Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reading :: The Tree of Knowledge

Tree of Knowledge
By Humbert R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela

Jeff Susna recommended this book to me on Twitter, and later pointed me to this talk, in which he applies the book's concepts to cybernetics. That talk is more valuable than this review will be, I suspect, so definitely take a look.

Are you back? Okay. As the subtitle suggests, this book is about "the biological roots of human understanding." The authors, who are both biologists, seek to provide a discussion of thought and perception that is rooted in biology. But the book is no dry biology textbook—it's full of accessible illustrations, sidebars, and metaphors that help us to grasp tricky concepts.

The central concept is that of autopoietic organization: for instance, in cell dynamics, a "cell metabolism produces components which make up the network of transformations that produced them" (p.44). This network of transformations is limited by a boundary—a membrane. So the two aspects of this unitary phenomenon are Dynamics (metabolism) and Boundary (membrane), each of which produces conditions for the other (p.46). "The most striking feature of an autopoietic system is that it pulls itself up by its own bootstraps and becomes distinct from its environment through its own dynamics, in such a way that both things are inseparable" (pp.46-47). And they add: "Living beings are characterized by their autopoietic organization. They differ from each other in their structure, but they are alike in their organization" (p.47).

What's the difference between organization and structure? In a sidebar, the authors explain that "Organization denotes those relations that must exist among the components of a system in order for it to be a member of a specific class. Structure denotes the components and relations that actually constitute a particular unity and make its organization real" (p.47).

Speaking of structure—in the sense the authors are using the term—the book's structure takes us from the cell level to the level of human knowledge. Since I'm not planning to recapitulate the entire book, I'll skip the next chapter (on history, reproduction, and heredity) and get to the chapter on multicellulars, which describes the phenomenon of structural coupling (p.75). In this phenomenon, two or more autopoietic unities are placed in interaction, becoming the source of each others' interactions: "This means that two (or more) autopoietic unities can undergo coupled ontogenies when their actions take on a recurrent or more stable nature," including "reciprocal perturbations." And "The result will be a history of mutual congruent structural changes as long as the autopoietic unity and its containing environment do not disintegrate: there will be a structural coupling" (p.75). (Side note: I can see the clear influence of autopoiesis on John Boyd's OODA loop.)

Speaking of disturbances, the authors go on to argue that "the changes that result from the interaction between the living being and its environment are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed system" (p.96). By analogy, they point out that "breakdowns in man-made machines reveal more about their effective operation than our descriptions of them when they operate normally" (cf. Latour on black-boxing here).

Let's skip a lot of good stuff in the interest of the review. By Ch.8, the authors have worked their way up the ladder to social phenomena—although they're still dealing with insects and birds. "We call social phenomena those phenomena associated with the participation of organisms in constituting third-order entities" (i.e., structural coupling across organisms rather than across cells), and "As observers we designate as communicative those behaviors which occur in social coupling, and as communication that behavioral coordination which we observe as a result of it" (p.195). Given what they know about structural coupling, they conclude (as most of us in rhetoric have) that "there is no 'transmitted information' in communication" (p.196)—that is, the abstraction of information is not a thing to be transported. "The phenomenon of communication depends on not what is transmitted, but on what happens to the person who receives it" (p.196). (Again, cf. Latour on the difference between the diffusion model and the translation model.)

The authors also discuss another thing in this chapter: "By cultural behavior we mean the transgenerational stability of behavioral patterns ontogenetically acquired in the communicative dynamics of a social environment" (p.201).

Eventually, we get to the chapter on linguistic domains and human consciousness. Here, although the insights are based on those of the previous chapters, we don't get many surprises from a contemporary rhetorical standpoint. "Language is an ongoing process that only exists as languaging, not as isolated items of behavior" (p.201)—yes. "What we say—unless we are lying—reflects what we live, not what happens from the perspective of an independent observer" (p.231)—sure. "[W]e maintain an ongoing descriptive recursion which we call the 'I.' It enables us to conserve our linguistic operational coherence and our adaption in the domain of language" (p.231)—okay. (Side note: My interest piqued, I googled "Deleuze Maturana" and sure enough, Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus is in dialogue with these ideas.)

Finally, we get to the last chapter, "The Tree of Knowledge." See Jeff Sussna's video (link above) for the implications. The chapter is on the ethics that the authors say emerge from this world view. A few sentences: "we have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth" (p.248); "We affirm that at the core of all the troubles we face today is our very ignorance of knowing" (p.248). And "The knowledge of knowledge compels. It compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty" (p.245).

And here, to be blunt, I have trouble following the argument. Yes, one could take the previous chapter's lessons as leading to mutual understanding, to rejecting dogmatism in favor of recognizing and honoring each other's viewpoints, and as (I guess) seeing love as the animating feature that brings the world forth. But one could also absorb this insight into the knowledge of knowledge, then use it to compete more effectively, to better understand one's enemy in order to cut him off from his knowledge of his environment, to confuse and disorient him in order to cause his alliances and will to disintegrate. This use seems just as applicable, and certainly seems to have precedent in some of the examples used across chapters (cells, organisms). As I noted earlier, this use was the one that John Boyd applied, and through his work, it has become a highly effective component of military strategy as well as business strategy.

In any case, the book was highly interesting and useful. As you can tell, between the time I read it and now, I've read other books, and these other ideas are overlaid over my second reading. My sense is that it'll become even more interesting on subsequent readings. Definitely pick it up.

Reading :: Innovation Prowess

Innovation Prowess: Leadership Strategies for Accelerating Growth
By George S. Day

When I began reading this slim (107pp) book, I was initially unimpressed. The book is about how to accelerate your firm's organic growth rate, specifically by increasing the "innovation prowess" in your firm. But as I read the rest of the book, I realized how much valuable thinking was packed into this slim little volume.

"Innovation prowess is gained by combining strategic discipline in growth-seeking activities with an organizational ability to achieve the aspirations and intentions of the growth strategy," Day explains. Together, these allow a firm to grow faster and sustain growth more successfully. And they are sustained by three reinforcing elements:

  1. An innovation culture that encourages risk taking and exploration;
  2. The capabilities exercised through innovation processes for acquiring deep market insights, mastering the supporting technologies, and carrying out innovation activities better than their rivals; and
  3. A configuration of the organization and incentives that support and encourage growth-seeking behavior. (p.7)
Day depicts innovation prowess as a process that involves 1. setting the growth strategy, 2. expanding the search for growth opportunities, and 3. converging on the best opportunities—each of which involves feedback loops (p.11). 

To achieve innovation prowess, he says, "the management team has to agree on their beliefs and assumptions" (p.17) and avoid letting "small-i" innovation replace "BIG-I" Innovation in their firm (p.18). He provides several figures to help us conceptualize the feedback loops involved. For instance, figure 1-5 suggests how to integrate inside-out and outside-in thinking to ideate based on changing constraints (p.26). Figure 1-6 illustrates a continuum between inorganic growth ("buy") and organic growth ("build") (p.29), mapping growth mechanisms such as closed innovation, open innovation, internal incubators, external ventures, and mergers & acquisitions. Figure 2-1 illustrates 14 growth pathways, categorized as related to the value proposition (customers, offerings, value profile) or the business model (value-creating systems, value-capturing systems) (p.39). Figure 2-3 illustrates customer experience mapping (p.48)—perhaps the most useful illustration in the book. Figure 4-1 describes three organizational elements of innovation ability: capabilities, configuration, and culture (p.81). 

In each of these figures, Day helps us to conceptualize and categorize aspects of the firm that can lead to an innovation culture. The result is a well-developed, well-explained overview with great practical value. If you're interested in innovations, innovation culture, or value propositions, take a look.

Reading :: Crossing the Chasm

Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers
By Geoffrey A. Moore

"Prior to entering the world of high tech," Moore writes in the Acknowledgements of this book, "I was an English professor" (p.xix). I emailed this quote to one of my PhD students, who is thinking about taking a nonacademic career path, noting that there is indeed hope of success and fulfillment outside the halls of academia.

