Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Reading :: Managing in a Time of Great Change

Managing in a Time of Great Change
By Peter F. Drucker

This book, written in 1993, is largely drawn from previously published pieces in The Atlantic Monthly, the Harvard Business Review, and similar publications. As Drucker explains in the Acknowledgements, “every piece in this volume was written with this book in mind,” but he “prepublished” them in other publications as a “market test” (p.353). Wily, but it means that the chapters present a measure of repetition among themselves and with other publications such as Drucker’s Post-Capitalist Society. So, yes, I skimmed, and consequently this review is not terribly substantive. But I’ll attempt to surface some points that are worth exploring further.

One is the notion of an organization’s theory. Drucker argues in the first chapter, “The Theory of the Business,” that each organization has a theory – a set of assumptions about markets, customers, competitors, values, behavior, dynamics, strengths, and weaknesses. “These assumptions are about what a company gets paid for” (p.22). Unfortunately, sometimes these assumptions become invalid, yet organizations don’t revise their theories, and consequently these organizations stumble. Warning signs include: an organization that achieves its original objectives (p.34); an organization that doubles or triples in size (p.35); and unexpected success or failure (p.35). Each of these conditions should prompt an organization to find a new theory.

In Chapter 6, “Managing in the Network Society,” Drucker goes on to assess changes in the organization. This ground is familiar to those who have read Post-Capitalist Society, but Drucker offers some additional discussion here.

In Chapter 20, “The New Superpower: The Overseas Chinese,” Drucker provides a fascinating glimpse into secretive and tightly controlled networks of organizations run by direct relatives of an ethnic Chinese living in the Philippines. “What holds together the multinationals of the overseas Chinese is neither ownership nor legal contract. It is mutual trust and the mutual obligations inherent in clan membership” (p.206). This claim, of course, reminds me of Ronfeldt’s description of TIMN: although these organizations are constituted as networks, their trust is tribal. Yet the organizational forms are in some ways contradictory, and dealing with those contradictions will soon mean developing the networks so that they can scale: sharing information and allowing outsiders in. Honestly, this was the most interesting part of the book for me.

In Chapter 21, “A Century of Social Transformation,” Drucker describes the fall of the blue-collar worker and the rise of the knowledge worker. And in contrasting the two, Drucker made me think about a transition that has always interested me: the birth of the participatory design approach in the UTOPIA project and related projects in the early 1980s. In that project, unionized craft workers (typesetters) were faced with the prospect of losing the benefit of their deep craft knowledge because their organization was planning to move to a digital system. Computer scientists worked to design a digital system that would leverage that craft knowledge. Yet the UTOPIA project never delivered a concrete product, and as I’ve described elsewhere, participatory design techniques were translated considerably as they moved to other contexts. Drucker maintains that manual work is experience-based while knowledge work is learning-based. “Displaced industrial workers thus simply cannot move into knowledge work or services work the way displaced farmers and displaced domestic workers moved into industrial work” (p.227). This summary judgment may not explain what happened with participatory design, but it provides an interesting perspective from which to examine the transition.

Should you read this book? I’d recommend Post-Capitalist Society over it, but if you haven’t read that book and you want a quick overview of his contemporaneous work, this book might be worthwhile.

Reading :: Together with Technology

Together with Technology: Writing Review, Enculturation, and Technological Mediation
By Jason Swarts

Jason Swarts has done some very solid work in technical communication (including a great piece in a TCQ special issue I edited), focusing on genre and writing technologies. This 2008 book describes a study in how writers and subject matter experts at five organizations engaged in writing reviews. But the real news here is a technique, textual replay, that he introduced as part of his study:

A textual replay is closely related to the “instant replay,” although instead of recording and replaying a sports event, textual replays capture and replay online writing activity. Textual replay is a term to describe the product of a screen capture program that takes multiple, successive screen shots of onscreen writing activity and splices them together as a digital movie, played back in a way that approximates the writing performance. (p.61)

Swarts used Camtasia, but makes clear that one could use other technologies to enact the technique and enable

a different kind of writer-reviewer interaction that moves more easily between practice- and artifact-oriented views, while providing perceptual and representational evidence to which review participants can attach their explanations. It will also create a surface on which writers and reviewers can work jointly, so that the reviewer’s experience can guide the writer’s practice at the moment of performance as well as after. (p.61)

In sessions using this technique, writers and reviewers seemed to learn from each other – more so than in sessions that didn’t involve the technique (p.123). In particular, writers were able to exert more control in the textual replay sessions (p.128), the writers and reviewers coordinated more, and their coordination involved more attention to constraining rhetorical circumstances (p.134).

In the last chapter, Swarts tells us that “Textual replay does not exist, at least not yet. … Textual replay is an idea for a technology that would provide useful mediation for writing review by allowing presentation of the text as a particle and stream of writing activity” (p.145).

And at this point, I placed a sticky note in the margin with the word WAVE on it.

Textual replay is a technique waiting on a technology, and technologies such as Google Wave can easily surface how documents evolve while accommodating writers’ and reviewers’ notes on them. The technology has perhaps caught up to the technique.