Thursday, July 18, 2013

Writing :: How Nonemployer Firms Stage-Manage Ad-Hoc Collaboration

Spinuzzi, C. (2014, in press). How nonemployee firms stage-manage ad-hoc collaboration: An activity theory analysis. Technical Communication Quarterly

Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article hasn't even been typeset yet, but TCQ has posted its accepted author version, so I figure this might be a good time to discuss it. 

The article covers two interrelated studies of nonemployee firms (firms with no employees—such as freelancers and business partnerships) functioning in Austin. What really interested me was how they chose to present themselves to clients, typically as "we" instead of "I"—that is, as larger, more stable organizations. At the same time, on the back end, they had to scramble to assemble a unique set of subcontractors for each project. I use fourth-generation activity theory (4GAT) to analyze why they had to do this and how they accomplished it. It's an interesting story: interesting enough to stick with over the long haul, as I discuss below.

Like many of my publications, this one has a long history—and in fact the piece is definitely a midcareer piece for a few reasons.

I had the luxury of time. First, it's the result of an initial study that I started in July 2007. Yeah, that's five years ago. The length of time that it takes to get tenured. In fact, I originally tried to publish this study in 2010, but received a revise-and-resubmit. The reviewers thought the article was interesting, but that the study involved too few people and drew overbroad conclusions based on that small number. Reluctantly, I agreed. So, rather than trying to revise the paper or try my luck with another journal—which is what I might have done pre-tenure—I decided to be patient and run a second study with additional people. This choice added two more years to the process, since (a) it took a while to set up the study, (b) I began my coworking study at around the same time, and (c) the above was happening at about the same time that I was working through some theoretical issues with activity theory

This brings us to the second reason why this article reflects a midcareer orientation.

I followed my research arc. Yes, people at the beginning of their careers have a research arc too. But post-tenure, you have more flexibility to follow an arc across more projects because the pressure to publish has lessened. Before tenure, my research arc was defined mainly by my two book projects, the one I published for tenure and the one I planned to publish after tenure. About the time I sent my second book off to the publisher, I decided to start a series of studies exploring loosely organized, distributed work, along with some theory to better understand this phenomenon. You can see my 2007 introduction to the TCQ special issue on distributed work as a sort of precis. From there, I studied freelancers (in "How nonemployer firms..."), coworking (in "Working alone, together"), and search engine optimization in an internet marketing company (in "Secret sauce and snake oil"). Each of these examined a different setting of distributed work and helped me to develop genre theory and activity theory to address them (in publications such as "Genre and generic labor," "Losing by expanding," "Integrated writers, integrated writing, and the integration of distributed work," and "Starter ecologies"). And each caused me to further develop my methodological toolkit (as in Topsight and "The genie's out of the bottle" and "How can technical communicators study work contexts?") When "How nonemployer firms..." is published in print in 2014, it will reflect the end of a seven-year arc, one that covers a broader stretch of theoretical and methodological work than my previous efforts. 

And that brings us to the third reason why this article reflects a midcareer orientation.

I didn't try to do everything. When I was writing my first article, and later my first book, I really wanted to shove everything I knew into each project. That's common, I think. It's easy to feel that (a) there's no way to cleanly separate parts of each project, (b) everyone needs to know everything about the project, and (c) maybe we'll get just this one shot to get things right.

From a midcareer perspective, things change. It's easier to think in terms of five- or seven-year arcs. And it becomes impossible to shove everything into a single publication (even, I've found, a long publication such as a book). Neither is it desirable. So in this last set of publications, I've been thinking of the separate articles the way you might think of chapters in a book—or pieces in a Tetris game, or bricks in a wall, or episodes in a miniseries, or dungeons in a Zelda game. Individually, they tell different parts of the major story, the five- or seven-year arc. But they don't have to tell the whole story.

So, for instance, if you read "Losing by expanding," you'll see why I put "How nonemployer firms..." on hold so that I could finish it. I needed that piece. If you read "Working alone, together," you'll similarly see how its analysis dovetails with the 4GAT analysis I describe in "Losing by expanding" and perform to some degree in "How nonemployer firms..."—and you may see where I decided not to open a theoretical can of worms by calling it a 4GAT analysis. 

I experimented with sources. Like "Working alone, together," this piece uses sources outside the mainstream of professional communication research, including industry reports, census figures, and business journals. I had to experiment across a few articles to do this gracefully—reviewers will sometimes overfocus on what they consider lightweight sources—but I gave myself the luxury of experimenting and made sure to use reviewers' comments as a feedback loop rather than becoming frustrated by them. (One trick, I found, is to closely pair nonacademic sources with academic ones.)

Until now, I haven't spent a lot of time reflecting on how my publication strategy has changed post-tenure. But looking back on the last several articles, I certainly do seem to have changed it. 