Certainly Moore has achieved a lot: the book, originally published in 1991, was a Businessweek bestseller and has at least three editions. The one I read was the 2002 revised edition, and it's still full of examples from the late 1980s, but it's still useful for all that. Essentially, Moore argues that in the technology adoption lifecycle, there's a big gap between early adopters and mainstream adopters. The gap—the "chasm" of the title—is tricky to negotiate because it's very difficult to transition to mainstream customers while still holding onto the early adopters, who are key evangelists.

Moore's basic approach is to carefully segment the market so that your product is the only one serving that segment—to be the big (or only) fish in the small pond, to be a de facto monopoly (p.108). To do this, he provides a few different conceptual tools.

The first is the Whole Product Model (p.109), a set of concentric circles that represent perceptions of the product. These are labeled (from interior to exterior): generic product, expected product, augmented product, potential product (p.109). The circles represent a progression from the early adopters to the later ones.

The second is the Simplified Whole Product Model (p.113), in which the generic product is surrounded by segments labeled: standards and procedures, additional software, additional hardware, system integration, installation and debugging, cables, training and support.

As a side note, I was uncomfortable with Moore's metaphors in this chapter, entitled "Assemble the Invasion Force." He describes the task of entering a competitive market as "trying to invade Normandy from England, and the installed market leader is playing the role of the Nazi forces" (p.117). Entering a market without competition is "as if one had landed on a new continent and decided to set up shop selling wares to the natives" (p.117).

Let's get to the third model, the Competitive-Positioning Compass (p.135). It's basically a matrix in which the x-axis is generalist v. specialist and the y-axis is supporters v skeptics. The resulting quadrants are: technology enthusiasts (specialist/skeptics), visionaries (specialist/supporters), pragmatist (generalist/skeptics), and conservative (generalist/supporters). You traverse the matrix in that order, and when you cross from specialist to generalist, you are crossing the chasm, "a transition from product-based to market-based values" (p.135). Moore provides a table contrasting the two sets of values (p.137).

Perhaps because of his background as an English professor, Moore describes the positioning of the product in terms of claims and evidence (p.152). He argues that your claim must pass the elevator test—that is, if you can't articulate it in an elevator pitch, it's not ready (pp.152-153). So he provides a good template for formulating this kind of claim:
For (target customers—beachhead segment only) 
Who are dissatisfied with (the current market alternative
Our product is a (new product category) 
That provides (key problem-solving capability). 
Unlike (the product alternative
We have assembled (key whole-product features for your specific application) (p.154)
And the claim must be backed by evidence, so he provides a beautiful little matrix on how to assemble it (p.157). This evidence is laid over the Competitive-Positioning Compass, with quadrants now labeled by types of evidence: technology (specialist/skeptics), product (specialist/supporters), market (generalist/skeptics), and company (generalist/supporters).

And here's where I think the real value of the book comes in. At its heart, Crossing the Chasm is a rhetoric handbook for articulating a value proposition. At this point in the book, Moore is helping people to articulate their claim in a specific format and provide different types of evidence for it. If you're interested in entrepreneurial communication, writing, and argumentation, it's at this point that the book is clearly worth the price of admission.

Reading :: Value Migration

Value Migration: How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition
By Adrian J. Slywotzky

Suppose you're an entrepreneur who has just come up with The Next Big Thing. Maybe you have followed blue ocean strategy and discovered a new market to exploit, one that has no competition. Nice work! It's as if you're printing money.

But over time, others see that you have a good thing, and they start competing in the same space. Competition means that your margins become thinner and you have to work harder for each customer. More than that, others are innovating too, because your "new" business model has become established. "Value migrates from outmoded business designs to new ones that are better able to satisfy customers' most important priorities" (p.4).

What do you do?

In this 1996 book, the author discusses value migration. "A business design can exist in only one of three states with respect to Value Migration: value inflow, stability, or value outflow" (p.6). This progression has existed for a while, but "Sometime in the 1980s, the game changed, the pace quickened" (p.8). The "new game of business," Slywotzky says, is founded on a different set of assumptions: not revenue but profit; not share of market but share of market value; not product power but customer power; not technology but business design (p.11). So the new task is to locate value and predict where it will move—toward new activities, skills, and business designs (p.12).

To help you locate value and predict where it will move, Slywotzky provides four heuristics aimed at helping you to map changing customer priorities; identify new business designs; compare business designs; and build new business designs to capture value growth (p.84). Much of the book focuses on how to work through these heuristics, and it illustrates the heuristics with 1996-era case studies.

But it also points out other changes. For instance, Slywotzky argues that "in the age of manufacturing, the sales force was the dominant go-to-market mechanism"; if you wanted to sell something, you would rely on a large, disciplined sales force (p.208). But "in the age of distribution, value has shifted to low-cost distribution and high-end solutions" (p.208): the traditional sales force is bypassed, and enterprises either go to low-cost distribution models (Dell's direct-to-customer model as well as bulk sales such as Costco) or high-end solutions (EDS' and Hewlett-Packard's senior-level selling).

Slywotzky closes by arguing that the relative power of customers influences the direction in which value will flow: a unique product gives the balance of power to the supplier, while a pure commodity gives it to the customer (p.253).

In all, I found this to be an illuminating book. The examples are now almost two decades out of date, but the fundamentals are solid and we can easily apply the lessons to modern cases. If you're interested in business model design or value, take a look.

Reading :: Entrepreneur's Toolkit

Entrepreneur's Toolkit: Tools and Techniques to Launch and Grow Your New Business
By Harvard Business Essentials

I picked up this book as a tool for better understanding entrepreneurship. It does a serviceable job of this, although it's less heuristic-driven and therefore less accessible than other books on entrepreneurship I've read. The book aims to be comprehensive, so it covers topics such as:

  • Self-diagnosis: Are you cut out to be an entrepreneur?
  • Finding and evaluating the opportunity
  • Organizing the enterprise (Should it be a sole proprietorship, partnership, C Corporation, S Corporation, etc?)
  • Building a business model and strategy
  • Writing a business plan
  • Financing the business
  • Angels and venture capitalists
  • Going public
  • Enterprise growth
  • Keeping the entrepreneurial spirit alive
  • Harvest time (i.e., cashing out)
This scope is appropriate for providing a broad overview of entrepreneurship. However, some of the details get lost. For instance, readers get to learn a lot about how to organize the enterprise, but they learn comparatively little about the process of designing, ideating, and iterating the value proposition. Similarly, the chapter on writing a business plan discusses some of the main sections, but doesn't provide a model to follow or analyze.

If you're looking for a broad overview of entrepreneurship, this may be the book for you. But you'll want to supplement it heavily with other sources. 

Reading :: Value Proposition Design

Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want
By Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Greg Bernarda, and Alan Smith

I just reviewed Osterwalder and Pigneur's Business Model Generation, which I thought was terrific, although so simply presented that the style may be offputting to some readers. Its sequel, Value Proposition Design, takes things to a new level—on both fronts.

This book introduces a new heuristic, the Value Proposition Canvas (VPC), which is composed of the Value Map and the Customer Profile. These components draw on a number of other tools and frameworks with which readers may be familiar, such as Design Thinking and Jobs to be Done. And the book leads readers through the basic steps: Canvas, Design, Test, and Evolve. The authors do a good job of discussing how to develop a value proposition, what its components are, and how to evolve it in response to feedback.

But the authors also take things to a new level in their illustrations, which (to my eye) resemble Fisher-Price's Little People:

I'm not gonna lie: I had a hard time taking this book seriously because of the disturbing illustrations, which are never more than one page away. These illustrations are (I suppose) meant to make the subject matter more accessible. But I had a hard time getting past them. Not only do they make the book seem childish, they also seem bizarrely sinister. Customers are often represented as disembodied heads (top photo), as anatomically correct human hearts ripped from the bodies of living customers (bottom photo), as disembodied heads in a large beaker (cover), as victims menaced by furry monsters (p.118), and as marionettes animated by other stakeholders (p.50). After pages of these Peanuts-Lovecraft hybrids, I began to feel a little paranoid.

