Saturday, December 22, 2012

Topsight > Using Topsight to teach a class

I developed Topsight for several audiences: consultants, people who want to change their organizations, people who need a gentle introduction to field research in organizations, graduate students. But in particular, I was thinking of my own undergraduate students in the course I often teach, Designing Text Ecologies.

The link goes to the spring 2013 version of the course. And I'm excited that I'll be using Topsight for that course. You can follow the link for the particulars, including the projects and the pacing. But if you're thinking about using Topsight for your own graduate or undergraduate course, here's a template for a 13-week course that might be helpful:

Week 1: Field studies and topsight (Preface, Ch.1)
Week 2: Developing a study design; building in protections (Ch.2-3)
Week 3: Gaining permission; preparing to study (Ch.4-5)
Week 4: Introducing yourself to participants (Ch.6)
Week 5: Observing; interviewing (Ch.7-8)
Week 6: Collecting artifacts and other sorts of data (Ch.9-10)
Week 7: Navigating data: triangulating and coding (Ch.11-12)
Week 8: Reporting progress: The interim report (Ch.13)
Week 9: Introduction to the analytical models; resource maps; handoff chains (Ch.14-16)
Week 10:Triangulation tables; breakdown tables (Ch.17-18)
Week 10: Activity systems and activity networks (Ch.19-20)
Week 11: Topsight tables; describing systemic issues (Ch.21-22)
Week 12: Turning findings into recommendations; writing the recommendation report (Ch.23-24)
Week 13: Turning recommendations into new solutions (Ch.25)

Topsight > I just looked at the proofs for the book...

... and I got excited all over again. I'm really thrilled that this book is coming together. Part of what I'll be doing over Christmas break is to go through the proofs and identify the final tweaks so that this book will be professional-grade.

Some of you have also contacted me in various ways—on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, email, and even face-to-face—to express interest. Thank you.

Although I hoped to get Topsight uploaded to Amazon CreateSpace by the end of 2012, it looks like it'll happen in early 2013 instead, due to some tweaks that still need to happen. It's this last mile—making sure the footers are right, watching out for widows and orphans, adjusting page breaks—that slows things down, but that also gives the book that finished, professional look.

In the meantime, I'll keep blogging and uploading content to the Topsight page. If you're interested in Topsight, please do keep watching this space—and if you know others who are interested, point them this way.

Topsight > Resource maps

One analytical construct that I discuss quite a lot in Topsight is something I call "resource maps." The name might be unfamiliar, but I've been discussing resource maps since 1997 under another name: "genre ecologies."

Why the name switch? "Genre ecologies" gets at the theoretical aspects that are important to academics. But they take a lot of explanation for non-academics. The concept of genre itself takes a lot of unpacking. But I've found that when I talk about mapping information resources, people can more easily grasp what's going on—and are sometimes more open to seeing unconventional or idiosyncratic resources as part of a system.

Let's take the classic example I use in my first book. Various people, in various locations, working in various organizations, all struggle when trying to use a text-based information system in conjunction with a street map. That's a classic usability problem, right? But a subset of people find ways to route around those problems. One copies down information onto a sticky note and keeps it in a folder. Another photocopies parts of his map. And so on. For these people, the information system doesn't have a usability problem, because they've successfully added an information resource that shores up the weaknesses of the current set of resources.

In some cases, these systems tend to standardize. For instance, in my second book, I describe how collections workers for a telecommunications company take a printout of people who are late on their payments, annotating it to turn it into both a checklist (who do I call next?) and a record (when I called this person, did I talk to them, leave voice mail, or what?). Even though these people all told me that they didn't learn this annotation system from anyone else, they were able to read and understand each others' checklists when necessary.

At the same time, these systems tend to have components that can be borrowed from anywhere—previous jobs, personal lives, other organizations, other domains—piled, sometimes haphazardly, in a heap of information resources. Since they come from different places, these information resources sometimes assume very different things and follow very different logics. And those mismatched resources sometimes develop disruptions.

Tracking these resources—again, not abstractly, but in the minute-by-minute, meso-level ways that they're used by actual people—can help you gain a detailed understanding of how complex the work is, how information flows around the organization, and where things go wrong. And it's a lot easier to track them if you map them out like this:
Here, each box represents an information resource that was actually observed during a field visit. The lines indicate points at which two or more information resources were observed being connected. For instance, if you see someone looking at his notebook when filling out a dialog box, you can connect them with a line. But if you never see him using the dialog box in conjunction with a folder, you don't.

Observation is crucial here. People connect information resources in a lot of different ways, including:

  • juxtaposition (two information resources attached to or overlapping each other)
  • placing (two information resources placed side by side, in a stack, or in regular places)
  • annotation (writing or altering an information resource)
  • transfer (using one information resource as source for filling in another)
  • modeling (using one information resource as a model for another)
  • reference (using one information resource to interpret or operate another)

And they don't always tell you about these connections. Some are too habitual, others seem too obvious (to them), and still others can seem petty or even embarrassing to them (few people will say that a sticky note is the linchpin of their work). But you need to be able to map them if you're going to gain topsight.

Resource maps and handoff chains are two important ways to analyze the minute-by-minute, meso-level interactions you'll observe in organizations, and I discuss them extensively in Topsight. They're two ways of looking at the same information resources. But they need to be connected. Soon, I'll discuss how to connect them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Topsight > Handoff chains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Topsight > How to cite Topsight

I'm behind on my blogging due to a big project I'm trying to wrap up this week (unrelated to Topsight). But I thought I'd address a question: How do you cite a self-published book?

It turns out that others have also wrestled with this question. It's complicated, because the book is self-published, but printed by CreateSpace. According to one thread from the Amazon CreateSpace message board, one cannot put down CreateSpace in the publisher spot, like this:
Hocking, Amanda. Fate: My Blood Approves. Charleston: CreateSpace, 2010.
At least, you can't in the book itself.

The citation above turns out to be the proper MLA format for citing a self-published book, more or less, so someone who wants to cite this book could actually use this format in their Works Cited page. In this version, the printer goes where the publisher would normally go. Chicago handles things similarly. (A quick Google search turns up no analogue for APA.)

But if you use it in the book itself, CreateSpace will insist that you turn it into one of these possible forms:

Hocking, Amanda. Fate: My Blood Approves. Charleston: Amanda Hocking, 2010.
Hocking, Amanda. Fate: My Blood Approves. n.p. Amanda Hocking, 2010.
Hocking, Amanda. Fate: My Blood Approves. n.p: n.p, 2010.
Hocking, Amanda. Fate: My Blood Approves. n.p: n.p., printed by CreateSpace,  2010.
So: How will you cite Topsight when it comes out? You might consider something like this:
Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Topsight: A guide to studying, diagnosing, and fixing information flow in organizations. Austin: CreateSpace.
Check your style guide for details.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Network > New slide decks for each chapter

I've been posting a lot about my new book Topsight and pointing to the downloadable content I've been adding to the page as I count down the days until the book is available. But I have other books too—books that lay down the theoretical and empirical background behind Topsight. And I'll be adding downloadable content to their pages as well.

