Hi, everyone. I’m Clay Spinuzzi from the University of Texas at Austin. My research involves how people work in technologically mediated workplaces. And to study that work, I do several things. I gather copies of documents and other tools they use in their work. I typically take photos of their work layout. I interview them about what they do and what challenges they face. And finally, I shadow them—I follow them around as they work. And when I explain that last part, I always have to add that I’m not trying to be voyeuristic. In fact, I’m genuinely interested in the problems people encounter on a daily basis in their work and how they solve these problems. In fact, I admire how people are endlessly inventive and innovative as they work through the problems they face in the workplace—specifically problems involving understanding, circulating, and acting on information.So I’ve conducted several qualitative case studies studying how different people work: software developers, traffic safety workers, telecommunications workers, office workers, freelancers, people at coworking spaces and people in an Internet startup.
When I started conducting workplace studies, I sought out environments in which people used digital technologies. But lately I haven’t had to make that a criterion—because now EVERYONE uses digital technologies. In fact, work in general is changing, and in fairly radical ways. It’s not just the fact that we all have mobile phones in our pockets. It’s not just the fact that we’re all receiving email and most of us are on Facebook. It goes deeper than that.
Writing is perhaps our most useful and flexible tool, making its way into nearly every aspect of our lives—saturating our lives to a degree that it has never done before. Nearly universal literacy means that the overwhelming majority of elementary school students learn a basic level of reading, writing, and textual problem solving. And that’s a big deal. In 1870, 20% of people at or above the age of 14 were illiterate—unable to read or write in any language. By 1979, that number dropped to only 0.6%.Source: http://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.aspFurthermore, in 1870, the degree ratio for high school was 0.02%—only 2 of every 100 students graduated from high school. In 1970, the degree ratio was 77%. (By 2000 it was a relatively anemic 70%.)http://educationnext.org/tasselsonthecheap/So literacy is a big part of our toolkit. When we face a problem, we often reach for a textual solution. Even if we are in “low literacy” fields such as carpentry.Writing, which began as a hacked-together accounting system, developed many more uses as the population became more literate. The dropping costs of writing technology—including pencils, pens, and paper—made writing easier to spread, as did the burgeoning postal system. Writing became incorporated into more and more trades, fields, and disciplines.And as information and communication technologies (ICTs) came online, and as work changed, the number of genres multiplied. For instance, the business memo evolved from business letters which were deployed within an organization. Email evolved from business memos (and you can still see the traces of the older genre in email headers: to, from, date, subject). And so on.
http://www.creativeclass.com/_v3/creative_class/2011/05/05/building-america%E2%80%99s-third-great-job-machine/That increase in literacy is paired with other changes in how we work. In 1800, over 40% of US jobs were agricultural. In 1870, about 60% of US jobs were manufacturing jobs. Now both of those classes of work are trending downward, and we see a spike in knowledge-based and creative work (CC), and routine low-wage service work (LWS). Agriculture and manufacturing are still important, but they’ve been systematized to the point that they are remarkably productive without a large percentage of workers. Instead, high-paying jobs are concentrated in knowledge work, work that involves analyzing and transforming knowledge. That is, work that uses those important literacy skills.(But let’s note that even the LWS jobs require literacy—more literacy than the average farm worker had in 1870.)Alan Burton-Jones: "In 1900, less than 18 per cent of the total workforce in the USA were engaged in data- and information-handling tasks. By 1980 it had risen to over 50 percent. ... On present trends, over 80 percent of the workforce are likely to be involved in information-handling tasks by 2020, of whom a higher proportion than at present are likely to be engaged in knowledge-building and decision-making activities" (pp.8-9)Part of the reason knowledge work has spiked is that it has the infrastructure to do so—we are suffused with information and communication infrastructure wherever we go.
