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.
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.
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.
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.
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.