In fact, I put together a set of slide decks last year that discuss my 2008 book Network chapter by chapter, reviewing and amplifying on each chapter's content and adding examples to make the book more relevant to social media and information design. Today I uploaded them.

If you're interested, go to the page for Network and take a look—they're in the Download section. And let me know what you think in the comments!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Topsight > Activity networks

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

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

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

How on earth does this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Writing :: How Can Technical Communicators Study Work Contexts?

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). How can technical communicators study work contexts? Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Eds. Stuart Selber and Johndan Johnson-Eilola. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This is the fifth in my ongoing series on writing publications. But that doesn't mean that the chapter I'm describing was written recently. In this case, I finished the chapter quite a while ago—I submitted a substantial draft in September 2009—and did some light fine-tuning in the years after that, freshening citations and so forth.

The chapter is for Selber and Johnson-Eilola's Solving Problems in Technical Communication, which is meant for technical writing undergrads and early grad students. In this particular case, the editors asked me to describe how to study work contexts, based on my workplace studies.

The topic was really timely for me. In the previous year (2008), I had teamed with Mark Zachry and Bill Hart-Davidson to present a workshop on field methods and analytical constructs at the RSA Summer Institute, so the materials were fresh. And I had been using the analytical constructs in various papers as well as in my undergraduate field methods class. In fact, I had been thinking about bundling some of these materials into a book (which I eventually did).

For this particular chapter, I focused on the meso-level analytical constructs that I thought would be most useful and accessible, the ones that Bill, Mark and I discuss in "Chains and Ecologies": genre ecology models, communicative event models, and sociotechnical graphs. In fact, you can think of the chapter as a popularization of that piece, one that uses an extended scenario to illustrate them.

Popularization is the key word. Since the chapter was meant to be read by undergrads, it required a different mode of writing, one that relied more on conversational language and less on dense citations—and, at least in 2009, it was a mode that I had a hard time entering. The editors patiently sent back my first draft (and, I believe, my second) with a lot of helpful comments on how to make the chapter more accessible. Comments such as "Fixing this may require creating a new scenario and a new extended example"—a comment that led me to completely rewrite and restructure the chapter!

Lessons? For this chapter, the big lessons are:

(a) Often a writer has to adjust for the audience. And those adjustments aren't always easy—in this case, they entailed a complete rewrite. At a couple of points, I became frustrated enough that I wondered whether this chapter was worth it. PS, it was: this exercise paid real dividends in terms of clearer writing and also in terms of doing a better job of teaching my own students.

(b) The chapter isn't the point. Speaking of, I want to emphasize something here that I tell my grad students. It's not about the publication. The publication is not the product of your scholarship, it's the exhaust or the condensate that comes as a byproduct of the scholarship. We measure progress in scholarship by publications, yes, but that's like measuring industry by measuring CO2 emissions or tracking a jet plane by looking for the contrail. Once you think of publications like these as the condensate that results from solving interlinked problems (e.g., How do we study context? How do I communicate my results to an undergraduate audience?), it becomes a lot easier to push them out, to invest less in them emotionally, and to see them as a trailing-edge measure of progress.

(c) Sometimes you have to be patient. In this case, "trailing edge" is a good description, since the chapter took a while to come out. In fact, seeing this chapter come out now almost feels like time travel, since that work from 2009 was an important step toward my new book, which will actually come out just weeks after this one!

No matter. Strategically, these publications link together, with each publication helping me to think through the next step in my scholarship. Tactically, they provide coverage: publications come to press at different rates, just as investments mature at different rates, so having several out there can pay dividends at different points. In this case, the chapter is coming out at a very good time in terms of my annual merit case and in terms of promoting my new book. (Did I mention my new book?)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Topsight > Activity systems

I've been using activity theory ever since David R. Russell introduced me to it in—was it 1995? And one of the most useful tools that activity theory gives to us is the notion of the activity system.

The activity system is the analytical unit of activity theory: it's what we have to study in order to understand what people are trying to do in an organization or other social unit. Roughly speaking, the activity system allows us to study the material and social context that surrounds a repeated activity.

For instance, suppose we want to examine how people work in an organization. We wouldn't focus (exclusively) on their tools, their education, or the posted rules that they have to follow. We wouldn't (exclusively) isolate each one and give them IQ or perception tests. Sure, we might do any of these things as part of a larger study, but in isolation, they don't tell us much about the shared activity.

So what would we do?

Activity theory would suggest that we first figure out: (1) What's the objective that they're trying to accomplish over and over again? And (2) why—What's the outcome they want to produce?

Once we figure those out, then we can go to other components that make up the activity. First the easy part, easy because these components are generally visible: (3) What tools do they use as they try to accomplish their objective? (4) Who is directly using these tools to achieve the outcome?

Then the harder part, harder because these components are generally invisible: (5) What formal and informal rules do people follow in this activity? (6) What community stakeholders are indirectly involved? And (7) What's the division of labor at the site—how do people formally and informally divide their roles?

By dissecting context in this way, we can start to understand how all these components fit together.

Okay, so this description gives us a conceptual overview. But to do this sort of analysis ourselves, it really helps to have step-by-step directions. And maybe a worksheet to fill out.

For step-by-step directions, you'll have to wait to read my book Topsight, where I show how to use field research to construct activity systems. But you can see the Topsight worksheet for activity systems now. Here it is.

As you can see, each component is numbered; these numbers correspond to the instructions in the book. I'll make the PDF available soon on my book site so that people can download it and write in the blanks.

Of course, part of what makes activity systems useful is that once you describe the activity, you can start to detect systemic tensions. Activity theorists call these tensions contradictions. They're sources of disruptions—but also, as Yrjo Engestrom tells us, engines of innovation. Naturally: When a system isn't working, people try to fix it. So detecting those contradictions, and the innovations that cluster around them, becomes extremely valuable.

Detecting these contradictions takes a new set of questions, a new set of instructions—and a new worksheet.

In this worksheet, you can use the same field data to begin identifying contradictions: contradictions within each point (say, two incompatible tools) and contradictions between points (say, a mismatch between a tool and a rule). You write a description, indicate the contradiction with a dashed line, and then you have a depiction of the underlying tensions in an organization.

This brief description makes activity systems sound easy to produce. They're not, of course. Like topsight itself, an understanding of an activity system takes a while to develop. But you'll find the tools for developing it in Topsight.

One more thing. Activity systems don't just float around by themselves, like beach balls in the ocean. They constantly connect and overlap. And those connections and overlaps create contradictions too. Soon I'll talk about how to model those contradictions as well.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Topsight > What's in Topsight?

So my new book Topsight is written for a general audience—people in organizations, consultants, undergraduates, and others who want to better understand information flow in organizations. What does that cover?

Let's just take a quick look at the table of contents. The book is organized around four phases.

It starts with an introduction, of course:

  • Chapter 1. Why We Need Topsight–And How We'll Achieve It

Then the four phases. 

Phase I: Planning a Study
  • Chapter 2: Developing a Research Design
  • Chapter 3. Building in Protections
  • Chapter 4. Gaining Permission
  • Chapter 5. Preparing for Data Collection

In this phase, people learn how to design a study to achieve topsight. This phase is a bit different from those you'll see in most field methods books, though, for a few reasons.

