Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Writing :: Working Alone, Together

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Working alone, together: Coworking as emergent collaborative activity. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26(4).

Okay, this is the second in my ongoing series on writing publications.  The cite and link above are to the OnlineFirst version of the article, both of which will likely change as the article gets closer to publication. But for now, there they are. If you or your institution have a subscription, please do click through and take a look at it.

Done reading? Let's talk about how I put this thing together. As in the rest of this blog series, here I'll focus on my writing process and choices. The hope is that this "behind the scenes" look will help other scholars to see what went into producing this piece.

The Gist
This article is the result of a research study I started a while back focused on coworking in Austin. Click that link and you'll see a series of blog posts dating back to April 2008. If you have the time and inclination, you can go back to that point and see how my understanding of coworking evolved over time, and in fact you might see parts of these blog posts migrating into the article itself. More on that in a moment.

My analysis was heavily influenced by some of the same issues I discussed in "Losing by Expanding"—in fact, although that piece was published first, it developed from the analytical issues that developed during this and other recent case studies. In a nutshell, the analytical framework I typically use for examining workplace interactions, third-generation activity theory (3GAT), assumes some things that don't hold true in the sort of loosely organized, digitally mediated work that we find in coworking spaces. "Losing by Expanding" articulated that problem and outlines an fourth-generation activity theory (4GAT) approach; "Working Alone, Together" applies that approach.

As you'll see in the article, the 4GAT approach helps us to better understand some of the contradictions we tend to see in coworking spaces.

The Genesis
If you want to know about the exact moment I first heard of coworking, I blogged it. The principals at Conjunctured had just signed a lease for what would become Austin's first coworking space, and Cesar and John Erik were kind enough to sit down with me separately to discuss it. As you'll see in that blog post, I was busily trying to connect their description with the analysis I had just completed for my 2008 book Network and my subsequent thoughts about how to manage projects in distributed workspaces.

I decided to study how Conjunctured worked, so I developed and submitted an IRB proposal, then waited for it to cycle through as I conducted my Semoptco study (heavily influenced by the same themes). By the time I was able to formally interview the Conjunctured principals in early 2009, another space had begun offering coworking (Soma Vida). And by the time I interviewed them, other spaces had announced their intention to open. Eventually, in early 2011, I had to stop visiting coworking spaces and just write the article.

If you're interested in the different spaces, see the coworking tag, where I profiled each space. More on that below.

The Research Methodology
At the time I began my coworking study, I had just finished my chapter in Amy Kimme Hea's collection Going Wireless, in which I argued that researchers must bring participants more consciously into the research process as a matter of self-protection. Traditional qualitative research approaches assume that the researcher is the only one with publishing power, so s/he has traditionally been encouraged to conduct member checks to give some measure of power and self-representation back to the participants. But this is 2012, and many of my participants have publishing power too—they have far more social media followers than I have readers. In this environment, fairly representing participants isn't just a matter of being nice, it's critical.

So as I began investigating coworking spaces, I used several avenues to make sure that I represented coworking proprietors fairly, starting with the space profiles I posted to my blog (which functioned as a trust-building measure in addition to a preliminary examination of each site). I also conducted member checks. Additionally, I leveraged their public social media, such as their spaces' Facebook pages and Yelp profiles—a lifesaver, since coworkers, with their irregular schedules, are difficult to consistently observe.

Given that this study was mostly based on proprietors' and coworkers' statements (in interviews, in collateral, in social media) rather than observations, I had to frame my claims carefully. Throughout the article, I emphasize: this is what coworkers and proprietors say about their work.

The Composition
In previous studies, I've tried focusing on one workplace or a small set of workplaces. But with coworking, I had to examine a whole range of them. It turned out to be a complex management issue. How could I analyze these very different workspaces in a way that would make sense?

To attack the problem, I decided to go back to three basic elements of activity theory: the subject, the object, and the outcome. In the paper, these turned into research questions: Who coworks? What is coworking? Why do people cowork? And once I sorted these out, I was able to connect them quite easily with my coding scheme.

Of course, people open and work at coworking sites for very different reasons. In the first version I submitted to JBTC, I had trouble articulating how these divergent reasons added up to an activity theory analysis; one reviewer thought that the results seemed incoherent and wondered whether coworking was anything more than a label. In my revision, I was able to articulate how these apparent contradictions in the subject, object, and outcome represented two separate configurations of coworking: the "good neighbors" configuration and the "good partners" configuration. It was at this point that the work in "Learning by Expanding" really began to pay off and the theoretical contribution became useful.

The Result
So I'm pretty happy with the result. Coworking is an endlessly fascinating topic, but also somewhat amorphous and a constantly moving target. In this article, I think I've been able to sketch the phenomenon fairly well—although coworkers in places other than Austin might see key differences, and even Austinites might feel that this snapshot doesn't adequately reflect coworking in 2012. But it provides a starting place for understanding coworking as part of a larger movement toward distributed work and perhaps a way to examine and predict further work trends. It develops activity theory to better account for this sort of work. And it moves the ball on leveraging social media in qualitative research. I'm pretty happy with it, and I hope you will be too.

Was this "behind-the-scenes" account useful? Let me know in the comments.

5 comments:

Amanda Wall said...

It was incredibly useful to get this behind-the-scenes view of the academic writing process, and I do hope you continue the series. I can always read more articles to get a sense of what an article should look like, but I'm often left wondering, as a grad student, what the process looks like. What does an article-in-progress look like? How do experienced scholars revise based on feedback? How do scholars take all their variegated results and explain them in a coherent fashion? (I.e. all those things you talked about in your introduction to the series.)

So yeah, it was nice to hear how you revised to explain all of those interestingly divergent definitions of coworking using the two configurations (and to be reminded that those kinds of tidy analyses don't necessarily happen in first drafts!).

An aside: I've seen some concerns recently in the academic blogosphere about the utility of blogging and whether it encourages writers to post half-baked ideas, just because they're timely. But as a student, I'm interested in exactly those in-process ideas, because they help me figure out what experienced scholars' processes look like, and help me reflect on my own processes. Maybe the compromise is something like this, with a reflection on process after the fact?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I'm glad it helped!

Re your aside, absolutely. Scholarly publishing is always a balance between (a) maintaining a public face and (b) developing a backstage process. These two can conflict, especially if you mix them up. So, for instance, if you use your blog to publish things that look like articles, readers might expect them to be (a) even when you mean them as (b). It's not that they're half-baked, it's that people expect them to be fully baked in this genre!

That's partly why I frame my blog entries the way I do - in this series ("let me tell you about what I did"), in my book reviews ("here's my reaction"), and in various other items. And why I make a point of writing informally. The blog is a process blog, and people need to understand that these entries really don't represent completed scholarship - which, among other things, has to be blind reviewed and vetted. A blog is an individual effort, but scholarship (in our current system, anyway) is necessarily consensual, backed by others' judgment.

PromProm said...

Thanks a lot Clay for sharing the writing process!

It's not so related but just to let you know why I like the co-working topic:
I'm writing an essay about co-working at the household level through IT for improving environmental productivity ... It asks for some abstraction but isn't co-working flexible!

Thanks for your article.

PromProm said...

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience Clay, very nice!

Personnally I'm finishing an essay on what we can learn from co-working for enhancing the productivity of environmental self-provisioning and bring it to the market. Happy the topic of co-working is flexible!

I'll definitely follow your blog. Good luck further!

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I'm glad it was helpful!