Transferring Ethnographic Competence:
Personal Reflections on the Past and Future of Work Practice Analysis
prepublication draft of
2011 Transferring Ethnographic Competence: Personal Reflections on the Past and Future of Work Practice Analysis. Published as Chapter 20, pp. 344-358 in Making Work Visible: Ethnographically Grounded Case Studies of Work Practice, Margaret Szymanski and Jack Whalen, eds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, Learning in Doing Series.
The Rise of Ethnography
In the last few years, ethnography has taken on a new prominence and popularity in the business realm. As a consequence, many of our corporate partners are thinking about internalizing the ethnographic expertise for which they used to contract by “transferring” some measure of ethnographic skills to their employees. We have fielded sporadic requests for this kind of teaching for a very long time, both at PARC and the closely allied Institute for Research on Learning (see Stucky, this volume), but in the last few years they have become noticeably more frequent, sometimes attached to requests for research on recognized issues, such as technology development or understanding customers. In other words, teaching ethnographic field methods has become a product, an “offerable” for institutions like PARC. The tension between ethnography as research and ethnography as product is increasingly resolved by moving ethnography into a service function, a function that supports technology-focused research as a validating rather than as a discovery science (Whalen and Whalen, 2004).
A History of Ethnographic Research and Teaching at PARC and IRL
The full history of IRL remains to be written. Here I offer my own recollections, based on my experience during the more than ten years of IRL’s existence, of how work practice analysis arose at PARC. All such accounts are socially constructed, drawn from a memory that is fallible and only rarely reflects “the facts.” Multiple histories are important for understanding where we have been, where we are now and where we are going. It is in this spirit that I first recall some of the pivotal events that occurred after I accepted a joint appointment between PARC and IRL in 1988; I continue with a discussion of some of the issues that have emerged around the successes and failures of teaching about these methods in Xerox and other companies.
The early years during which PARC emerged as a leader in the application of ethnographic methods to business concerns were shaped by a close alliance between WPT (the Work Practice and Technology group at PARC) and IRL. During that time, a major factor in energizing the connection between the two institutions were the activities and ideas that emerged around the weekly Interaction Analysis Laboratories (IALs) which I had introduced when I joined PARC/IRL. Grounded in anthropological participant observation, IALs were devoted to the analysis of video recordings from ethnographic field studies that were collaboratively micro-analyzed by an interdisciplinary group of researchers, very similar to the lab sessions Harvey Sacks had conducted at the University of California at Irvine. The IRL/PARC labs were sometimes held at IRL, sometimes at PARC, but as a matter of policy, were open to anybody who had a video recording to be analyzed. They drew international participants as well as frequent visitors from area universities and Silicon Valley companies and were instrumental in keeping the flow of ideas in the community lively and productive.
While there was a great deal of overlap, two somewhat distinctive subcultures developed as actual work practice studies were carried out. The WPT group at PARC, under the leadership of Lucy Suchman (see Chapter 1, this volume) was more academically oriented in their analysis of data from diverse work settings, such as airports, lawyers’ offices, and bridge-building engineers. On the other hand, much of the work carried out at IRL in the 1990s focused on providing insights and recommendations to the companies that were funding IRL (of which Xerox was the most important one), something that, at the time, was disparaged in academic settings. Nevertheless there was an exceptionally productive flow of personnel and ideas between PARC and IRL that generated an extraordinarily strong alliance and collaboration.
The tight coupling between these strands of endeavor produced over the years a distinctive approach to the analysis of work practices, workscapes, and later lifescapes, as well as a grounded understanding of the obstacles ethnographically based work practice studies were facing in corporations and how we could respond to them (Jordan and Dalal, 2006). In my view, the main accomplishments of the IRL/PARC collaboration during these years were two-fold:
· the seminal theoretical and conceptual advances developed during that time around social learning, communities of practice (COPs), context sensitivity (situatedness), and knowledge as a collaborative achievement rather than as a collection of transferable items, and
· the adaptation of anthropological research methods that had been developed in the study of exotic communities to large, technology-driven organizations.
Work practice analysis was originally internally focused, that is to say, on other parts of Xerox rather than on external clients. It began during an historic event in the late 1980s when Shirley Edwards, then VP of Real Estate for Xerox, came to PARC to conduct a meeting concerning facilities issues. At the meeting, I talked about how ethnographic methods could provide detailed data and insights about how people actually use space as they carry out their work. I remember clearly that other attendants were distinctly nonplussed by what I had to say, probably expecting some technology-focused innovation ideas from PARC, but Shirley said “Oh, that sounds interesting. This is different.”
Shirley became an advocate for ethnographically based work practice analysis. She was excited about the potential of ethnography for furthering her own objectives (which were to “increase productivity by supporting work”) and began to look for suitable sites where that approach could be introduced into Xerox operations. Eventually she brokered the first full-blown workplace study, the “Work Practice and Design” project at a Xerox call center in Dallas that demonstrated the value of the ethnographic approach to workplace-based issues. Ethnographic fieldwork produced recommendations for building a new call center that informed the design and layout of work spaces for productivity and employees’ enjoyment, and generated proposals for redesigning Xerox training programs. While there was then no explicit effort to transfer ethnographic methods to the participants as part of our research, our presence and activities over more than a year implicitly carried the message that the desired transformation to a “learning organization” would need to be grounded in a deep understanding of employees, their work practices, and concerns.