First, topsight requires an integrated-scope approach. So the research design has to gather data from three different levels (macro, meso, and micro) as well as etic and emic data (your perspective, their perspective). 

Second, topsight involves examining an organization, not a culture or a set of individuals. So the design has to be responsive to the stakeholders in the organization, including gatekeepers at different levels as well as participants. So the design has to be responsive to those dynamics. 

Third, any one of these stakeholders can say no at any time. So I discuss how to get them to say yes.

Phase II. Conducting the Study
  • Chapter 6. Introducing Yourself to Participants
  • Chapter 7. Observing
  • Chapter 8. Interviewing
  • Chapter 9. Artifacts
  • Chapter 10. Collecting Other Sorts of Data

In this phase, I discuss how to collect the data that you'll need in order to achieve topsight. Again, due to the methodological and analytical requirements of topsight, these chapters will be a bit more specific than you'll see in many field methods books. For instance, you'll need to take field notes openly and in real time during observations—not the norm in ethnographic research. Similarly, interviews involve a certain rhythm and touch on different levels of scope.

Phase III: Navigating Data
  • Chapter 11. Triangulating Data
  • Chapter 12. Coding
  • Chapter 13. Reporting Progress: The Interim Report

Topsight is not just oriented to organizations, it involves being responsive to organizations. So in this phase, the book focuses on how to navigate the data you've collected and how to relate the different parts of the data together. In the end, topsight requires building solid arguments for change, so Phase III is argument-oriented: it involves building claims from triangulated data, figuring out how to put "street signs" on your data via coding, and keeping your host organization in the loop.

Phase IV. Analyzing the Data
  • Chapter 14. Introduction to the Analytical Models
  • Chapter 15. Resource Maps
  • Chapter 16. Handoff Chains
  • Chapter 17. Triangulation Tables
  • Chapter 18. Breakdown Tables
  • Chapter 19. Developing Activity Systems
  • Chapter 20. Developing Activity Networks
  • Chapter 21. Developing Topsight Tables

This phase is where the unique aspects of the approach really kick in. Each model provides a different view of the data you've collected. Together, they provide integrated views at the macro, meso, and micro levels, allowing you to examine how the three interact—and to diagnose the systemic issues at play in the organization.

Phase V. Reporting the Results
  • Chapter 22. Describing Systemic Issues
  • Chapter 23. Turning Findings into Recommendations
  • Chapter 24. Writing the Recommendation Report
  • Chapter 25. Beyond Field Studies

I mentioned that topsight is really about making arguments for change, right? And these arguments aren't simply academic: we're talking about concrete changes that may cost the organization (in terms of money, time, reorganization) but that should pay dividends (in terms of addressing systemic issues that are holding the organization back). In this phase, I'll discuss how to turn the analysis into a solid argument for change, one that provides findings but goes beyond them to furnish concrete recommendations. 

The book can't take you to the next step, which is testing and refining these recommendations. But the last chapter gives you some pointers to the next steps.

Finally, two appendixes:
  • Appendix A: Resources
  • Appendix B: Rolling Your Own Free, Customized, Free, Multiplatform, and Free Qualitative Data Analysis Tool. For Free.

The first is a set of resources you can read for more information; the second is based on a blog post I wrote a while back, discussing how to manage qualitative data.

Can I be candid? I get more enthusiastic each time I read through this table of contents. I hope you're interested too. 

Keep your eyes on this space for more about Topsight

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Topsight > How do I get Topsight?

Yesterday I said that I had been working on a project meant to pull my topsight-related work together and make it more broadly accessible. That project is still underway, but let me introduce it to you.

It's a book. I'm calling it Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations.

And it's both similar to and different from my previous books and articles. Here's how.

How to study the organization
My previous books and articles describe field studies I conducted in complex knowledge work organizations, studies that helped me achieve an overall understanding of how these organizations circulate information.

Topsight doesn't describe a field study—it tells people how to conduct and analyze their own field studies, including lots of tips and tricks that I've had to learn the hard way. That includes designing a study, putting together a research kit, and convincing stakeholders that the study is a good idea.

How to diagnose the organization
In my previous books and articles, I developed or adapted analytical constructs such as activity systems and activity networks, genre ecologies, sociotechnical graphs, operations tables, and contradiction-discoordination-breakdown tables. These helped me to diagnose problems with information flow in these organizations.

Topsight includes these constructs and more—but it gives them better, more self-explanatory names; explains them lucidly, so anyone can put them together from the data; and provides professionally designed figures to better convey what these constructs are supposed to do. Which is: to diagnose problems with information flow in organizations.

How to fix information flow
My previous books and articles basically stopped at diagnosis. They were about analysis.

Topsight doesn't. It walks readers through developing claims, turning them into recommendations, justifying those recommendations, and integrating them into solid recommendation reports. Readers won't just analyze the organization, they'll have the tools to argue for changing it.

And that brings us to...

My previous books and articles were written for professors and graduate students. They talked about organizations, but not necessarily to people in organizations.

Topsight is written for people in and out of academics who want to achieve topsight: undergraduates, consultants, people who want to change their own organizations.

Published by...
My previous books were published by MIT Press and Cambridge University Press. I'm very proud of these books, and I'm very grateful to these publishers for accepting them.

Topsight will be published by ... me. I'll be working through Amazon's CreateSpace publish-on-demand platform to produce the book in both printed and Kindle versions. This approach means that I can turn the book around quickly, retain control, keep costs down, and reach a global market. It's an exciting experiment.

Topsight won't quite be out in time for Christmas, but it should come out soon afterwards. Watch this space for an announcement. In the meantime, I'll be blogging about different aspects of the book—and adding more content at

Monday, November 26, 2012

Topsight > What is topsight?

A while ago, I posted my review of David Gelernter's book Mirror Worlds, an influential book that is about developing software to help us better understand complex systems. Published in 1991, this book was influential in a number of ways. Specifically, it introduced the notion of topsight.

As I wrote in my review of the book,
Gelernter argues that we often have trouble getting to the big picture, understanding the entire system. Instead, he says, we get mired in the details, something that he calls ant-vision. “Ant-vision is humanity’s usual fate; but seeing the whole is every thinking person’s aspiration. If you accomplish it, you have acquired something I call topsight.” Topsight—the overall understanding of the big picture—is something that we must "pursue avidly and continuously, and achieve gradually." It's a systemic understanding, a way of seeing the whole (see p.11; 30; 42; 51).
And I added:
topsight, like insight, comes gradually; don't confuse it with the model itself, understand it as something that the model make it possible to achieve.
As our systems become more complex, topsight becomes more critical to achieve. But it also becomes harder to achieve. That's certainly true in the complex systems that Gelernter wants to model, such as cities and nuclear power plants. But it's also true in the complex, overlapping, polysemous sociotechnical systems in which we work. How do we make sense of an organization in which several specialties overlap, an organization that uses off-the-shelf software and texts from different domains, an organization that has to work with multiple sets of rules? How do we tie together second-by-second operations, minute-by-minute tasks, and year-by-year activities, using them to yield a more complete understanding of the organization? How do we figure out how information flows through organizations, where it gets stuck, and how it becomes unstuck? How do we gain topsight—which, as Gelernter says, must be achieved gradually, like insight—when even a simple organization can develop unwritten rules, hold contrasting objectives, and be enmeshed with other stakeholders?