Is the book useful? Sure: I think the VPC and the integration with Design Thinking and JtbD are helpful. Will I skim it again? Sure, after the nightmares stop. Would I use it in a class? No. I just don't think the students would be able to take it seriously. However, I might find a way to introduce the VPC when I teach students about the Business Model Canvas. 

Reading :: Business Model Generation

Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers
By Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur

The Business Model Canvas (BMC) is a lean, rapid alternative to writing a business plan—basically a heuristic that guides the budding entrepreneur through the complex argument s/he has to make in order to develop a viable business model. Although it's been popularized by Steve Blank, the BMC is credited as originating with this "handbook for visionaries, game changers, and challengers." But the BMC is not the only heuristic in this lean, readable, and valuable handbook. If you're an entrepreneur, you'll find a lot of accessible insight in these pages.

I have called it "readable" and "accessible"; some readers, especially academics, may find the style off-puttingly simple. But push past that. The book is written so that readers can pick it up, read just part, then go do. Although it is arranged in a specific arc, I could see people picking it up at almost any point and finding it to be valuable. But let's go through the arc.

In this arc, the authors discuss the following:

  1. Canvas
  2. Patterns
  3. Design
  4. Strategy
  5. Process
  6. Outlook
Each contributes to the development of a business.

Canvas is the starting point: it provides "a shared language for describing, visualizing, assessing, and changing business models" (p.12). Essentially, the authors assume that you already have an innovation in mind, and now you will build a business around it. A business model, they say, consists of "nine building blocks that show the logic of how a company intends to make money," covering "the four main areas of a business: customers, offer, infrastructure, and financial viability" (p.15). These building blocks all interact, and putting them on a canvas—a heuristic that is meant to be collaboratively assembled—allows the entrepreneur to see their relationships and address weaknesses. These building blocks include:
  1. Customer segments: "the different groups of people or organizations an enterprise aims to reach and serve" (p.20)
  2. Value propositions: "the bundle of products and services that create value for a specific customer segment" (p.22)
  3. Channels: "how a company communicates with and reaches its Customer Segments to deliver a Value Proposition" (p.26)
  4. Customer relationships: "the types of relationships a company establishes with specific Customer Segments" (p.28)
  5. Revenue streams: "the cash a company generates from each Customer Segment" (p.30)
  6. Key resources: "the most important assets required to make a business model work" (p.34)
  7. Key activities: "the most important things a company must do to make its business model work" (p.36)
  8. Key partnerships: "the network of suppliers and partners that make the business model work" (p.38)
  9. Cost structure: "all costs incurred to operate a business model" (p.40)
By laying these out in a canvas, the authors allow us to see the relationships spatially. The left side of the canvas focuses on efficiency, while the right side focuses on value (p.49). 

In the next section, Patterns, the authors discuss three core business types (product innovation, customer relationship management, and infrastructure management) in terms of three aspects (culture, competition, and economics) (p.59). They use the BMC to parsimoniously describe different business cases and patterns, including free offerings, fremium services, and open business models. This section is lengthy, perhaps overly so; you can find a summary on pp.118-119.

In the following section, Design, the authors discuss design techniques and tools "that can help you design better and more innovative business models" (p.125). These tools include customer insights (including another heuristic, the empathy map), ideation (including SWOT analysis), visual thinking (including affinity diagrams, although they don't use the term), prototyping, storytelling, and scenarios—familiar tools to those who have been involved in UX/UI, participatory design, and related approaches. Essentially, the authors use these tools to increase customer empathy and adopt the customer's perspective. 

The Strategy section introduces another set of heuristics. The Business Model Environment describes "context, design drivers, and constraints" (p.200) by showing four categories characterizing the business environment: key trends, market forces, macroeconomic forces, and industry forces (p.201). Here, they return to the SWOT analysis to assess the business model—but this time, they overlay SWOT over the BMC, providing a set of questions (pp.217-223) to guide the SWOT. 

They then turn to blue ocean strategy, declaring that the BMC is a "perfect extension" of it (p.226) and using one example from Blue Ocean Strategy, that of Cirque du Soleil, to illustrate how BOS and the BMC can complement each other. 

In the last section, Process, the authors summarize the entire process of developing a business model. As you may have guessed, the process does not follow the order of the sections. They describe the process as 
  1. Mobilize (Setting the stage)
  2. Understand (Immersion)
  3. Design (Inquiry)
  4. Implement (Execution)
  5. Manage (Evolution)
and they helpfully provide tools and page numbers under each stage. Naturally, 1-3 make heavy use of the Design section, while the BMC is evolved throughout. 

Two more things. First, the authors also discuss "beyond-profit business models" (p.264), essentially what is elsewhere called social innovation. That is, the principles laid out here can be applied not just to businesses but also to nonprofits.

Second, the authors briefly discuss how the BMC and other heuristics are translated into a formal business plan (pp.268-269). This small section reminded me of my favorite proposal writing book, which similarly helps people work through various heuristics in order to assemble a complex argument. However, the authors don't take the next step and demonstrate the concrete steps of writing the business proposal. 

In all, I found this book intriguing and very useful. As a professor of rhetoric and writing, I'm interested in how people assemble complex arguments, and this book essentially helps budding entrepreneurs to understand that argument-building process. If you're interested in becoming an entrepreneur, or just understanding how entrepreneurs write and communicate, definitely take a look.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

(I'm still alive)

This has been a busy semester for me, and I haven't been able to review the books I've been reading. But that doesn't mean I haven't been reading.

In fact, I have been reading books that range from simple to complex, from social psychology to business, from economics to autopoesis, from entrepreneurship to ethnographic methodology. At this point, I am over a dozen books behind on my blogging. Will all of these books get a review? Probably not. But I hope to get to a big chunk of them soon—probably during Christmas vacation.

In the meantime, here's some of the books in the pipeline:

Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector
by Sam Ladner

The Social Psychology of Organizing
by Karl E Weick

The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle
by Joseph A. Schumpeter

Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
by Joseph A. Schumpeter

The Startup Owner's Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company
by Steve Blank

The Four Steps to the Epiphany
by Steve Blank

Value Migration: How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition
by Adrian J. Slywotzky

Innovation Prowess: Leadership Strategies for Accelerating Growth
by George S. Day

Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers
by Alexander Osterwalder

Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want
by Alexander Osterwalder

The New Business Road Test: What entrepreneurs and executives should do before writing a business plan
By John Mullins

Entrepreneur's Toolkit: Tools and Techniques to Launch and Grow Your New Business
By Harvard Business School Press

Tree of Knowledge
By Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela

Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers
by Geoffrey A. Moore

In other news, Amazon is making a lot of money from me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Writing :: Toward a typology of activities

Spinuzzi, C. (2015, in press). Toward a typology of activities: Understanding internal contradictions in multiperspectival activities. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 29.1. 
Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. As I began to write this post, I realized that this is the fifth paper I have authored or coauthored with "toward" in the title. Apparently I am always working toward things.

In a lot of ways, the writing process for this article was very similar to that of "Losing by Expanding." For both articles, I had been thinking about and reading sources for a long while, trying to gain a better understanding of some phenomenon that bothered me. For both, I was trying to work toward a different publication, but had to solve the theoretical problem at hand first—the publications were basically byproducts of the larger research arc. And for both, I had to get out a big tabletop-sized piece of paper to figure out what was going on.

One other similarity: Although both articles represented a lot of reading and thinking, when it came time to write them, they both came together rather quickly.

Thinking through the literature
The specific literature I had been chewing over was that of organizational typologies. I've been intrigued by TIMN since 2007, and have expanded to investigate various others, but I've also been mindful of criticisms of organizational typologies—particularly the question of whether the axes of a given typology, which are selected a priori, can say much about a specific organization.