Significantly, this project was also our first opportunity to introduce and demonstrate the power of video-based Interaction Analysis to call takers and their trainers, an effort that taught them to “see the invisible” and generated insights about many of the issues inherent in their work (Bishop et al. 1994). We regularly invited call center workers to “pizza lunch meetings” where we showed video tapes of the calls they had dealt with, maybe just the day before. Looking at themselves at work and being able to talk about what they did was inherently interesting to them and with some support from us (we often pointed out things that they didn’t see) gained insight into the ways in which the technologies and resources available at their workstations supported their work practices (or not). They became analysts of their own work. Out of this came employee-based initiatives to generate change, some of which were favorably received by management. As a result, the call center trainers began to experiment with incorporating video in their repertoire, out of which emerged standards for what should be taught to novice call center workers. The trainers became strong advocates for using collaborative video analysis for coming to a useful understanding of work practice issues. This was in effect a kind of indirect methods transfer and was successful largely because it directly dealt with the trainers’ issues.
During these projects, almost without noticing it, we regularly found ourselves attaching methods instruction to the discussions about research issues. Those instructions in many cases became workshops and courses. In other cases, they became routine instructional components of joint research meetings, as for example in a project with Nynex Science and Technology where methods discussion became an expected part of every research meeting that IRL- and Nynex-based researchers carried out. This period also saw the development of a number of project reports, white papers, and later journal publications that explained our approach and methods (Blomberg et al., 1993, Button et al., 2003, Jordan, 1996, Jordan, 1997, Suchman and Trigg, 1991).
Building on the experience and confidence we had gained with early internal, Xerox-embedded efforts, we eventually branched out, developing a number of more or less formal course and workshop offerings that were designed to help large organizations develop internal ethnographic competence. A final step in this direction was the development of methods learning centers in PARC client companies (Kishimoto and Whalen, this volume; Plurkowski et al., this volume).
What then are the main issues for embedding ethnographic competence that emerged during this long and complex history? How can we teach employees who often have minimal background in research about the benefits (and limitations) of using ethnographic field methods? I draw on my work and that of my colleagues at PARC and formerly at IRL to suggest that three levels of knowledge transfer need to be considered: expertise in basic field methods; analytic competence; and, ideally, strategic relevance. I will discuss these in turn.
Level-1: Basic Field Methods at the Toolkit Level
Field methods epitomize the craft of ethnography. The bulk of the teaching to “transfer ethnographic expertise” is on the level of techniques. It is comparatively easy to teach and to learn the craft of ethnography and such teaching shows impressive results in a short time. It provides basic grounding that differentiates ethnography from other research methods, especially focus groups and predesigned surveys. The goal of a first learning engagement is thus to provide corporate learners with a toolkit from which they can choose data collection techniques for their projects.
A typical course of several days begins with historical background, i.e. the transformation from exotic anthropological “jungle ethnography” to company-relevant “business ethnography”. Often a discussion is also required upfront in order to establish research as a data-based attempt to answer questions. From this emerges a grounding conversation about what kinds of data can answer what kinds of questions, leading to an appreciation of what ethnography can and cannot do.
Since we are convinced that most learning happens in the doing, our courses and workshops are interactive, experiential and collaborative and often include role-playing during instructional sessions. They are built around field experiences of various lengths and complexity. We draw most materials for exercises and assignments from our own fieldwork, but often also include data that course participants contribute. For example, when somebody brought in a photograph of two friends listening to music on the same headset, a discussion about the lack of a good design for such an obvious need emerged, followed by brainstorming about what other data would be useful to understand joint headphone use.
Depending on the participants’ needs, we teach and practice a variety of data collection methods, such as participant observation, on-site interviewing, documentation by photography, and audio- and video recording. The overriding goal is “learning to see” in a new way. Or phrasing it more ambitiously, reconstructing their view of the world. For example, in business environments, thinking is heavily influenced by the Six Sigma approach, a business management strategy originally developed by Motorola. Six Sigma decontextualizes, abstracts, and aims to reduce variance. And as John Seely Brown (JSB) points out, it is the furthest thing from situated analysis or understanding how to take advantage of these complex situations. Its goal is to reduce variance while the purpose of ethnographic participant observation is to understand variance (Interview with JSB, August 27, 2009 by Peggy Szymanski).
For a while participants may continue to see themselves as objective outside observers— as data collection machines that document sites, events and interactions objectively rather than as participant observers, continuing to attempt to embody the ideal of deductive, laboratory science (Jordan and Yamauchi, 2008). This attitude is particularly pronounced in those whose training and work experience tends to reduce reality into abstract structures, consisting of boxes and arrows, as in the ubiquitous workflow diagrams. Such representations allow only a yes/no dichotomy without gradations, representing flow as a sequence of on/off states with no grey areas. Teaching ethnographic work practice analysis, even on a fundamental level, works towards counteracting such ingrained ways of seeing problem and solution spaces.
Throughout our teaching sessions we focus on signal topics that are particularly important in ethnography such as how to build trust with research participants (critical for effective participant observation), or that distinguish it from other approaches, such as the difference between lived “practice” and documented “process.” We emphasize the fact that what people say is not necessarily what they do (often leading to a discussion of the proper and improper uses of focus groups), and the emic/etic or insider/outsider perspective (distinguishing between data collected from the point of view of study participants and those that are based on the categories the analyst brings in from the outside). We attempt to instill in participants the idea that the ethnographer needs to assume the role of learner, of student, and as much as possible, of apprentice. We might illustrate emic/etic issues for example by pointing out that for understanding the work of pilots from an informed experiential view it would be useful to learn to fly, but it would also be good to complement participant observation by listening to an experienced pilot talk about the typicality, normality, general pervasiveness (or lack thereof) of the activities observed.
We pay particular attention to the importance of systematic (rather than impressionistic) data collection and ways of achieving that, for example by constructing team-shared templates for transforming raw notes from the field into data usable for analysis. This then opens up a discussion of top-down vs. collaborative approaches to data collection and, more recently, the use of communication and collaboration technologies (cell phones, cameras, email) for transforming “informants” into collaborating, data collecting research colleagues (see Schiano and Bellotti, this volume).