The term topsight, in fact, points to something that I've been studying since 1997 and teaching since 2000: how to investigate, analyze, diagnose, and model the ways that organizations circulate information. I've discussed parts of this work in my two books, in my many publications, and in seminars.

But Gelernter says something else about topsight. It shouldn't just be for a few people. If you want to drive smart, informed changes, you have to make sure that everyone has at least a chance to develop topsight.  He imagined this happening via broadly accessible models of complex systems. I imagine it happening by bringing methods out of academia—out of books, publications, and seminars—and making them accessible to the people in these systems, to consultants, and to undergraduates.

So for the last several months, I've been working on a project meant to pull my topsight-related work together and make it more broadly accessible. In the next few days, I'll be discussing that project—and topsight—on this blog. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reading :: The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
By Sir James Frazer

In their review of the history of ethnography, Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor discuss the armchair fieldwork that was the norm in the late 1800s and early 1900s: travelers would visit various spots of the world, come back with stories, and armchair scholars would then assemble and interpret them. Among those who never conducted formal fieldwork: "James Fraser, whose book The Golden Bough (1915) was central to early twentieth-century anthropological thought" (p.15).

I appreciated the background that Boellstorff et al. provide, especially since I had become increasingly uneasy about the methodology of The Golden Bough over the past year—I've been chipping away at it for a while, mostly in odd moments. It represents a synthesis of an incredible number of stories from all over the globe, stories of magic and religion that Frazer doggedly relates in order to develop a theory of religious development (although that description is probably an oversimplification). Frazer looks at ancient and modern customs involving purification, fertility, harvest and planting, human and animal sacrifice, and on and on.

The book, as I said, synthesizes an incredible number of stories. However, from a modern methodological perspective, it falls short. Frazer introduces suppositions and treats them facts that underpin more suppositions, which themselves become treated as facts for still further suppositions. (The signals for this move include phrases such as it is reasonable to suppose and we must conclude that.) One of Frazer's ground-level suppositions is that humanity's experience is more or less universal, so its rituals will tend to be underpinned by the same ideas. Although Frazer attempts to validate this notion by drawing connections among stories, the attempts are scattershot.

One of Frazer's main contributions here is the notion of totem, which he interprets as the "savage's" belief that his [sic] external soul resides in the animal that belongs to his totem. Durkheim later continues and critiques Frazier's line of thought, while Levi-Strauss rejects it. (Alas, I read these three books in reverse order.)

Whatever its flaws, though, this book is justifiably a classic. Frazer attempts a universal study, drawing from Western and Eastern magic, trying to demonstrate a common humanity with common beliefs. If you have a lot of time, certainly read it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Empirikom 2012: Analyzing computer-mediated communication in professional environments: An activity theory approach

Here's yesterday's presentation to Empirikom 2012 in Aachen. I use the Semoptco case to illustrate three analytical constructs (genre ecologies, activity systems, activity networks) and how they can help us better understand CMC use in professional environments.

Aachen turns out to be a fantastic place, and my hosts have been extraordinarily kind.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Empirikom 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New issue of Present Tense: On Medical, Gender, and Body Rhetorics

The issue looks really interesting, with some heavy hitters. Here's the blurb:
The editors of Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society are proud to announce Volume 2.2 of the journal Vol. 2.2 is a special and double issue of Present Tense that focuses on medical rhetoric and makes forays into gender and body rhetorics. The special issue features nine articles, a comprehensive medical rhetoric bibliography, an interview, and two reviews, including: 
A Womb With a View: Identifying the Culturally Iconic Fetal Image in Prenatal Ultrasound Provisions – Grounding her piece in House Bill 15, Rochelle Gregory illustrates how ultrasound visualization is a transformative act with political, medical, and ethical repercussions. 
Inoculating the Public: Managing Vaccine Rhetoric – Monica Brown asserts that, in light of the most recent flu epidemic, rhetorical analysis serves to correct mistakes in vaccination campaigns, thus offering public health campaigns and the public control of health messages and behaviors. 
Laboring Bodies and Writing Work: The Pregnant First-Year Writing Instructor – Jessica Restaino details the political and pedagogical complexities and challenges surrounding pregnant composition teachers inside the classroom and the larger academic institution. 
Stasis Theory and Meaningful Participation in Pharmaceutical Policy – Christa Teston and S. Scott Graham use stasis theory to analyze the FDA’s public hearings on Avastin, a breast cancer drug, concluding that the hearings allowed only certain types of discussion and resulted in stakeholders disagreeing on crucial points. 
“Wellness” as Incipient Illness: Dietary Supplements in a Biomedical Culture – Colleen Derkatch uses the rhetoric of dietary supplements to highlight popular notions of “wellness” and the public and political implications of these notions. 
The Concept of Choice as Phallusy: A Few Reasons Why We Could Not Agree More – Situating their piece in the historical and current context of abortion debates, Amy Koerber, Amanda K. Booher, and Rebecca J. Rickly depict the rhetorical spaces surrounding these debates and the role women’s stories play in these spaces. 
Healthy Eating: Metaphors We Live By? – Philippa Spoel, Roma Harris, and Flis Henwood’s empirical research illustrates how metaphors used in daily discourse construct our understanding of "healthy eating." 
Epideictic Rhetoric and the Reinvention of Disability: A Study of Ceremony at the New York State Asylum for “Idiots” – Zosha Stuckey argues that uses of epidiectic rhetoric reformed treatment paradigms and understandings of disability. 
Research Update: Pain Medication and the Figure of the Pain Patient – Judy Z. Segal discusses a current research project in which she reconstructs the pain patient in public and medical settings. 
An Annotated Bibliography of Literature on the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine – Jessica Masri Eberhardt provides one of the first published annotated bibliographies on medical rhetoric. 
Interview: Transplant Deliberations and Patient Advocacy – Melissa Christian, an organ transplant coordinator, spoke withPresent Tense editors about how communication influences her everyday interaction with transplant teams, patients, and families. As a working medical professional, Christian provides medical rhetoricians with suggestions for how their work can contribute to medical practice. 
Book Review: Black Dogs and Blue Words – Patty A. Kelly reviews Kimberly Emmons’ book on the rhetoric of depression, suggesting that a wide, cross-disciplinary audience may benefit from Emmons’ work. 
Book Review: Disability and Mothering: Liminal Spaces of Embodied Knowledge – Ashlynn Reynolds-Dyk reviews Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jen Cellio’s edited collection. Reynolds-Dyk summarizes the book’s four parts and concludes with reflective thoughts on how different audiences may use this collection. 
Present Tense is a peer-reviewed, blind-refereed, online journal dedicated to exploring contemporary social, cultural, political and economic issues through a rhetorical lens. In addition to examining these subjects as found in written, oral and visual texts, we wish to provide a forum for calls to action in academia, education and national policy. Seeking to address current or presently unfolding issues, we publish short articles of 2,000-2,500 words, the length of a conference paper. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Upcoming business proposals seminar

Just a reminder: If you're in Austin, you should sign up for my seminar on writing persuasive business proposals. I taught this seminar during the summer and it went over well: People liked it, appreciated the materials, and said that they learned a lot.