Last December there were 6.7 billion active mobile subscriptions; these reach 4.3 billion unique human beings, 61% of the planet's population; and 5.6 billion of these subscriptions use texting—more than use voice calls.http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2012/12/latest-mobile-numbers-for-end-of-year-2012-this-is-getting-humongous.htmlMobile subscriptions are on the rise across the globe, especially in China, India, and the rest of the Asian Pacific region. (see right)http://www.oafrica.com/mobile/ericsson-report-forecasts-majority-of-middle-eastafrica-mobile-subscriptions-wont-be-3g-or-lte-until-2018/Globally, by January 2013, 4/5 of these connections come from the developing world—subscribers in the developing world accumulate prepaid SIMs to cope with limited rural network coverage, while those in the developed world are accumulating multiple connected devices (smartphones, tablets, Chromebooks). https://wirelessintelligence.com/analysis/2013/03/dashboard-multiple-connections-versus-multiple-subscribers/375/The upshot? People can work from anywhere (home offices, coffee shops, coworking spaces, etc.)People are accessible 24/7 (sometimes to their chagrin)Virtual teams (collaborating across locations and time zones)
Social networking provides a social layer that connects people, both within their own organization and across organizations. Other publicly available online services such as Google Docs, Basecamp, and Facebook allow teams to collaborate, coordinate, and communicate easily—once again, both within an organization and across organizational barriers. In fact, we're seeing an increasing number of studies examining how these additional layers affect work. These change how we work, but also how we intuit each other's moods and availability, how we see each other's contextual activity, and how we manage collaborative complexity. They even change how we structure our organizations, making it feasible to make them smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more distributed. They provide an always-on switchboard for working groups.A social layer. Ambient awareness. That doesn't mean that this social layer is unproblematic. It can be very problematic. But it's pervasive, and it's going to continue to have a big impact on how we do business.http://www.projects2crowdfund.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/top5sm1.jpg
For all these reasons, work is changing. Here are just a few trends:Shedding noncore assets. Over the medium term, companies have been shedding noncore assets since the 1970s, externalizing and outsourcing the things that aren’t part of their core expertise. This trend started with outsourcing functions such as office cleaning, equipment maintenance, and security. But it’s moved into white-collar work: companies that may have once employed graphic designers, technical writers, and marketers are increasingly contracting this work to other organizations. Working across organizations. And that means that for specific projects, different organizations have to pull together, learn swiftly how to work together, and understand each other enough to collaborate on complex projects that span organizations and disciplines.Projectification. In other words, some of this work is increasingly “projectified”: the focus is on the shared project, not the department. The project is attacked by a transient team of specialists.Virtual organizations. And these specialists aren’t pushing a plow around, they’re pushing bits and bytes. So they can often work in different locations and perhaps even in different time zones. Work becomes “smeared” across time and space.Hyperconnectivity. That’s made possible when team members are connected to each other during all waking hours—say, via internet-enabled mobile phones and tablets.So we see changes in how we organize work, how we collaborate with other organizations, how we team up, how we focus our work, and in where and when we work.
And that’s why I watch people work. In order to figure out these changes, to see their nuances, to pick up patterns that the workers themselves may be too close to see, and to build a picture of information flow. To see how people change along with their work.
I’ve been trying to understand these changes since my first workplace study (1997). My books…Drawing from some of these today. We’ll talk about net work, genre, and activity.
I describe some of these challenges in my 2008 book Network, where I called it… net work.Work is less bounded, so communicating, coordinating, and collaborating across boundaries is more important. In work, especially knowledge work. But in society in general: politics, leisure.Problem: stable interface among parts of activity and among activities. How to provide this?
This is where we get to the notion of genre. Specifically, North American Genre Theory.
Writing is the most flexible tool we have, and in a highly literate society, when we encounter a problem, we tend to reach for a textual solution. When we encounter a recurrent problem or situation, we tend to reuse the textual solution we used for the previous version of the problem. Over time, these responses become typified. That is, we face a familiar problem, and we reach for or create the text that offers a familiar solution.The more typified these texts are, the easier it is to share them with others who face similar problems. Over time, some of these genres develop and become more defined, more rigid, and more controlled. As an instantiated solution, they also embed a particular viewpoint and logic. As we’ll see in a moment, this isn’t always good, especially when genres must bridge between two different viewpoints, logics, or cultures.Importantly, genres are also “tools-in-use.” That is, genres are interpreted by their authors and their audience – and sometimes those interpretations are very different. We can’t understand genre just from looking at the form of a text.These characteristics help genres to weave together heterogeneous networks, since they provide regular ways for people to solve information problems. Used well, genres can bridge between familiar and unfamiliar activities, allowing people from different backgrounds to share and transform information properly. But genres also have weaknesses, since they involve different logics and worldviews. What’s more, as we’ll see later, people add more genres all the time – and these genres don’t necessarily share the assumptions of other genres in use, causing disruptions.Let’s get to some examples.
For instance, when we talk about a shopping list, we have a basic idea of what it might look like, based on what it's supposed to accomplish and on how similar texts have looked in the past. Shopping lists tend to be very different, as you'll see if you watch people shop at a grocery store, but they are similar and predictable enough that strangers could swap lists and probably do a pretty good job of filling each other's orders. In fact, I grabbed these two shopping lists from a Flickr stream. Although they’re not in English, I recognized them immediately and could use them to shop. I also know how I would use them: look for the item, and when it’s in my shopping cart, cross it off. Shopping lists are an elegant solution, so even though they have many variations, the basic problem orientation and solution are clear.More specialized genres might be harder to understand and might take a bit more time to learn. Think about learning a new software interface or doing your taxes or filling out a travel request. Examples in the book include credit reports, F1 Notes, and orders for phone service. As activities become more complex and bridge more domains, the genres that mediate them tend to become more complex as well, and often more rigid. Importantly, in complex situations, genres also tend to multiply and interact. Photos:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ex-smith/4966648255/sizes/z/in/set-72157626903397039/http://www.flickr.com/photos/ex-smith/3797903855/sizes/z/in/set-72157626903397039/
But as I mentioned, genres are not simply structural. They’re not simply forms into which people pour content. That’s because people interpret genres in their own activities. Even in a form that you fill out – such as this tax form – you must be able to interpret the form, decide if you need to fill it out, and coordinate it with other genres of documentation. Just as faith without works is dead, genres without activity are not genres.