I had also struggled to figure out how to reconcile this work with activity theory, which examines human activities rather than organizations. Historically, activity theory has not done much to distinguish between types of activities, instead emphasizing the uniqueness and situatedness of each activity (just as Schein does with organizations). There are some exceptions, but these are inconsistently applied and do not seem to converge on a single principle.

Such a principle is needed, I think. We intuitively realize that some activities are similar (say, judging in Finnish and California courtrooms), while others are less similar (say, courtrooms vs. World of Warcraft gaming). But activity theory-based studies have emphasized uniqueness, making it difficult to compare cases.

Solving the problem
When writing my most recent book, All Edge (which will be published two months later than the print version of this article), I tried a few ways around this question. After all, I was talking about a distinct kind of work organization, so I really needed a way to type organizations so that I could contrast the emergent work organization of all-edge adhocracies with other forms of work organization. And, of course, I wanted to do this in terms of activity theory.

I tried several things. One was to treat typologies as theoretically distinct from activities, but that approach seemed incoherent; the analytical framework has to talk to the theoretical one. Another was to survey what others had said and not take a stand—but, again, that didn't do enough work. A third was to try to force a theoretical connection. Writing this part of the book, frankly, was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

Eventually, I realized that I was too fixated on the quadrants—the types of organizations I was trying to describe. For a typology to be useful, it has to grow from the analytic distinction that one is trying to examine. Here is where the a priori nature of a typology can actually do work: by deepening the already a priori work started by the theoretical framework. In concrete terms, that meant determining what activity theory principles could productively be represented by the axes to yield interesting distinctions.

Once it was framed in that way, the answer was obvious—in fact, it was right there in "Losing by Expanding." The "seed" of an activity system is the object, the thing that the activity cyclically transforms. So my new typology asked:

  • How is the object defined? Is it defined explicitly and deductively or tacitly and inductively?
  • Where is the object defined? Is it defined within the activity’s division of labor or outside it?
Lo and behold, the two axes yielded four quadrants that were reasonably similar to those of organizational typologies. But since the typology was grounded in the object of the activity, it allowed me to coherently connect theory with typology. 

Of course, the problem wasn't completely solved. As I pointed out in "Losing by Expanding," the object is multiperspectival. Two people may perceive the same work object in very different ways, and those perceptions may drive them to embrace different configurations of activities—configurations that could contradict each other. But the typology I had developed, I reasoned, could be used to characterize these contradictions as well.

I used the basic argument in All Edge to characterize the cases I discussed in that book. But I recognized that the typology could also be used to characterize other activity theory-based studies in professional writing research. From there, it was an easy step to select four representative cases and apply the typology. 

Getting it published
When I sent the first version of the article off to JBTC—which, in retrospect, seems to be where I send most of my AT theory pieces—I included an additional hook: I argued that the typology could be used to anchor a meta-analysis of AT studies. The reviewers didn't buy this, and probably for good reason. Although the typology can help to characterize activities, I haven't done the work to connect it to the principled distinctions that would have to underpin a meta-analysis. I overreached, and it damaged my ethos with the reviewers. 

Fortunately, I could remove that argument without doing violence to the piece, and the other comments were easy enough to implement. The article was accepted in October 2013—and slated for the January 2015 issue. This long wait time is probably due to the popularity of the venue (JBTC). For that reason, I'm in the odd situation of having my articles published in a very different order from their writing—this article was accepted before I began serious work on coauthoring "Making the Pitch," but that article was published first.  

Lessons learned
"Typology" was frustrating for a long time, up until the point that it got easy. It's a good example of how theory pieces often have very long gestation times, then assemble themselves quickly once the final puzzle is solved. 

As you can see from the other links above, it's also a good example of how different parts of a research arc can talk to each other. The theoretical problem really did arise from trying to characterize three distinct workplace studies, and it really did connect strongly (once I realized the connection) to my last major theory piece. Like so many of the articles I've been publishing lately, this one is a mid-career piece that can take advantage of the research arc I've traced up to now. 

Anyway, take a look and see what you think. The print version will be out in January, but the online-first version is up—and it's citable. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Writing :: Making the Pitch

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., Burback, S.D., & Momberger, J. (2014, in press). Making the pitch: Examining dialogue and revisions in entrepreneurs’ pitch decks. IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication 57(3).
Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article had a very fast turnaround: we were told in June that if we could revise according to editor comments, it could be published by December. But when we received the proofs, the date said September, and as you can see, the early access version is already up. 

You'll also see that the paper has eight coauthors. I rarely write with teams this big. Although it's rewarding, it's also difficult to manage. But in this case, it was worth it: different members of the team handled collecting, coding, analyzing, access, and the other functions, and all had input into the final article. Special mention goes to Scott Nelson, a graduate student in the English department who open-coded the documents, then flew to South Korea to videorecord pitches and conduct interviews. (Scott's currently working on his dissertation about the pitch and related genres.)

So what can I tell you about the writing process? For me, this was a difficult paper because (a) it put text analysis front and center, and that's not the sort of analysis I usually conduct; (b) it was situated in a complex activity in which I don't have much prior experience; and (c) I had to figure out how to handle the issue of cultural differences.

When in doubt, segment
Re (a), we decided early on to segment our investigation, starting with the vast archives that IC2 keeps of pitch documents. Given our level of expertise, we decided to approach the project inductively, using open coding to investigate a relatively small subset of documents (applications, initial pitch decks, final pitch decks, comments on initial pitch decks, and technology commercialization reports). This analysis really is just the tip of the iceberg, but it provided us with a way to develop our understanding of the activity and the vocabulary we would have to use. In fact, we split this paper twice: once when we realized that we had to narrow the scope to focus on the archives, and again when we further narrowed it to focus on claims and evidence.

This is where the long view is helpful. Yes, I wanted to fold in the totality of our evidence, including observations of the process, observations of pitches, and interviews of multiple players. But there was no practical way to do that within one article. By segmenting the investigation, we could get traction on this piece—while working on other segments in the background.

I've mentioned elsewhere that when you write up research, you have to be conscious of your research arc. That was certainly true here: this segment of the research should constitute just one part of a research arc that encompasses other articles on the same topic.

When the activity is complicated, read and backchannel
The phenomenon we were studying, pitching, is inherently interdisciplinary. So we faced the challenge of trying to learn a little about a lot of different fields and a lot about business pitching. Along the way, we learned a lot about the workarounds and local innovations that make a complex program work. Much of that background knowledge doesn't explicitly make it into the paper, but all of it impacted how we interpreted and coded the data.

Fortunately, we built in feedback mechanisms along the way, from formal surveys to informal face-to-face contacts to member checks. These were vital for getting our arms around what turned out to be an enormous amount of tacit knowledge—not just knowledge about this specific multiyear program, but also knowledge about business, marketing, and hard-to-pin-down concepts such as the value proposition. The last three authors were particularly helpful here, since they were well steeped in this world.

At the same time, to better understand this background, I found myself reading a procession of books and articles on marketing, innovation, diffusion, and related concepts. The books should sound familiar if you've been reading this blog.

When faced with cultural differences, be cautious
The program we investigated attempts to teach small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Korea how to enter global markets, particularly but not exclusively the United States. In practice, this means that an innovator (someone who, say, invents a new technology) needs to learn how to commercialize that technology (i.e., identify a good application for it and a set of stakeholders who require that application) in a different market. As our informants told us, these SMEs face a lot of barriers: How does an innovator learn to be an entrepreneur? How does someone talk to potential stakeholders in another culture? How does someone in a protected "fast follower" economy learn how to address the requirements of a relatively unprotected economy? How does someone whose economy is dominated by a few family corporations (chaebol) get her or his head around an economy with multiple players?