The description's at the link. Don't hesitate to contact me if you need more details!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reading :: The Temporary Society

The Temporary Society: What is Happening to Business and Family Life in America Under the Impact of Accelerating Change
By Warren Bennis and Phillip Slater

In one of his articles on adhocracies, Mintzberg sources the concept to Alvin Toffler, but also references the original 1968 edition of this book. Although it doesn't use the term "adhocracies," it does forecast some of the changes we associate with them. And although this is definitely a general readership book in the mold of Future Shock, it does give us some idea of what sorts of changes the authors were seeing in organizations at the time.

The copy I bought is the 1998 edition, in which the authors provide a new preface and retrospectives that come in front of each chapter. This preface summarizes some of the themes, so we'll start with it.

Bennis and Slater argue that bureaucracies tend to share certain characteristics:

  • A strong division of labor. Bureaucracies overlay institutional hierarchies, which tend to be divided into departments. 
  • Narrow specializations. Implied in this strong division of labor are narrow specializations. Bureaucracies tend to compartmentalize specializations in departments. 
  • Hierarchy and levels. In a rigid bureaucracy, the manager operates as the official communication and coordination point for his or her department. Although people in the department might informally chat with others in different departments, officially, they communicated via the chain of command.  
  • Command and control. Finally, bureaucracy assumes a command-and-control structure. In an institutional hierarchy, people higher in the hierarchy are assumed to have more information by virtue of their positions. They also tend to have more experience in their given department, having worked their way up the hierarchy in that department. Thus they are assumed to be in a better position to make decisions than those lower in the hierarchy. The greater access to information gives them the ability to command effectively, while the greater experience gives them the ability to control those in their specialty due to their understanding of the job. (p.xii)

Bureaucracies, they say, are set up to control, order, and predict. Given a slow-changing institutional hierarchy, offering lifelong employment, bureaucracies offered a way to make sure those with the most experience got the most information and (theoretically) made the best decisions.

But, they argue, "The organizations of the future will resemble networks or modules. The successful ones will have flattened hierarchies and more cross-functional linkages. The three words that best describe the mind-set of this paradigm are acknowledge, create, and empower" (p.xii). They equate this shift with democracy and claim that this shift is inexorable in business and society (p.xiii).

Diving into the original (1968) parts of the book, we see them developing this argument. They argue that "democracy becomes a functional necessity whenever a social system is competing for survival under conditions of chronic change" (p.10, their italics). Although bureaucracy is okay "for simple tasks under static conditions," it's not okay "for adaptability to changing conditions, for rapid acceptance of a new idea," etc. (p.10, citing a paper by Bennis).

Given this point, they say that bureaucracies will be more limited:
Tomorrow's organizations will be federations, networks, clusters, cross-functional teams, temporary systems, ad hoc task forces, lattices, modules, matrices—almost anything but pyramids. The successful ones will make problem finding, not problem solving, their first priority. They will be led by people who embrace error, even the occasional failure, because they know it will teach them more than success. Such organizations will be led by people who understand, as scientists do, the primal pleasure of the hunt that is problem solving. (p.63).
And on the next page:
In Chapter One, we predicted the end of bureaucracy as we know it and the rise of new social systems better suited to the twentieth-century demands of industrialization. This forecast was based on the evolutionary principle that every age develops an organizational form appropriate to its genius, and that the prevailing form, known by sociologists as bureaucracy and by many businessmen as "damn bureaucracy," is out of joint with contemporary realities. (p.64).
Bureaucracy, they say, faces four threats:
1. Rapid and unexpected change
2. Growth in size where the volume of an organization's traditional activities is not enough to sustain growth ...
3. Complexity of modern technology where integration between activities and persons of very diverse, highly specialized competence is required 
4. A basically psychological threat springing from change in managerial behavior (p.66). 
So what will succeed bureaucracy? Their prediction sounds very familiar if you've read Toffler.
The social structure of organizations of the future will have some unique characteristics. The key word will be temporary. There will be adaptive, rapidly changing temporary systems. These will be task forces organized around problems to be solved by groups of relative strangers with diverse professional skills. The group will be arranged on an organic rather than mechanical model; it will evolve in response to a problem rather than to programmed role expectations. The executive thus becomes coordinator or "linking pin" between various task forces. He [sic] must be a man who can speak the polyglot jargon of research, with skills to relay information and to mediate between groups. People will be evaluated not according to rank but according to skill and professional training. Organizational charts will consist of project groups rather than stratified functional groups. (p.83)
And thus "work groups will be temporary systems, which means that people will have to learn to develop quick and intense relationships on the job and learn to bear the absence of more enduring work relationships" (p.84). Indeed, they later state that "Individuals will be brought together on the basis of talent and availability, and geographic location will be less of an impediment than prior commitments" (p.92).

Just a side note. Notice the lack of agents here. "There will be adaptive, rapidly changing temporary systems." "The group will be arranged..." "Organizational charts will consist..." "Individuals will be brought together..." Underneath all of this change, Bennis and Slater still envision large, persistent organizations in which people work and by which they are deployed, across work groups, across specialties, across the country.

Let's leave it there. The Temporary Society previews some of the themes that we see later in Toffler's Future Shock (1970) and then, in much more analytical detail, in Mintzberg's The Structuring of Organizations (1978), and eventually in far less detail in Wellman's Adhocracy (1993). Although it doesn't make nearly the contribution of Toffler's or especially Mintzberg's books, it does give us a good idea of the organizational changes people were beginning to see in the late 1960s.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Symmetry as a methodological move, part IV

Is there a difference between hitting a nail with and without a hammer?

This is one of the provocative questions that Latour asks in Reassembling the Social (p.71). The question, of course, is rhetorical: of course there's a difference. Using the hammer remakes—perhaps I should say makes—the activity in a very fundamental way. Perhaps holding a hammer makes every problem look like a nail, but similarly, a nail poses a very different problem when one doesn't have a hammer.

Yet, Latour charges, classical sociology has tended to ignore the hammer and other material objects when it examines human activities. These material objects are often seen as incidental, he says, to what classical sociologists see as their real focus: social constructs, social structures, social contracts, social forces, etc. As Latour argues in his book Aramis, classical sociology sees through actors to the social structure, scrutinized through fixed frames such as norms, reason, logic, and common sense (pp.199-200). It assumes "a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon" (Reassembling the Social, p.1). It posits "the existence of a specific sort of phenomenon, variously called 'society,' 'social order,' 'social practice,' social dimension,' or 'social structure'" (p.3). This social "context" "can be used as a specific type of causality" (pp.3-4), i.e., it causes people to act in various ways. So, Latour claims, classical sociology begins with society or social aggregates; sociologists then study the effects of these causes (p.8).

Latour does not necessarily think this is a problem.