Reading :: How Institutions Think

How Institutions Think 
By Mary Douglas

I picked up this slim (138pp.) book based on its title and description as well as through a stray citation in a recent reading. Although it's good work, unfortunately it didn't do the job that I wanted it to—that is, to discuss how institutions (that is, large hierarchical organizations) think (that is, collectively reason or cogitate). 

Douglas, an anthropologist, builds on Durkheim (whom I've read) and Fleck (whom I haven't) to examine how human thinking is to a degree dependent on the institutions in which we find ourselves—"institutions" in this case meaning organizations or social structures. Along the way, she contrasts different schools of thought in anthropology and related fields, reexamines anthropology's assumptions about simple societies vs. complex ones, and challenges some of our assumptions about institutions. 

For instance, in the last chapter, Douglas airs the "myth" that minor decisions are offloaded so that individuals can think about important matters (p.111). In reality, she says, "The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions while busying himself with tactics and details" (p.111). (Note: Douglas very much likes to use this sort of chiasmus, but I think that it sometimes results in false choices such as this one.) Indeed, she argues, "any institution then starts to control the memory of its members... It provides the categories of their thought, sets the terms for self-knowledge, and fixes identities" (p.112). 

The book is, or should be, provocative. But I confess that I was not captivated by it. Beyond the fact that it didn't address what I had hoped, the book seemed to oversimplify certain questions about how individuals relate to institutions, seemed to minimize differences in kinds of organizations, and tended to focus on anthropological disputes without deeply considering how discussions from parallel fields might productively impact those disputes. Then again, it could be that I'm simply not in the intended audience for this Oxford-trained anthropologist. If you're interested in how institutions think—in Douglas' terms—certainly you should take a look. 

Reading :: The Philosophy of Rhetoric

The Philosophy of Rhetoric
By I. A. Richards

I'm sure I should have read this little classic a long time ago, but I didn't. Earlier this summer, I found it on the shelves of a used bookstore and decided to pick it up. It's only 138pp, based on six lectures, so I read it pretty quickly—I think I finished it in a day. I think.

Sorry to be so vague. The fact is, this book was based on a series of 1936 lectures, but it had such an impact on the field of rhetoric and composition that, today, its arguments seem oddly unremarkable. It's still a good read, with some great quotes, but if you've read widely in rhet-comp, the effect is similar to that of a rock aficionado listening to early Beatles. The material is good but, part of you thinks, it's so familiar as to be banal.

Let's get to the arguments anyway. Richards introduces the book by explaining:
These lectures are an attempt to revive an old subject. I need spend no time, I think, in describing the present state of Rhetoric. Today it is the dreariest and least profitable part of the waste that the unfortunate travel through in Freshman English! So low has Rhetoric sunk that we would do better just to dismiss it to Limbo than to trouble ourselves with it—unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs. (p.3)
What needs? Richards continues: "Rhetoric, I shall urge, should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies" (p.3). And to carry on that study, he argues that "we have instead to consider much more closely how words work in discourse" (p.5). And "To account for understanding and misunderstanding, to study the efficiency of language and its conditions, we have to renounce, for a while, the view that words just have their meanings and that what a discourse does is to be explained as a composition of these meanings" (p.9), instead accounting for meanings in context (p.10). "Stability in a word's meaning is not something to be assumed, but always something to be explained," he argues (p.11).

Consequently, he says, "a revived Rhetoric ... must itself undertake its own inquiry into the modes of meaning—not only, as with the old Rhetoric, on a macroscopic scale, discussing the effects of different disposals of large parts of a discourse—but also on a microscopic scale by using theorems about the structure of the fundamental conjectural units of meaning and the conditions through which they, and their interconnections, arise" (pp.23-24).

This is the project Richards takes on. Along the way, he defines context (a cluster of events that recur together, p.34), states that the business of rhetoric is to compare meanings of words (p.37), assert the multiplicity of meanings in discourse (p.39), and lauds ambiguity as something inevitable and indispensable (p.40). He disparages the focus on usage in old rhetoric (p.51), arguing that correctness is a social marker and declaring that the new rhetoric must question the "social or snob control" of languge (p.78). He gives special attention to metaphor, which, he says, is essentially comparative and functions as a transaction between contexts (p.94). In the last lecture, he argues that "Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order" (p.134).

In all, this is a landmark treatise from someone who thought deeply about rhetoric, prescribed a new course for it, and deeply impacted it in ways that reverberate even today.

Reading :: Networks of Innovation

Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and Mulford, 1895-1995
By Louis Galambos with Jane Eliot Sewell

I picked this book up at a used bookstore—it was $1—because it sounded interesting and because I'm interested in both networks and innovation. It's a historical account of how a research unit—first at Mulford, then acquired by Sharp & Dohme, then acquired by Merck—innovated in developing vaccines over a century.