Faced with these questions, it's easy to reduce these questions to "cultural differences," e.g., characterizing the US as a market culture and South Korea as a clan culture (cf. Ouchi). I briefly started down this path before realizing that many of these questions were not related to national culture at all. An innovator in the US, such as a physicist in a university setting, will also have trouble figuring out how to commercialize a technology—and they do, which is why research universities in the US tend to have technology commercialization offices. A "fast follower" economy elsewhere in the world will not share South Korea's cultural milieu, but may face many of the same barriers. And so on.

So, rather than reducing the differences to a vague and overarching culture clash, we focused on the specific issues that we could identify in this particular case.

Making the pitch
One last thing. In writing this paper, we were surprised at how little research there has been into how people develop their pitches. Most of the research we found focused on delivery. So we found ourselves reaching back into the document cycle literature as well as (naturally) the genre assemblage literature to better discuss distributed writing processes.

In doing this, we became sensitive to the fact that we also had to make a pitch—a pitch that identified a research hole and addressed how to fill it. Once we discovered the research hole (the lack of pitch process literature), we couldn't believe how big it was. Now we get to fill it, and this article represents the first shovelful.

Monday, August 11, 2014

(Vote for my SXSWi2015 reading!)

Longtime readers know that I go to SXSW every once in a while. It's a great forum for discussing really interesting developments that affect all of us. For instance, in 2009, I discussed coworking. In 2011, I led a core conversation about distributed work. And in 2014 I talked about how liberal arts matter in a STEM world.

This year, I hope to continue that trend of appearing at SXSW—but this time, I want to read from and discuss my new book. In All Edge, I talk about coworking and distributed work, but also some of the long-term changes in how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate at work.

But to talk about All Edge at SXSWi, I need you to help. Click through to the SXSW Panel Picker and take a look at my entry. If it sounds good, please upvote me!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reading :: Distant Publics

Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis
By Jenny Rice

I finished this book a while back, but have only now eked out some time to review it. Here, Jenny Rice examines public discourse set around issues of development in my beloved hometown and the place where Jenny earned her PhD: Austin, Texas. She asks: "How do people argue, debate, and deliberate about the spaces where we live, work, shop, and travel?" And why does development proliferate even though it seems to be so broadly disliked? Her answer revolves around a figure, "the exceptional public subject," who "occupies a precarious position between publicness and a withdrawal from publicness. It is a subjectivity thoroughly grounded in feeling, which makes this rhetorical position so difficult to change" (p.5). These "exceptional subjects imagine themselves to be part of a wider public simply by feeling" and "feeling too often serves as the primary connective tissue to our public spaces" (p.6). The fallout: "our habits of public discourse can paradoxically contribute to the demise of healthy public discourse" (p.5).

Rice develops this argument via various case studies (not in the Yin sense of an empirical research methodology, but rather in the sense of specific incidents that serve as epicenters for rhetorical analysis). These case studies are well developed, providing interesting and sometimes poignant narratives about development issues: urban (over)development as exemplified by strip malls and the Austin Smart Growth Initiative (Ch.1), eminent domain as illustrated by the Kelo decision (Ch.2), a fight over how a developer would affect Barton Springs and the aquifer (Ch.3), the demise of Austin's beloved Armadillo World Headquarters (Ch.4), and the issue of East Austin gentrification (Ch.5). Each is compelling, and each illustrates different aspects of Rice's argument about public spaces and the exceptional public subjects who feel for them—sometimes with too much affect, but too little effect.

What shall we do, then, about public discourse? In the next chapter, Rice argues that "we must pursue inquiry as a mode of publicness" (p.164). That is, we must stretch past the vernacular talk that tends to generate the exceptional public subject: as composition teachers, rather than asking students to write and argue about things that ignite their passions, perhaps we should ask them to inquire about things first, making inquiry the telos rather than the means by which students are expected to engage their passions (Ch.6, esp. p.168). By encouraging students to write about their passions, Rice says, we are training them to become exceptional public subjects who feel rather than acting; by making inquiry the object, we are training them to become engaged in public inquiry in which they learn how to interrogate the multiple asymmetrical networks in which they are enmeshed (pp.168-169).

Should you read this book? Of course! It's outside my particular research focus, but I'm enmeshed in these multiple public networks and so are you. Take a look, even if you're not specifically interested in public rhetoric and theory. And if you teach, consider taking Ch.6 in particular to heart.

Reading :: Diffusion of Innovations, Fifth Edition

Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition
By Everett M. Rogers

In Bruno Latour's discussions of science and technology, he often contrasts two models by which new innovations spread: diffusion and translation. Roughly, diffusion is seen as a process by which people take up an innovation "as is" and apply it unaltered. Translation is a process in which people adapt the innovation for their own contexts. That is, as Latour likes to say, there is no adoption without adaptation.

However, Latour is using a fairly crabbed understanding of what scholars mean by diffusion. In this thick and comprehensive book, Everett Rogers, whose name (according to the back cover) is "virtually synonymous with the study of the diffusion of innovations," gives us a much broader understanding of diffusion research. He acknowledges that diffusion research has had a pro-innovation bias in which researchers coded adoption as positive and adaptation as bad (p.106), but he also notes that diffusion scholars have critiqued this bias since the 1970s (p.110) and says that now "diffusion scholars no longer assume that an innovation is 'perfect' for all potential adopters in solving their problems and meeting their needs" (p.115).

I start out with this example for two reasons. One is that it helps me—and, presumably, long-time readers—to situate this book in relationship to the science and technology studies (STS) scholarship with which my own field is familiar. The other is that it illustrates the key advantage of this book: it offers a broad, wide-ranging, and thorough overview of diffusion research, including its history, contributions, and criticisms (Ch.2-3) as well as how innovations are generated (Ch.4), how people decide whether to adopt/adapt an innovation (Ch.5), what innovation attributes affect adoption rates (Ch.6), categories of adopters (Ch.7), diffusion networks (Ch.8), change agents (Ch.9), innovation in organizations (Ch.10), and consequences of innovations—good and bad (Ch.11).

Throughout this massive discussion (471pp, not counting end matter), Rogers overviews the field of diffusion studies, provides illustrative case studies, discusses failures as well as successes, and even discusses and critiques some of his early conclusions that he believes should be revisited. He discusses how various fields and strands (including social construction of technology) have contributed to diffusion studies (although he doesn't name-check Latour in particular). And he firmly connects this discussion to sociological studies and touchstones (he was trained as a rural sociologist).

Granted, I don't know a lot about diffusion studies, but my impression is that this book provides a strong introduction to the field. If you're studying innovations, diffusion, technology commercialization, or related concerns, please do pick it up.

Reading :: Organizational Culture and Leadership

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th edition
By Edgar H. Schein

One of the blind reviewers for my latest book (which will be published in March 2015) suggested I read this book. More recently, one of our professors in the HDO program assigned it to her students. With two recommendations so close together, I decided it was time to take the book for a spin.

What did I think of it? I'm still sorting that out.

According to the back cover, this book is "one of the most influential management books of all time." Its author has been studying and consulting on organizational culture for decades—his earliest cited work in this volume is dated 1961—and he draws on a deep well of his and others' organizational studies to discuss what organizational culture is and what leadership entails. Since the book is written for management rather than scholars, it is full of categories and heuristics aimed at helping that audience think through the various issues of culture.

Schein has clearly thought through the relevant issues, leading to fairly precise definitions. For instance, he defines "the culture of a group" as "a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to these problems" (p.18). He distinguishes organizational cultures from macrocultures (e.g., nations), subcultures (e.g., occupational groups), and microcultures (e.g., microsystems) (p.2). Within culture, leadership involves becoming influential in shaping the values and behaviors of others in the group (p.3). Culture, he says, implies structural stability, depth, breadth, and patterning or integration (pp.16-17). Critically, he says (over and over), culture cannot be inferred only from behavior: culture is driven by shared basic assumptions, which may not be accessible to outsiders through observations or even through initial interviews (p.20); they might not even be easily accessible to the participants themselves.