In fact, Latour says, classical sociology is like Newtonian physics. In most ordinary cases, when change happens slowly, it's fine to use a fixed frame of reference. When you're trying to determine with what force an object will hit the ground, knowing only the object's mass and rate of acceleration, it's fine to use Newtonian physics (f=ma). And if you're studying fixed social situations, such as traditional craftwork, a fixed-frame approach such as classical sociology is A-OK in Latour's book (literally his book: Reassembling the Social p.12).

But in other cases, we need a relativist frame. If you want to understand why atomic clocks run slower on commercial jetliners than they do at the US Naval Observatory, Newtonian physics will not get you very far; you need a relativist physics. And if you want to study situations in which "things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied," Latour says, you need a relativist sociology (Reassembling the Social p.12)—one with no fixed frames or metalanguage (Aramis p.200).

In this alternate, relativist view, "'social' is not some glue that could fix everything including what the other glue cannot fix; it is what is glued together by many other types of connectors" (Reassembling the Social, p.5). It's not the cause but the consequence of the assemblage (Reassembling the Social, p.8); the social is what you get when you associate various things. Thus, in this relativist sociology, you can't understand the social until you trace the associations among things (p.5). The things themselves aren't social; what's social is how they are shuffled together (p.64).

Let's try this out with some examples.

Situation 1. Suppose you're visiting a carpenter and his apprentice in their workspace. They're familiar and comfortable with their tools (hammers, saws, miter boards, etc.) and with each other, and they're doing work with which they are very familiar. Their hands are sure and their movements are smooth,  as you might expect from experienced people performing familiar tasks. In activity theory's terms, they their work is largely operationalized, habituated to a degree that they hardly have to think about it, leaving them free to talk baseball and politics. In fact, the details and tools of their craftwork may not be nearly as interesting as other things you might be able to investigate in this fixed frame: how they bond through talk, how they represent themselves in topics, how the carpenter retains or fails to retain social dominance over the apprentice.

Situation 2. But now let's suppose we visit a middle-aged college professor. He's at home, working at his kitchen table, surrounded by books and papers. The window is open, letting in a breeze that repeatedly moves the papers. Suddenly he gets up, fetches a hammer from the kitchen counter, and puts it on top of a page.

Now, that's not a completely novel use for a hammer, but it is certainly not what the hammer was designed to do. And this use snaps our attention to what we might stuffily call "the materiality of writing"—a broad set of different things (materials, artifacts, practices, people) that become associated in order for the professor to do his work. Without some of these associations, the work doesn't turn out the same way, or perhaps at all. These different things all contribute somehow. Sometimes it's through direct problem-solving, as in the maps and hoeys that Hutchins describes. Sometimes it's through mediations that make the problem space more tractable, like using a hammer as a paperweight. Any thing might be an actor—"any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference," Latour says (Reassembling the Social p.71). So the operative question is: "does it make a difference in the course of some other agent's action or not?" (p.71).

Or as I asked at the beginning: Is there a difference between hitting a nail with or without a hammer?

When Latour uses symmetry, it's as a methodological move: a move that focuses us on the associations among various humans and nonhumans. And since the associations themselves are the focus, the things they associate fade into the background. It's not that nonhumans become humans or vice versa, it's that these differences in qualities are no longer what we're investigating. Hipsters and horses are different, but those differences don't matter to an elevator or gravity. Professors and papers are different, but that difference isn't the focus of Latour's methodology.

Now let's connect this discussion to something closer to home. Earlier I mentioned the materiality of writing, something I've been studying for the last 15 years. One of my first moves—conducted after reading Hutchins, but before reading Latour—was to begin describing and examining genre ecologies, which are (loosely speaking) associations of text types used in people's work. This move was, like Latour's, a methodological move, meant to help me focus on a specific issue: How people were solving problems by using available texts in their environments. This issue became very important to me during my first set of observations, when I discovered something that (when you think about it) should be blindingly obvious: people don't just read one text at a time. In fact, they string together lots of texts, sometimes surprisingly large gobs of wildly heterogeneous texts, related in very different ways. Some of these are things that we would not normally consider texts at all.

My focus, that is, shifted toward the associations among the genres I saw being used in these observations, which I mapped using basic network diagrams, characterized based on qualitative data (observations, interviews, artifact collection), and compared between participants and observations. Rather than asking "How does this person read and write?" I began asking, "What combinations of texts do people need in order to get work done?" "When and why do people innovate new texts to include in these combinations?" "How do they associate these texts?" "When is one association substituted for another?" "Around which associations do people encounter the most disruptions?"

The construct of the genre ecology helped me get at questions such as these, methodologically, by helping me to focus away from individual expertise, interpretation, cognition, and social forces, and instead focusing on the associations that held these together. At the same time, this methodological move forced me to demand specific evidence for each association.

That's not to say that genre ecologies are symmetrical in the way that Latour's actor-networks are. Genre ecologies model associations among texts, not all kinds of entities, and those associated texts collectively mediate human activity rather than enfolding human beings into the collective activity of a system. That is, genre ecologies are still conceived within a WAGR framework. But methodologically, they constitute a similar move, one that has paid dividends for me (and, I hope, for others in my line of work).

And that's where I want to leave this series. When Latour proposes that we study humans and nonhumans symmetrically, when I propose that we study genres in ecologies, when Newton proposes that force can be considered mass times acceleration for any mass in a fixed frame, these are not all-encompassing propositions. They are deployed only when they make methodological sense. Physicists, I'm assured, don't look at their loved ones and see kilograms (unless, perhaps, when they're worried about the elevator breaking down). Similarly, Latour doesn't talk to doorknobs—unless he needs to apply that methodology to solve a particular kind of problem.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading :: The Structuring of Organizations

The Structuring of Organizations
By Henry Mintzberg

 I've been researching adhocracies lately, beginning with Toffler's book Future Shock, and one of the names that often comes up is Henry Mintzberg's. Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University has published a remarkable number of books; in his 1979 synthesis The Structuring of Organizations, he synthesizes the research on how organizations are structured and why.

I'm no professor of management, and I doubt I'll be able to do justice to this book in a review. But the book itself is not intimidating or difficult. Mintzberg patiently and clearly synthesizes the extant management literature, pointing out its gaps and developing a systematic account of how organizations structure themselves under different circumstances. It's a fascinating read.

But it's also an introduction to an entire subfield, so Mintzberg cautions us in the preface to read it in order. The fundamental concepts laid down in earlier chapters are necessary for understanding the later chapters. Mintzberg courteously puts the most important information in bold type, a convention that I'll preserve in the quotes below.

Organized human activity, Mintzberg tells us in Chapter 1, requires two opposing things: "the division of labor into various tasks to be performed and the coordination of these tasks to accomplish the activity. The structure of an organization can be defined simply as the sum total of the ways in which it divides its labor into distinct tasks and then achieves coordination among them" (p.2). In fact, Mintzberg identifies five fundamental coordinating mechanisms: "mutual adjustment, direct supervision, standardization of work processes, standardization of work outputs, and standardization of worker skills. These should be considered the most basic elements of structure, the glue that holds organizations together" (p.3).

