Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Topsight > Handoff chains

As I wait for the production to finish on my new book Topsight, I've been discussing some of the analytical constructs that we can use to better understand aspects of work. Until now, I've been looking at macro-level constructs: activity systems and activity networks. These give us a "big picture" view of an organization and how it does what it does.

But a "big picture" view isn't topsight.

That point might seem counterintuitive. Isn't topsight an overall understanding of how the system works? Well, yes. But topsight is like insight: it takes a while to develop, and it develops inductively, over time, as you understand how the details interrelate. You have to actually get into the details—to understand how specific routines happen, over and over, and where they go wrong. You have to see these not just at the macro level of activity, but also at the meso level of action—the minute-by-minute interactions, the ways that people use tools and communicate information as they go about their daily work.

Topsight discusses three different analytical constructs to explore meso-level aspects of an organization. Today, we'll talk about handoff chains.

Think about handoff chains in this way. When we circulate information around an organization, we don't do it via telepathy. We have to hand it off. Sometimes that's a literal handoff: I physically hand you a memo, report, sticky note, or hard drive. Sometimes it's more metaphorical: I speak to you, post a message to the internal message board, or tweet about something. But in any case, we can usually identify a specific genre, cast in a specific material medium, that allows us to hand information from one person to another.

These handoffs happen so often, and sometimes seem so trivial, that we don't pay much attention to them. But watch them closely as they happen, examine the specific handoffs, and ask people about them afterwards, and you'll see patterns emerging. Patterns that might look like this:
Each arrow represents a handoff: a point at which one person materially provides information to another. Some of these handoffs seem trivial, others seem major. But each represents—or should represent—an actual, identifiable incident. That is, this isn't an idealized process; it's an actual set of instances that we can reconstruct directly from an actual observation.

That's really important. If you ask someone what their process is, they will generalize it, forgetting what they think are trivial steps, minimizing others, maximizing still others. They don't necessarily know what to pick out for you. If you see it, and especially if you see it over and over, you can build up a more concrete picture of the chain of handoffs that are necessary to make something happen. Maybe, for instance, that instant messaging is a critical part of the process but no one realizes it.

And maybe there's a pattern of disruptions. Maybe, as you look at handoff chain after handoff chain, you realize that certain parts of the chain are repeated over and over because they have to be reset. Structural miscommunications, lossy media, failure to get buy-in from all stakeholders, and who knows what else might be disrupting this communicative chain. When you put together a chain like this based on specific instances, not on generalizations and recollections, you start to see patterns that no one else might have spotted. And those patterns are also part of topsight.

If you've been reading my academic work or those of my collaborators, you may recognize that handoff chains are based on William Hart-Davidson's work with communicative event models. I've been very fortunate to work with Bill and with Mark Zachry to develop and extend the concept, and I'm excited that it's now in the conceptual toolkit of Topsight.

Now, I mentioned that handoff chains are one way to get at a meso-level understanding of an organization. There are two more, which I'll plan to discuss soon.

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