Schein argues that culture has three levels: artifacts (which include visible structures and processes as well as observed behavior); espoused beliefs and values (which includes ideals, ideologies, and rationalizations); and basic underlying assumptions (which are unconscious and taken-for-granted, but which determine bedrock things such as behavior and perception) (p.24). New values can be proposed (on the second level) but do not become part of the underlying assumptions until they have been "empirically tested" (p.26). These basic assumptions then become theories-in-use, which are nonconfrontable and nondebatable (p.28). In fact, when cultural assumptions conflict, new solutions have to keep each cultural assumption intact in order to be accepted (p.31).

In organizations, Schein says, three generic subcultures are in effect: the operator subculture (or "the front line"), the engineering/design subculture; and the executive subculture (Ch.4). These subcultures often work at cross purposes, and the lack of alignment causes many problems that are ascribed to issues such as bureaucracy, environment, or personality (p.65).

The culture's structure is the same at different levels, Schein says, but its content (rules, norms, values, assumptions) vary (p.69). Schein notes that some have attempted to address the issue of structure through organizational typologies (such as Cameron and Quinn's CVF), but he argues that such typologies pose several analytical problems—particularly when administered in survey form. To pick out two criticisms that apply to typologies in general rather than to survey methodology: (A) such typologies are typically based on a priori comparative dimensions, and there's no way to tell which dimensions will be most salient to the case until one actually gets into the case (p.160), and (B) the sample of employees may not be representative of the key culture carriers (p.160). Typologies may also imply, as CVF does, that the poles of each dimension are in conflict "and the cultural solution is how to reconcile them"; based on his deep experience in examining organizations, Schein is unconvinced, although he allows that the CVF may provide "a useful diagnostic" for correlating managerial climate and performance (p.168). In sum, Schein believes that such typologies "simplify thinking and provide useful categories for sorting out the complexities we must deal with when we confront organizational realities." But they tend to be oversimplified and their categories may be irrelevant or incorrect. The effort to classify the organization into a single category involves making a lot of assumptions, many of which may not hold (p.175).

In the next chapter, Chapter 11, Schein discusses categories of research on organizations. He uses a matrix: level of subject involvement (low, medium, and high) vs. level of researcher involvement (low/medium: quantitative; high: qualitative) (p.181). The rest of the chapter weighs these different approaches—in detail.

Skipping ahead, we get to Chapter 14. Here, Schein seems to say that leaders take an outsized role in setting culture. He discusses the mechanisms in detail; I'll just comment that I am as skeptical of this argument as Schein is about organizational typologies.

By Chapter 17, we get to "a conceptual model for managed culture change," and Chapter 18 builds on that discussion by proffering an approach to "culture assessment as part of managerial organized change." Extraordinarily, given the previous discussion, Schein claims that "culture can be assessed by means of various individual and group interview processes ... Such assessments can be usefully made by insiders in as little as a half-day" (p.326, my emphasis).

So, now that I've recapitulated the book's highlights, what do I think?

The book is indeed broad and deep, and the author's long and detailed experience gives him a broad number of examples as well as a strong set of conceptual tools to interpret them. I would have liked to see the book become more focused and parsimonious, though, especially in reusing several of the examples across chapters.

Some of the authors' critiques stick: For instance, the critique of typologies is well thought out and helped me to think through some of the issues in the typologies I've read and discussed on this blog (and in my upcoming article and book). But the author doesn't distinguish strongly between the theoretical issues of such typologies and the methodological issues of surveys. As noted above, I am also skeptical of the outsized role that the author assigns to leaders in the organization, as well as his assertion that insiders can assess culture in a half day—this assertion seems to cut against his earlier claims about deep assumptions in the culture.

At the same time, the book also talks through organizational culture using heuristics that could be potentially very useful. For instance, the distinction among levels of culture not only makes sense, it can be put in dialogue with other theoretical and methodological approaches to organizational culture.

So: should you read it? If you're interested in organizational culture, yes. But if you have already read books on organizational culture or qualitative research, you may find yourself skimming it in several chapters.

Reading :: Service-Dominant Logic

Service-Dominant Logic: Premises, Perspectives, Possibilities
By Robert F. Lusch and Stephen L. Vargo

If you had told me a few years ago that I would be reading marketing books, I would not have believed you. But marketing turns out to be a fascinating and oddly parallel area of study for someone interested in professional communication—and it's also a vital field for me to understand due to the research study I'm currently conducting.

Like any other field, marketing has differences, disagreements, and controversies. One recent fissure has been in how people define the value proposition, which is (roughly) the promise of value that a good or service can offer a customer. The value proposition is often discussed, but rarely defined or investigated rigorously in the marketing literature; it's a rather vague term, like "context." But traditionally, ever since the term was first used in the 1980s, the value proposition has been understood as built into the good or service by the supplier, then offered to customers, who might then accept or reject it.

But in 2004, Vargo and Lusch published an article that challenged this understanding of the value proposition and the logic that defined it:

Vargo, S. L., & Lusch, R. F. (2004). Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 68(1), 1–17.

In their 2004 piece, Vargo and Lusch argued that marketing had assumed what they call goods-dominant logic (GDL) in which value was embedded in goods and offered to consumers. Instead, they argued, marketing should be understood in terms of service-dominant logic (SDL), in which value emerged from a dialogue among resource integrators. They and others developed this line of thinking in a series of articles. In this book, they summarize and extend the discussion further.

In Chapter 1, they argue:
Problems emerge immediately when constructing simple theories of exchange, business, and society. Arguably, the most difficult of these problems is the dominance of an institutional logic with serious limitations, which is deeply rooted in a discipline and thus monopolizes associated thought processes. One such worldview is G-D [goods-dominant] logic. This logic frames the world of exchange in terms of units of output (goods). Others have referred to it as “old enterprise logic,” “manufacturing logic,” and other, similarly descriptive tags. 
G-D logic views the production and exchange of goods as the central components of business and economics. That is, it frames the purpose of the firm and the function of economic exchange in terms of making and distributing products – units of output, usually tangible. It is closely aligned with neoclassical economics, which views actors as rational, firms as profit-maximizing, customers as utility-maximizing, information and resources as flowing easily among economic actors, and markets as equilibrium-seeking – scholars within and outside economics have challenged all these perspectives. (p.4)
G-D logic, they say, developed from economics and inherited economics' focus on exchange-value, a focus that can be traced back to the limitations and peculiarities that Adam Smith dealt with in his famous treatise The Wealth of Nations (pp.6-7). But, the authors argue, Smith used exchange-value as a proxy for use-value:
The early scholars, including Smith in his original analysis of economic exchange, had it right all along: value is created at the point of what we have been calling “consumption” and, more recently, “experience”, rather than during production. (p.7)
Focusing on use-value means that we must acknowledge that "value is cocreated" among all entities involved in the transaction (p.8). That entails seeing each transaction as a service rather than a good, a service in which we must recognize "the most important resources being integrated and doing the integration – human actors with their skills, knowledge, and innovative and entrepreneurial abilities. What is needed is a logic that, rather than abandoning goods logic, transcends it, by recognizing the primacy of human resources applied for the benefit of others (and ourselves) – service" (p.8). Whereas G-D Logic saw the relationship as being between producers and consumers, S-D Logic removes that distinction: "Fundamentally, all actors (e.g., business firms, nonprofit and government organizations, individuals, and households) have a common purpose: value cocreation through resource integration and service-for-service exchange" (p.10). For instance, rather than focusing on the goods being exchanged (say, a fisherman and a farmer exchange fish for grain), we should examine the services that are involved (say, "the application of protein-producing competences for the application of carbohydrate-producing competences," p.11). "This service-oriented interpretation focuses attention on the only resource the actors really possess to take to market: their own knowledge and skills" (p.11). And thus, the authors say, we get to the key difference in understanding the business process: between "selling things to people and understanding it as serving the exchange partner's needs. This difference is a key difference between G-D and S-D logic" (p.11).  