Those mechanisms are as follows:

  1. Mutual adjustment: "achieves the coordination of work by the simple process of informal communication" (p.3)
  2. Direct supervision: "achieves coordination by having one individual take responsibility for the work of others" (pp.3-4)
  3. Standardization of work processes: achieved "when the contents of the work are specified, or programmed" (p.5; cf. Castells on programmable labor)
  4. Standardization of outputs: achieved "when the results of the work, for example, the dimensions of the product or the performance, are specified" (p.6)
  5. Standardization of skills: achieved "when the kind of training required to perform the work is specified" (p.6)
Mintzberg furthermore claims that these "seem to fall in a rough order": "As organizational work becomes more complicated, the favored means of coordination seems to shift... from mutual adjustment to direct supervision to standardization, preferably of work processes, otherwise of outputs, or else of skills, finally reverting back to mutual adjustment" (p.7). In other words, work coordination becomes more standardized and controlled as the work becomes more complex—but at a certain point, work becomes too complex to be adequately coordinated via these controlled mechanisms; they become "impossible to standardize" (p.8). At that point, a highly complex organization reverts to informal communication, at least in some aspects of its work. This final development is not a shock if you've read Toffler, or field research into organizations for that matter (such as, ahem, my books). But Mintzberg gives us tools to systematically think through how organizations get there—as well as well-sourced research supporting each point. 

To better explore the five different organizational structures that spring from these types of coordination, Mintzberg introduces nine "design parameters, the basic elements used in designing organizational structures" (p.14). These include:

individual parameters such as
  • job specialization
  • behavior formalization
  • training and indoctrination
superstructure parameters such as
  • unit grouping
  • unit size
lateral linkage parameters such as 
  • planning and control systems
  • liaison devices
and decision-making parameters such as 
  • vertical decentralization
  • horizontal decentralization (p.14)
In Chapter 2, Mintzberg tours the five basic parts of the organization: 
  • The operating core, "wherein the operators carry out the basic work of the organization";
  • The strategic apex, including "those at the very top of the hierarchy, together with their own personal staff";
  • The middle line, which "joins the strategic apex to the operating core through the chain of command";
  • The technostructure, "wherein the analysts carry out their work of standardizing the work of others, in addition to applying their analytical techniques to help the organization adapt to its environment"; and
  • The support staff, which "supports the functioning of the operating core indirectly" (p.19)
In fact, Mintzberg writes that large organizations tend to take on a great number of support units outside their core work, providing services that the organizations could easily buy from outside suppliers. Why? Mintzberg speculates that the support staff "reflects the organization's attempt to encompass more and more boundary activities in order to reduce uncertainty, to control its own affairs" (p.32). (Note that this trend reversed late in the 20th century, and now the trend is to outsource noncore functions). 

In Chapter 3, Mintzberg describes the organization as a system of flows, including flows of authority, material, information, and decision processes. These flows include "rich networks of informal communication [that] supplement and sometimes circumvent the regulated channels" (p.46). And "the organization takes on the form of a set of work constellations, quasi-independent cliques of individuals who work on decisions appropriate to their own level in the hierarchy" (p.54). Such work constellations are sometimes functionally grouped, sometimes crosscut (p.56). 

With this background, Mintzberg is ready in Part II to discuss the design parameters. First up, in Chapter 4, is job specialization. Mintzberg differentiates between horizontal job specialization, which separates work by function (pp.69-70), from vertical job specialization, which "separates the performance of the work from the administration of it" (p.71). In fact, "jobs must often be specialized vertically because they are specialized horizontally" (p.72): because the task becomes narrow, the worker doesn't have the perspective to control it. Interestingly, Mintzberg argues that specialization in the 1950s had a lot to do with the scarcity of labor—since employers had to hire unskilled workers (p.74). (Today, labor is much less scarce and much more likely to be educated; does this mean that we can expect a swing away from generic labor and back to self-programmable labor, to use Castells' terms?)

Let's pause to briefly note that Mintzberg doesn't discuss extra-organizational workers at all (e.g., independent or dependent contractors). The discussion is entirely about what goes on inside a given organization. I'm not criticizing this decision—after all, the book is on organizations, not networks of organizations, and Mintzberg also makes it clear that in 1979 the trend was to do work in-house rather than via suppliers when possible. But the omission does suggest that we will need to look farther than this excellent book to understand the current dynamic in organizations.

Back to the book. In Ch. 5, Mintzberg discusses behavior formalization via the mechanisms of job, work flows, and rules. In all cases, "organizations formalize behavior to reduce its variability, ultimately to predict and control it" (p.83; cf. Zachry & Thralls). In fact, "organizations that rely primarily on the formalization of behavior to achieve coordination are generally referred to as bureaucracies" (p.84). Drawing on Weber and others, Mintzberg says that "we can define a structure as bureaucratic—centralized or not—to the extent that its behavior is predetermined or predictable, in effect, standardized" (p.86). Drawing on Burns and Stalker, Mintzberg argues that bureaucracies are good for addressing stable circumstances, but bad for innovation or adaptation to changing environments (p.86); for those requirements, one needs a more networked structure. Mintzberg summarizes: "In effect, whereas bureaucratic structure emphasizes standardization, organic structure as described by Burns and Stalker is built on mutual adjustment. However, we shall here define organic structure by the absence of standardization in the organization... we put bureaucratic and organic structure at two ends of the continuum of standardization" (p.87).

Mintzberg also notes that one can substitute training for formalization—that is, an organization can try to control behavior either directly (through procedures and rules) or indirectly (by hiring professionals that have been trained to do work in a standardized way) (p.101). But "the professional organization surrenders a good deal of control over its choice of workers as well as their methods of work to the outside institutions tht train and certify them and thereafter set standards that guide them in the conduct of their work" (p.102). (One side effect, noted by Toffler in 1970, is that professionals begin to hold allegiance to their professions rather than their organizations.)

On to Ch.7, on unit grouping. As Mintzberg argues, "grouping is a fundamental means to coordinate work in the organization" (p.106). It 
  1. "establishes a system of common supervision among positions and units"
  2. "typically requires positions and units to share common resources"
  3. "typically creates common measures of performance"
  4. "encouages mutual adjustment" (p.106)
Unit size (Ch.8) also has an impact on coordination. For instance, "a tall structure has a long chain of authority with relatively small groups at each hierarchical level, while a flat structure has few levels with relatively large work groups at each" (p.136). Consequently, the flat structure provides for faster information flow, but at the cost of more discussion and consultation, which exerts its own costs on the organization (p.137). Mintzberg argues that "unit size is driven up by (1) standardization of all three types, (2) similarity in the tasks performed in a given unit, (3) the employees' needs for autonomy and self-actualization, and (4) the need to reduce distortion in the flow of information up the hierarchy; and it is driven down by (1) the need for close direct supervision, (2) the need for mutual adjustment among complex interdependent tasks, (3) the extent to which the manager of a unit has nonsupervisory duties to perform, and (4) the need for members of the unit to have frequent access to the manager for consultation or advice" (p.143). 

