Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Empirikom 2012

Next week, I'll be presenting at the fourth Empirikom workshop in Aachen, Germany. Aachen is quite near the borders of The Netherlands and Belgium, so close that I'm told the residents like to shop in all three countries.

My talk is the only one on the program with an English title: "Analyzing Computer-Mediated Communication in Professional Environments: An Activity Theory Approach." I'll be discussing a recent case study of work, focusing on three analytical constructs that I've used to understand how CMC genres help to mediate it: genre ecologies, activity systems, and activity networks.

This opportunity was intriguing to me for many reasons, but especially because it gave me a chance to rethink some of my past work. My first field study, at Schlumberger Well Services, started with the expectation that I would be focusing on shared electronic texts (in this case, source code). But I quickly realized that I couldn't understand how the software developers were interpreting and producing these shared texts unless I looked at how they put the code into relationship with a variety of other texts, many of which were offline. That realization led me to adopt and develop the genre ecologies framework—and I became addicted to field studies.

Since that study, I have examined other sorts of work via field methods (dates are when the research was conducted, not published):

  • Software developers at Schlumberger (1997)
  • Traffic safety workers (1998-1999)
  • Telecommunications workers (2000-2001)
  • Proposal writers (2005)
  • Office workers (2006)
  • Search engine optimization specialists (2008)
  • Coworking (2009-2011)
  • Nonemployer firms (2009-2011)

In each case, people used digital texts to mediate their work—including dialogue-based CMC (such as email, IM, social media, notes in information systems) but also other digital texts (such as databases and information systems)—but the most intriguing aspect for me was how they put these texts in relationship with other texts, from sticky notes to highlighted printouts to manuals. 

That is, I haven't focused on CMC per se; I've focused on how a dynamic system of information resources, including CMC, collectively mediate work activity. This focus tends to be different from much of the CMC work I've read recently, work that closely examines the use and revision of particular  genres or texts (e.g., Wikipedia pages). Which is not to say that it's better or worse—like most field studies, mine sacrifice the fine-grained view of a specific artifact in order to gain a broader understanding of the activity in which the artifact is mobilized. 

Hopefully these insights will be helpful to others in the workshop. In any case, I'll post the slides in a couple of weeks. For now, special thanks to Eva-Maria Jakobs and Bianka Trevisan for organizing the workshop and asking me to be part of it.

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