Following from this distinction are four axioms:

  • "Service is the fundamental basis for exchange"— implying that "(1) goods are appliances for service provision, (2) all businesses are service businesses, and (3) all economies are service economies."
  • "The customer is always a cocreator of value."
  • "All social and economic actors are resource integrators," that is, agents in combining and integrating resources to produce value.
  • "Value is always uniquely and phenomenologically determined by the beneficiary" (pp.15-16)
Let's pause here. When I first began reading the marketing literature to better understand the value proposition, I was struck by three things: how vague the term was, how it was understood as built into the good, and how it was consistently discussed within the dichotomy of producers (sellers) and consumers (buyers). Scholars in rhetoric and writing studies may see parallels with the term "meaning" in our field, a vague term for something that was once understood as embedded in the text, unilaterally communicated from writer to reader. Eventually, rhetoric and writing scholars shifted to the consensus that meaning is cocreated in communicative interactions: meaning was eventually seen not as a noun, a quality embedded in a material, but rather the result of a verb, an interaction across many participants and media. That is, the shift to S-D logic described in this book sounds a lot like the interpretive turn that rhetoric and writing took in the 1980s. So Vargo and Lusch's 2004 article and this 2014 book seem very familiar to me in large chunks of the argument.

Some of their cites do as well, although they don't engage with these to the extent that I think they should. For instance, they cite Callon on performativity on p.18. But Callon has much more to say about economic interactions that would be even more directly relevant: his work on interessement, for instance, could provide a strong theoretical basis for discussing how various stakeholders are locked into place around an emergent value proposition. On p.46, they cite Zuboff and Maxmin's 2002 book, pointing out that Z&M describe a shift from "enterprise logic" to "relational logic" and acknowledging that this is essentially the shift from G-D to S-D logic; but they do this through a drive-by cite rather than spending much time exploring the parallels. However, they do draw on Giddens' structuration theory (p.23 et passim), a framework that is familiar to professional communication types via Orlikowski and Yates. 

This brings us back to the book's argument. Via structuration theory, the authors describe how actors create the environmental structure for their activities, and the environment then structures their future actions:
To capture these dualistic, dynamic, resource-integrating (through service exchange), enabling, and constraining value-( co-) creating structures, we use the term “service ecosystems.” A service ecosystem is a relatively self-contained, self-adjusting system of resource-integrating actors that are connected by shared institutional logics and mutual value creation through service exchange. By including shared institutional logics we point towards a link between S-D logic and structuration theory which describes human actions within social systems as enabled and constrained by social structures – that is, as contextual and contingent. (pp.24-25)
If we view things in this way, "the strategic advantage of a firm can be recast from a logic that focuses on making better products to increase market share in existing markets to one of redefining existing markets for strategic advantage or defining and thus creating new markets" (p.25). That is, the authors claim that using S-D logic pushes us away from what are elsewhere called "red ocean" markets (established commodities) and toward "blue ocean" markets (innovations)

At this point of the review, I pause and note that everything I've quoted is in the introduction. Rather than going through the entire book in this detail, I'll pull out some highlights.

First, the authors define the value proposition:
 Therefore, a value proposition under S-D logic is how an actor co-proposes to positively affect another actor. This recognizes that value is obtained when an actor experiences through engagement with the firm the unfolding of the interactive market offering. Stated alternatively, firms and other actors can offer potential value through value propositions; however, they cannot create value but only cocreate it.  
Value propositions are therefore promises but they must be fulfilled. Firms and actors, in general in developing exchange relationships, should view their role as offering more compelling value propositions than other competing actors but then making sure, to the extent possible, that actual value as experienced by the beneficiary meets or exceeds promised value. (pp.72)
Elsewhere, the authors argue that a value proposition is an invitation to engage (p.187). The value is always co-created, but phenomenologically determined by the beneficiary (p.187).

If the beneficiary co-creates value, we must shift from "marketing-to" to "marketing-with" (p.78). And rather than seeing relationships as B2B, B2C, etc., Lusch and Vargo therefore see all relationships as "A2A" or actor-to-actor (p.89). In Chapter 5, "It's all actor-to-actor (A2A)," the authors distinguish among different types of exchange institutions: reciprocity ("an exchange of obligations between actors," p.108), redistribution ("when an authority or central actor gathers or takes the goods and service capacity of actors and allocates back to actors according to some type of custom, tradition, rule, or simply fiat," p.109), and market exchange (in which "the actors interface to establish the value-in-exchange for tradable resources," p.110). The authors also discuss hybrid exchange systems, which combine two or more of the above. Readers of this blog may see similarities with typologies of work organization, such as Heckscher and Adler's, Ronfeldt's, and Boisot's.  

I could go on and on, but you get the gist. This is an interesting and, I think, important book for summarizing the SDL position. Although it primarily functions as a summary for the growing body of work on SDL, it does also contribute some new and elaborated discussion of the position. And it's an easy read. If you have even the remotest interest in marketing, value creation, or innovation, take a look.

Monday, June 09, 2014

(Now get Topsight for less)

In January 2013, I published Topsight via Amazon CreateSpace. Since then, it's been used in graduate and undergraduate courses in technical communication across the country and I've had the pleasure of talking with people in person and on Skype about how the book has been useful to them. The response has been better than I hoped.

If you haven't picked up Topsight yet, this is a good time to do so: I just lowered the price of the print version from $24.99 to $19.99, making it even easier to pick the book up out of curiosity, assign it to classes, or hand it out as a party favor at a research-themed party. The Kindle version should also drop in price in the near future.

Friday, May 30, 2014


I'm a featured speaker at the upcoming Watson Conference. This year the conference's them is "responsivity," or "what it means for teacher/scholars of rhetoric and composition to be responsive to communities both within and beyond the academy." As a featured speaker, I was asked to make a short video about the theme. That video has just been posted along with other speakers' videos.

The video is below—but make sure to click through to the other speakers' videos as well!

Responsivity - Clay Spinuzzi from Watson Conference on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reading :: Learning from the Field

Learning from the Field: A Guide from Experience
By William Foote Whyte

Willliam Foote Whyte wrote several landmark pieces in sociological fieldwork, including the 1943 classic Street Corner Society. In this 1984 book, he put together a guide for conducting such fieldwork, a "guide from experience," as the subtitle explains. This experiential guide, like Van Maanen's Tales of the Field or Becker's Tricks of the Trade, is liberally illustrated with the author's own fieldwork; it amounts to a series of points plus dos-and-don'ts plus extended examples. I found it fascinating.

In the early chapters of the book, Whyte tackles subjects such as participant observation (Ch.2), planning the project and entering the field (Ch.3), field relations (Ch.4), observational methods (Ch.5), and interviewing strategies and tactics (Ch.6), all of which draw on the author's great experience and wiles to make the field research a success. For instance, in Chapter 3 he discusses how to decide whether you need to change your research design midstream - and how to commit to it. In Chapter 4, he discusses how to determine when to ask questions, what questions to ask, and how to present one's research to participants. In Chapter 6, he discusses how to subtly direct interviews. Whyte clearly has a deep bag of tricks.

He also has a broad understanding of the field. Street Corner Society was published in 1943, based on fieldwork in the late 1930s. But in Learning from the Field, published over 40 years after his first, groundbreaking study, Whyte addresses then-contemporary developments such as participatory action research (p.168) and network analysis (p.248). By addressing these developments, he situates the book more broadly and makes it more contemporary than it otherwise might have been.

All in all, this is a fascinating and valuable book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of fieldwork, perhaps over Van Maanen or Becker.

Reading :: The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution
By Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin's name is familiar to me because he coauthored Leviathan and the Air-Pump with Simon Schaeffer. That book, a history of the development of the experimental method in the conflicts between Hobbes and Boyle, was extensively discussed in Latour's We Have Never Been Modern. So when I saw this book at the used bookstore, I had to pick it up—especially after I opened the front cover and saw that it had been previously owned by Maxine Hairston.