The book is an interesting read. But, at least for me, it didn't fulfill its potential. That's for three reasons.

First, it doesn't make a case for the "so what." I understand that the historical account may be intrinsically interesting, but beyond that, the book doesn't offer any larger lessons for us in the introduction or throughout. Finally, in the conclusion (Chapter 10), the authors draw some lessons: "it enables us to see more clearly the pattern of long cycles that characterizes this process" of innovation; "the development of organizational capabilities followed a similar pattern"; and "New research leadership... was usually needed to break existing patterns and develop new network-related capabilities" (pp. 241-243). No big surprises here, I'm afraid. The term "network" itself was underdefined and underanalyzed.

Second, it explicitly follows a "great man" view of history. The book is direct and honest about this approach, acknowledging that histories have lately avoided focusing on individual contributions in favor of broad social analysis. But the approach seems to leave out a lot about how the networks of innovation functioned. And I can't help but notice that some of the "great men" discussed in the book, such as former CEO P. Roy Vagelos and former research director Maurice R. Hilleman, are also prominently thanked in the Acknowledgements. Hilleman's "notes, oral history, and scientific publications were indispensable to our research" (p.253). I believe this, but I also wonder how the book might have turned out if other sources had been relied upon more heavily.

Third, as alluded above, the book acknowledges the "networks of innovation" but does not characterize these networks in much detail or with a specific theoretical or conceptual framework. I was left with the impression that "networks" is being used in a highly colloquial sense, the sense that different organizations in an industry shared information and expertise with each other. That's an insight, but not a surprising one, and the authors don't do much to contrast this form of sharing with other forms or to demonstrate how it uniquely contributed to innovation.

It might be that I'm wanting this book to provide things that it's simply not meant to provide, so I hope the review doesn't sound harsh. Bottom line, it's still an interesting book, but may not be very useful for people who are interested in science and technology studies (STS) or related fields.

Reading :: Designing Together

Designing Together: The collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionals
By Dan Brown

Dan Brown was kind enough to send me a review copy of this book, which is a hands-on guide to managing collaboration in creative teams or design teams (the terms are used synonymously). Whereas "most books on team dynamics are directed to the leader of design teams," this one
focuses on the contributing designer, the person responsible for a portion of the project, but not necessarily the lead or the manager or the central stakeholder. It's for anyone working no a design project, because every person on the project team is ultimately responsible for its success and failure. (pp.xxii-xxiii) 
In other words, it is meant to distribute the expertise of collaboration across the entire team. That's an astute thing to do, I think, since creatives are increasingly working in self-directed groups with rotating leadership.

The book is easy to read, clearly laid out, and full of bullets and headings. I like bullets and headings, especially in a book like this one—you can quickly and easily absorb the main points, then dive into the details when you're interested. Brown also provides a summary at the end of the chapter, engagingly titled "TL;DR," that pulls together the chapter's lessons. Since the chapters are also well organized, you can quickly get the lessons in a variety of ways. Those features can make the book a little repetitive if you read it serially and thoroughly, but they make the book rewarding even for skimmers—and easy to reference when you have specific collaboration problems to diagnose.

Brown argues that design depends on collaboration—and conflict, which is a healthy component of collaboration. Throughout the book, he elaborates on five central ideas—behavior, mindset, self-reflection, empathy, and design success—and elaborates on how teams can enact these ideas in healthy ways that yield high-quality collaboration.

Brown's audience is mainly designers, especially interaction designers. But the lessons can apply to other creatives, including writers, marketers, and others who work on developing unique, creative solutions. If you're working with other creatives, you really ought to read this book.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Topsight > Join me at the August UXPA Austin meeting

In Austin? Come to the August UXPA Austin meeting on Tuesday, August 6. I'll be discussing how to get to topsight via—of course—my book Topsight

Here's the event description, courtesy of the Austin UXPA Facebook page:
Getting to Topsight
Topsight — the overall understanding of the big picture — is hard to achieve in organizations. There’s too much going on, too many moving pieces. But without topsight, we have a hard time figuring out how information circulates, where it gets stuck, and how we can get it unstuck.
Topsight is hard to get — but you can get it. I know: I’ve been instilling topsight into various organizations for the past 15 years. Along the way, I’ve developed an approach in which I gather clues, confirm details, model social interactions and use all of these to systematically achieve topsight.
In this presentation, I'll overview the Topsight approach and discuss how UX practitioners can use it to better understand user requirements. 
Clay has written three books on the subject. His latest is Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations (Amazon CreateSpace, 2013), which distills 15 years' worth of insights into a methodology for understanding how organizations circulate information.