Genres are not media. No matter what Netflix says, “TV Shows” is not a genre. Neither are “email” or “tweets.” These are all media in which genres can be instantiated.For instance, a TV show might be a situational comedy or a police procedural – two very different genres. An email might contain a proposal or a poem.
Genres without activity are not genres. So think of a genre as a “tool-in-use,” and examine the ways in which people use genres as well as how the genre looks. Look for a shared response that allows mutual interpretation within an activity.For instance, here’s an interlinear Bible that raises the MacBook Air to just the right height. If we examine the Bible in isolation, just considering its structure, we will likely focus on features that are not relevant to its actual user: its organization, its index, its language. In other activities, these features might be meaningful. But in this activity, the most important features are its dimensions and how they interact with the laptop and the table. (I’m fairly sure you all have used texts in this way.) So as we consider genres, we can’t focus strictly on their features, their structure, or even their titles. We can’t rely on what their authors intended them to do. We must examine how people actually use and interpret them. And especially how they evolve over time.
For instance, here are four examples from my 2003 book TGTO. Ways to access statistics on traffic accidents in Iowa. Pre 1974, hand-compiled statistics in a report.1974, a request form that local offices would send to the Iowa DOT. (Mainframe-ALAS)1989, a dialog box used to request the same type of data. (PC-ALAS)1996, a set of tables in a GIS, representing the same type of data. (GIS-ALAS)When I was conducting the study, I was concerned with how people were moving from the 1989 PC interface to the 1996 GIS interface. But during one of my interviews, an informant said, let me show you how we used to conduct requests when we were on a mainframe. And she pulled out the Node String Request form—and I realized immediately that the PC-ALAS Node String Dialog Box imitated this form. The genre had “evolved,” rearticulated in a different interface. In fact, the request forms and reporting forms here share a “family resemblance.” That’s not surprising, since when we come up with a solution, we tend to keep it.
Once I knew what to look for, I started seeing this “family resemblance” throughout the interface. Different interface genres were developed by adapting existing forms. But representations and even logics didn’t mesh. Each hybrid genre tried to mesh at least two different activities and two different frames of reference, leading to disruptions.
This sort of genre development happens elsewhere, especially in automated genres. We don’t necessarily have to go so deeply to see it! For instance, LinkedIn is based on the genre of the resume and associated genres, such as recommendation letters.
Facebook was inspired by “face books” at universities, in which students’ photos and names are printed to help them learn each other’s names. We can think of lots of different examples here. For instance, email descends directly from internal memos – they even start with the same fields: to, from, date, subject. And they have the same optional fields: CC and BCC, which refer to “carbon copy” and “blind carbon copy.” In fact, although it’s common to see innovated texts, it’s rare to see completely new ones. Usually they’re modifications of existing genres that are imported into the new activity.
But there’s more. These genres don’t work together in isolation. They’re piled in, shored up. And we can’t always recover these relationships by examining the texts themselves. Remember, a genre without activity isn’t a genre—to understand how genres work, and how they work together, we have to see them in action. Only by interviewing people and observing them (in a non-creepy way) can we see how people relate them to solve larger problems.Here are some examples of relationships among genres.(read)This isn’t an exhaustive list. And as I’ve said, it can’t be done in an armchair. As you observe people using genres, you will likely find some surprising connections, and every connection gives you insight into how they solve problems and how their existing resources support or sabotage that problem-solving.
One way to map these relationships is through a genre ecology model. Notice that this is essentiallya network diagram, but one that traces observable relationships among genres.The lines are not directional flows; they simply represent verifiable, observable relationships among these genres. For instance, you can see that some people related node maps directly to dialog boxes; but others used intermediary genres such as handwritten notes or photocopies of the maps. Others performed oral readings – that is, they repeated the six-digit number until they typed it in. These innovations indicate that the two genres aren’t easy to connect and need mediation.One more thing. Notice how heterogeneous these genres are. Genres are often adopted from various other activities, opportunistically and haphazardly, and they don’t necessarily share the same logics or orientations. Genre ecologies usually aren’t planned. This is part of the reason why we start seeing tensions develop in activities.
In this genre ecology model from my 2008 book, the arrows DID represent directional flows—points at which people coordinated one genre with another. In this case, people posted cash receipts.
