Monday, December 10, 2012

Topsight > Activity networks

In the last post in this series, I discussed how my book Topsight handles activity systems, which are essentially ways to sketch out the cyclical activities in which people are engaged, as well as the systemic tensions or contradictions that inevitably develop. And at the end of the post I said, "Activity systems don't just float around by themselves, like beach balls in the ocean. They constantly connect and overlap. And those connections and overlaps create contradictions too."

So let's talk about how activity systems connect and overlap.

They do, of course. Let's take a simple example. Suppose that you're working in a restaurant. In fact, it's a fast food restaurant. And there's something that seems absolutely normal, but is actually quite extraordinary: everyone seems to know what they're doing. And I don't just mean the cashiers and the cooks: customers who have never set foot in the restaurant also seem to know what to do. They walk in, go to a point just behind the current line, read the board, queue up, and read their order to the cashier. They then pay, move to the correct place, and receive their food. Then they sit, eat, (hopefully) bus their tables, and exit.

How on earth does this happen?

Largely it's because they are familiar with how fast food places are set up in general. They borrow from the same sources. For instance:

  • Objectives and outcomes are largely common to most fast food places.
  • Tools tend to involve similar genres (menus, graphics, even signs on the trash cans).
  • People vary in education and experience, but the fast food restaurant is set up to accommodate and train a broad range of people.
  • Rules tend to come from a range of places, most importantly health regulations.
  • Division of labor tends to be rigid in order to modularize the workforce—to ensure that if someone quits, another person can easily take her or his place.
So, for instance, every restroom of every fast food restaurant in the US (theoretically) has a sign telling employees that they must wash their hands before returning to work; that's not because restaurant owners all think alike, it's because the sign is required by the health code. Most of these restaurants also have cash registers that work similarly and spit out similar-looking receipts, and that standardization—though not required, I think—comes from outside the activity, from the suppliers that furnish the cash registers. Each activity is impacted in multiple ways by multiple other activities. 

To put it another way, although some things happen that are unique to a given activity, many things are either inherited from other activities or shared by them. In cases like these, we can consider the interlinked activities activity networks. Here's what they look like in Topsight.

In this figure, the circles represent different activities. Sometimes they're interlinked, with one activity's output becoming another's input—for instance, perhaps Company XYZ makes cash registers (their objective), which then become tools for the fast food restaurant. Sometimes they share some of the same  components: for instance, maybe the franchisee (an actor) also sits on the Chamber of Commerce (where he also serves as an actor). 

And sometimes two activity systems overlap. For instance, suppose that the franchisee has gone into business with his son-in-law, and various family members work at the franchise. So the actors and objective are shared between the fast food restaurant and the family; to some extent, the division of labor might be as well. But families and franchises are very different entities, and when they overlap in the same space, it's very easy for contradictions to develop. 

So how do we detect links to other activities? Here's a worksheet that I provide in Topsight.

In the worksheet, I provide guiding questions to help you discover these other links and describe them. Topsight provides more extended instructions as well. And after discovering these links, you can draw an activity network similar to the one in the previous figure.

Activity systems and activity networks are key to understanding how activities develop, interlink, and develop long-term systemic contradictions. But we also need to understand how organizations work at other levels and timescales. In a few days, I'll introduce some ways to do that.


Will Penman said...

This is great! I've been struggling through Engeström and am happy to see a really clear, easily understandable example of how to apply activity theory. I'm looking forward to seeing your extensions, too.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Glad it's helpful! I get ridiculously excited about this stuff.