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.