Let's skip a bit. In Ch.10, Mintzberg discusses liaison devices. One particular structure he describes is the matrix structure, which groups on two bases simultaneously: functional and market-based (p.169). It sacrifices the unity of command (pp.169-170). The matrix structure turns out to be "a most effective device for developing new activities and for coordinating complex multiple interdependencies, but it is no place for those in need of security and stability" (p.173). Indeed, the shifting matrix structure (as opposed to the permanent matrix structure) is well suited for project work, which focuses on temporary tasks (p.172; again, cf. Toffler). 

In Ch.11, Mintzberg discusses vertical and horizontal decentralization, particularly in terms of power over decisions in organizations (p.181). Vertical decentralization is "the dispersal of formal power down the chain of line authority" (p.185), while horizontal decentralization is "the extent to which nonmanagers control decision processes" (p.186). Interestingly, "the more professional an organization, the more decentralized its structure in both dimensions" (p.201). In fact, Mintzberg summarizes one study: "the more decentralized networks tended to use more messages to accomplish their tasks and to make more errors," and "the decentralized, all-channel network eventually settled down to nearly the same operating efficiency as the centralized wheel [an alternate, centralized structure]" (p.206).

Let's skip to Chapter 13, where Mintzberg discusses age and size. He argues that organizations go through "distinct transitions between 'stages of development'" (p.227). These include:

1a. Craft structure, with one group, informally organized, coordinated via mutual adjustment and via standardization of skills (p.242).
1b. Entrepreneurial structure, involving a vertical division of labor, coordinated via direct supervision, but still characterized by an informal, organic structure (pp.242-243).

2. Bureaucratic structure, involving the specialization of jobs, a hierarchy of authority, and coordination via direct supervision and standardization (pp. 243-246).

3. Divisionalized structure, in which the functional bureaucracy splits into distinct Stage 2 bureaucracies with their own operating cores and markets (pp.246-247).

4. Matrix structure—and Mintzberg follows this heading with a question mark. "There are hints in some of the more recent literature that divisionalized structure may itself be an intermediate stage before a final transition, to matrix structure" (p.247). 

In Chapter 14, Mintzberg moves on to the technical system. Let me pick out just one interesting claim here: "Automation of routine tasks ... eliminates the source of many of the social conflicts, throughout the organization" (p.265). 

Chapter 15 is about the environment in which the organization operates. Mintzberg presents five hypotheses from the literature:
  • "The more dynamic the environment, the more organic the structure" (p.270)
  • "The more complex the environment, the more organic the structure" (p.273)
  • "The more diversified the organization's markets, the greater the propensity to split it into market-based units" (p.278)
  • "Extreme hostility in its environment drives any organization to centralize its structure temporarily" (p.281)
  • "Disparities in the environment encourage the organizaiton to decentralize selectively to differentiated work constellations" (p.282)
Based on these, Mintzberg provides a matrix for understanding how the environment affects the organizational structure. It's instructive (p.286):
(standardization of skills)
(mutual adjustment)
(standardization of work processes)
(direct supervision)

Notice that in complex, dynamic environments, organizations will tend to be decentralized and organic, coordinating via mutual adjustment. We'll return to a variation on this table in a little while.

Skipping a bit, we get to Part IV, Structural Configurations. Now that we have the necessary background, we can understand the five configurations (p.301):

Structural ConfigurationPrime Coordinating MechanismKey Part of OrganizationType of Decentralization
Simple StructureDirect supervisionStrategic apexVertical and horizontal centralization
Machine BureaucracyStandardization of work processesTechnostructureLimited horizontal decentralization
Professional BureaucracyStandardization of skillsOpeating coreVertical and horizontal decentralization
Divisionalized FormStandardization of outputsMiddle lineLimited vertical decentralization
AdhocracyMutual adjustmentSupport staffSelective decentralization

Mintzberg says that "the organization [is] being pulled in five different directions, one by each of its parts," and when one part is dominant, we get a specific structural configuration (p.301). I'm personally most interested in adhocracy: "the support staff gain the most influence in the organization not when they are autonomous but when their collaboration is called for in decision making, owing to their expertise. This happens when the organization is structured into work constellations to which power is decentralized selectively and which are free to coordinate within and between themselves by mutual adjustment. To the extent that conditions favor this pull to collaborate, the organization adopts the Adhocracy configuration" (pp.302-303).

So let's skip all the way to Ch.21, "The Adhocracy." Here, Mintzberg lists the structure's characteristics:

  • Prime coordinating mechanism: Mutual adjustment
  • Key part of the organization: Support staff (in the administrative adhocracy; together with the operating core in the operating adhocracy)
  • Main design parameters: Liaison devices, organic structure, selective decentralization, horizontal job specialization, training, functional and market grouping concurrently
  • Contingency factors: Complex, dynamic, (sometimes disparate) environment, young (especially Operating Adhocracy), sophisticated and often automated technical system (in the Administrative Adhocracy), fashionable (p.431)
Mintzberg explicitly credits the term to Toffler (p.432). "Sophisticated innovation requires a fifth and very different structural configuration, one that is able to fuse experts drawn from different disciplines into smoothly functioning ad hoc project teams" (p.432). Adhocracies involve a highly organic structure; high horizontal job specialization (i.e., formally trained specialists); small market-based teams; liaisons to encourage mutual adjustment; selective decentralization; and the avoidance of any standardization for coordination (pp.432-433). Indeed "The Adhocracy must hire and give power to experts—professionals whose knowledge and skills have been highly developed in training programs"—and "it must treat existing knowledge and skills merely as bases on which to build new ones" (p.434). "In Adhocracies the different specialists must join forces in multidisciplinary teams, each formed around a specific project of innovation" (p.435). Adhocracies tend to use the matrix structure (p.435). Adhocracies tend to be decentralized both horizontally and vertically (p.436).

As we saw earlier, "The Adhocracy is clearly positioned in an environment that is both dynamic and complex" (p.449). Such environments include the moon program, but also guerilla warfare (p.449). Furthermore, adhocracies tend to be young organizations, since "Adhocracy is the least stable form of structure" and "All kinds of forces drive the Adhocracy to bureaucratize itself as it ages" (p.455). For all that, adhocracy is tomorrow's structure: "This is the structure for a population growing ever better educated and more specialized, yet under constant exhortation to adopt the 'systems' approach—to view the world as an integrated whole instead of a collection of loosely coupled parts" (p.459). 

Of course, adhocracies face various challenges. Two are:
  • Constant ambiguity. It's true that "Adhocracy is the only structure for those who believe in more democracy with less bureaucracy," perhaps (p.460), but it requires workers to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Problems of efficiency. "No structure is better suited to solving complex, ill-structured problems than the Adhocracy. None can match it for sophisticated innovation. Or, unfortunately, for the costs of that innovation. ... Adhocracy is simply not an efficient structure.... Adhocracy is not competent at doing ordinary things" (p.463). Adhocracies thrive when solving unique problems, but get bogged down in heavy communication costs that are not tenable for dealing with routine problems.
And with that, we conclude the book. It's really an excellent, systematic, thorough, thought-provoking book, and if you're even marginally interested in how organization structures work, I highly recommend it. Doubtless parts have aged, been superseded, or not stood the test of time since it was published in 1979—but the basic structure works well, particularly if you're as interested in adhocracies as I've been lately.