Unlike Leviathan and the Air-Pump, The Scientific Revolution is a history meant for a lay audience. It describes a period that only gained an identity in retrospect: as Shapin says in his first sentence, "There was no such think as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it" (p.1). The phrase "the Scientific Revolution" was coined in the early to mid 20th century (p.2) and used in retrospect to draw together "four interrelated aspects of changes in knowledge about the natural world and changes in means of securing that knowledge" (p.13): the mechanization of nature (i.e., using mechanical metaphors to understand natural phenomena); the depersonalization of natural knowledge (i.e., separating what we subjectively sense from what objectively occurs); the attempted mechanization of knowledge-making (i.e., using rules or methods to lead us to objective understandings); and "the aspiration to use the resulting reformed natural knowledge to achieve moral, social, and political ends" (p.13).

These were indeed big changes. As Shapin explains in Ch.1, one of the most revolutionary things about Galileo's work was that he described sunspots. In Aristotelian thinking, the earth was imperfect and the heavens were perfect and unchanging, so imperfect phenomena such as sunspots (as well as irregularly moving phenomena such as comets) were construed as either in the atmosphere or below the moon (p.17). That is, the doctrine came before the observation (p.18). "Pre-Copernican cosmology was literally anthropocentric," Shapin explains, but not in a way that connoted special virtue: the perfect rose to the heavens, the imperfect sank to the earth, and the real center of the cosmos was under the earth - in Hell (p.24).

Furthermore, for Aristotle, "all natural motion had a developmental character" (p.29): bodies moved to where they should naturally be. "Aristotelian physics was in that sense modeled on biology and employed explanatory categories similar to those used to comprehend living things" (p.29). But for the modern philosophers, a more attractive metaphor was that of the machine (p.30), especially the clock (p.32). Applying this metaphor led them to this analogic thinking:
clock : clockmaker :: nature : intelligence
The clock metaphor led philosophers to think of matter, not as active (as in the biological metaphor), but as inert (p.44). They began distinguishing between primary qualities, which belonged to the object (size, shape, motion), and secondary qualities, which were derived from primary quantities (e.g., color, sweetness, warmth) (p.53). This separation is better known as objective vs. subjective: a wedge between philosophical legitimacy and common sense, one that disallowed sensory experience as a reliable guide (p.53). Boyle went on to say that forms were figments of the human mind (p.54).

As Shapin points out, mechanical philosophy did not explain as much as it claimed to; adherents were convinced that the mechanical explanation was superior to alternatives (p.57) and began to see God as a master mathematician (p.66).

In Chapter 2, Shapin asks: How was it known? At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the existing philosophical traditions rested on human textual authority—such as the works of Aristotle—rather than on evidence of natural reality (p.68). By the end, they were looking at a different "book"—the "book of nature" (p.69; notice the metaphor). The transition was eased because although people were convinced at the beginning of the period that the ancients knew more than moderns ever would, the extant texts were clearly corrupted and two copies of the same text would diverge. Which corrupted source was the most accurate? They began comparing the texts to direct observations to find out (p.76). As the Protestant Reformation went on, laypeople could read the Scripture for themselves; analogically, they decided that they could also read God's other book, the Book of Nature (p.78). Yet people sometimes saw different things in that "book." Eventually, Boyle and the Royal Society developed the experimental method to discern causes from effects—a development that was violently opposed by philosophers such as Hobbes (p.110).

In Chapter 3, Shapin asks: What was the knowledge for? Eventually, reading the Book of Nature began to be understood as a contribution equal to that of the theologian (p.138). This chapter traces that development, examining how it changed the dynamics of the period.

If you're interested in the development of scientific thought, definitely pick up this interesting and readable book.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Reading :: The Interpretation of Cultures

The Interpretation Of Cultures
By Clifford Geertz

Confession: I am really not a fan of Geertz. I recognize that I only have that luxury because his work was groundbreaking enough that it can seem obvious in retrospect. But I would still rather read derivative work, which tends to show more economy of writing that Geertz's.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's focus on the most often cited essay in this book: "Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture." Here, Geertz discusses the notion of thick description, borrowed from Ryle (p.6) and elaborated. Geertz distinguishes between thin description (what is someone doing?) and thick description (what does that action mean in terms of cultural categories?) (p.7). The example here is that of a man rapidly contracting his eyelid (thin description) as a burlesque wink (thin description). Thick description, Geertz argues, distinguishes good ethnography from bad (p.16).

That's a very (ahem) thin description of the essay, but it's the gist of what—I concede—you probably should read for yourself. Although I find Geertz's prose to be a chore, he does provide a thorough, example-laden argument for understanding description as an interpretive move that ethnographers have to embrace and practice. If you're interested in doing field research, ethnography or not, this essay should help you to understand and sift through some of the layers of meaning you'll need to describe. For that reason, yes, read Geertz.

Reading :: Strategy as Practice

Strategy as Practice: An Activity Based Approach
By Paula Jarzabkowski

Management studies have not drawn much on activity theory -- in fact, from what I can tell, there's not much beyond Blackler's articles and Jarzabkowski's work. And Jarzabkowski's work is best summed up by the author herself: "This framework is informed by activity theory ... but it is not a faithful representation of activity theory in its entirety. Rather, it draws on activity theory principles of mediated interaction between actors and their social community in the production of shared activity" (p.35). For me, it was an interestingly heterodox take on activity theory, one that taught me a lot about how the field of management sees strategy-as-practice.

First, let's talk about the triangle diagram that Jarzabkowski deploys throughout. Activity theorists are well acquainted with triangles, which in AT typically represent the following points: subjects, TOOLS, objects, RULES, community, and DIVISION OF LABOR. In a typical AT triangle, the all-caps words are the corners, essentially mediating among the other terms. For instance, a subject uses a TOOL to realize the object; a subject uses RULES to mediate between herself and the community; the community uses the DIVISION OF LABOR to mediate between itself and the object.

In Jarzabkowski's triangles, there are only three terms, and they're on the corners: subject, community, and goal-directed activity. In the middle, symbolizing what they produce together, is "Situated practices of mediation" (p.35).

This triangle and Jarzabkowski's take on activity theory both seem heterodox. Why change things so much? Jarzabkowski is interested in understanding business strategy, which she defines as "a pattern in a stream of goal-directed activity over time" (p.43). So she's specifically interested in how top managers (subjects) work with an organizational community to develop strategy over time, strategy that yields the outcome of realized strategy content. To put it another way, she wants to look at a specific type of activity (strategy), not as a planned phenomenon but as an emergent one. That is, Jarzabkowski wants to understand strategy-as-practice in terms that would perhaps be more familiar to readers of Suchman or Weick. Activity theory, at least in this incarnation, gives her the conceptual vocabulary to discuss and describe this understanding of strategy-as-practice.

For instance, Jazabkowski examines strategy in a case set in a university context. In this case, the activity is distributed because divergent interests lead to goal ambiguity; thus actors are fragmented in their objectives and do not lend much attention to strategy as a collective organizational activity (p.70). In such cases, organizations experience a tension between institutionalized rules and organizational practices, leading to procedural and interactive strategizing (Ch.4). The latter half of the book addresses how to construct strategies in such an environment, using a strategizing matrix based on the triangle (p.104). This work yields a heuristic for understanding how strategy unfolds under different conditions. The author identifies five patterns through this matrix: "introducing localized activity into mainstream strategy; changing existing strategy; stabilizing activity; unresolved activity; and inertial activity" (p.109). And she uses the matrix to describe changing activity system dynamics: reframing, re-embedding, and chronic restructuring (p.124).

In all, I found it to be a fascinating book. I am not sure how I feel about the application of activity theory here—Jarzabkowski seems to be using it very differently, but then again, she is looking at phenomena that AT has not traditionally examined. But I'm intrigued by how she uses the matrix to identify and describe developing patterns, and I wish I had read it before developing my own typology recently. There's a lot to think through in this book. If you're interested in new and unusual developments in activity theory, it's definitely worth reading.