And here’s one from my 2010 article on SEO, showing how information flowed from one genre to another.
Let’s apply this insight to an earlier example. In the case of LinkedIn, we might find that we can’t understand social media use by looking at the genre by itself. For instance, when I conducted a recent study on how freelancers work, the freelancers told me that they saw LinkedIn as part of a larger media strategy that included their business’ websites and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and connected with their use of email, conference calls, and the products of their work. That is, for them, LinkedIn was part of a larger ecology of genres that they had to deploy in order to carry out their activities. Without understanding these linkages, we don’t really understand the genre as a tool-in-use.
So that’s genre development. But we can also examine genres along a second dimension: levels of activity. And to do this, I’ve long turned to activity theory.AT is a very complicated theory, full of additions and extensions. Today, let’s pull out just one component: levels of activity.Think of genre as functioning at three different levels: macro, meso, and micro.
Here’s the three different levels. A genre works on each level simultaneously (2003, 2013).
At the macro level, think of genres as cultural-historical artifacts. They embed particular ways of thinking, problem orientation, logics, and assumptions. What are people cyclically trying to accomplish in their activities? How do they think about the problem? What have been their traditional constraints, and how have they shaped how the genre developed? The macro level is generally unconscious. When you see someone using a genre – say, reading a report – and you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll probably tell you, “I’m reading a report.” They probably won’t say: I’m improving shareholder value.The macro level is oriented to long cycles of activity, typically on the order of months, years, or longer. Finally, at the macro level, genres can encounter disruptions called “contradictions.” Think in terms of large-scale differences that build up across activities.
At the meso level, think of genres as tools-in-use.These allow people to reach specific, conscious goals. When you see someone reading a report – and you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll probably respond on this level: “I’m reading a report.”The meso level is oriented to shorter timescales: minutes or hours. Think in terms of tasks or goals that they are using this tool to accomplish.Finally, at the meso level, genres can encounter disruptions called “discoordinations.” Think in terms of day-to-day difficulties in relating two or more genres together.
At the micro level, think of genres as habits or reactions. These are operations that people have learned well enough that they no longer think about them. Examples include touch typing, double clicking, and shifting gears. The micro level is generally unconscious. When you see someone using a genre – say, reading a report – and you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll probably tell you, “I’m reading a report.” They probably won’t say: scanning the letters from left to right, then using my finger to turn the page.The micro level happens on the order of seconds. Finally, at the micro level, genres can encounter disruptions called “breakdowns.” Think in terms of habits that almost always work, but that misfire in a particular instance, causing the person to stop focusing on their goal and start focusing on their operations.
Put these all together and you have a powerful way to identify clusters of disruptions—around specific genres, tools, sequences, roles, rules, expectations.
So these are great insights. But we want—or at least I want—to do more with these insights than simply unravel the mystery of how a workplace works. I want to map out how information circulates in an organization, figure out where it gets blocked and why, and help organizations to get it unstuck so that they can go back to fulfilling their missions. And that’s why…
… I wrote my most recent book, Topsight. That’s what Topsight is about: pulling together these insights so that people can identify systemic issues—in a non-creepy way—so that they can recommend solid solutions for supporting net work.
"I watch people work—in a non-creepy way": Applying genre and sociocultural theory to net work
"I watch people work—in a non-creepy way":Applying genre and sociocultural theory to net work Clay Spinuzzi Clay.Spinuzzi@utexas.edu 1
Net work“the ways in which the assemblage is enacted,maintained, extended, and transformed; theways in which knowledge work is strategicallyand tactically performed in a heavily networkedorganization.”(Spinuzzi 2008, p.16). 10
Spinuzzi 2008, p.17• “not just text types”• “typified rhetorical responses to recurring social situations”• “tools-in-use”• “a behavioral descriptor rather than a formal one”• Through their use, genres “weave together” networks 12
“typified rhetorical responses to recurring social situations” 13
Genres work together…• juxtaposition (two texts attached to or overlapping each other)• placing (two texts placed side by side, in a stack, or in regular places)• annotation (writing or altering a text)• transfer (using one text as source for filling in another)• modeling (using one text as a model for another)• reference (using one text to interpret or operate another)• And ??? 21
Genre ecology (2010)Previous Report report template in Highlighting and Microsoft Word annotations BRILLIANCE- generated Emails re draft report customer specifics Report (sent to Account Manager via BRILLIANCE email) BRILLIANCE keyword notes for Tier 1 performance report (in draft report) Face to face Edits and email Spreadsheet queries of projects IM and face to Wiki Answers face contact with Carl Final draft of Cover email report (to (to client) client) Meeting (with (From Luis (From Stacys top tier client) This months report becomes the previous observation, observation, report for the next cycle. O4.2) O3.4) 24