's services, using Marx's notion of "labour-power": "the constellation of skills, knowledge and dispositions that constitutes the capacity of individuals and collectives for productive labouring action" (p.72). Arguably, the authors say, labour-power is part of the object of organizations (p.72) - particularly in learning organizations (p.76). In fact, in learning organizations, "workplace activities are as much about the production of the unstable and unfinished commodity of labour-power as they are about marshalling concrete labour to produce general commodities" (p.76). After examining the case, the authors conclude that "thus there is a cyclical, or spiralling, relationship between learning to do multiagency working and the social production of labour-power," and they urge us to understand activity systems in these terms (p.87).

The other chapters in this collection are similar in many ways. Most deal with the issue of newly interconnected work and the boundary-crossing that goes along with it. For instance, in their study of software development, Morch et al. describe co-configuration in terms of adaptation (p.189). In their discussion of joint design in wikis, Lund et al. discuss polycontextuality (p.207) and connect co-design to participatory design (p.189). But in each case, they grapple with multi-activity networks and the sort of repair and reconciliation work that this level of analysis involves, frequently in terms of developmental cycles. It's a valuable collection, and I'm very glad to see AT being stretched to address the vexed issues involved in complex interconnected activities, especially in terms of the knowledge economy and learning organizations. At the same time, the similarities across studies concerned me: these authors use the same tools, approaches, and concepts, but I wanted to see some productive differences. Less retconning, more tension.

Nevertheless, if you're interested in applying third-generation activity theory to complex interconnected activities, this book is a milestone. Pick it up.

1 comment:

David Lee said...

I love you Trekkies metaphor. This same concept could be used to describe almost every industry / culture. Reminds me of linguistic relativity principles.