Spinuzzi iwac2008 - learning to cross boundaries


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From the 2008 International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference

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  • Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Clay Spinuzzi, and today I’m going to talk about what I’ve been calling “net work” -- coordinative, polycontextual, cross-disciplinary work that splices together divergent work activities separated by time, space, organizations, and objectives.
  • I’ll draw on a study of a telecommunications company that is discussed more thoroughly in my upcoming book, Network. Citation’s on the screen. It makes a great Christmas gift. But more importantly for our purposes, it illustrates some of the really interesting changes going on in how work is organized and how people communicate across boundaries. Some parts of this presentation are similar to the one I gave at WRAB earlier this year, but the focus this time is on learning.
  • And here’s the case I’ll use to frame the discussion. Telecorp is a midsized telecommunications company in Texas that offers local and long distance service, dialup, and other telecommunications services. From a handful of workers in the mid 1980s, by 2001 Telecorp expanded to over 300, grouped in 20 functional groups. This explosive growth -- typical of telecomm over the last two decades -- is matched by the explosive growth in telecomm services. What this means is that Telecorp was the site of a huge influx of fields, trades, and disciplines. Turnover here, as across the entire sector, was “unreal.”
  • Telecorp is an example of a ground shift we’ve seen in the past few decades from traditional work organizations to knowledge work organizations. These organizational changes have been going on for a while. The Industrial Revolution led to a particular configuration of work in which long-term relationships flourished; workers held long-term or lifelong jobs, maintained steady contacts with other organizations and with the public, and built up considerable expertise. They fulfilled clearly defined roles and developed strong working relationships. These characteristics foregrounded "vertical" expertise (Engeström, Engeström & Kärkkäinen 1995) in which learning happened within a particular domain: a particular activity, discipline, field, or trade carried out in a particular setting.
  • But these stable settings have been destabilized by recent changes in work: downsizing, automation, flattening of work hierarchies, increasing numbers of relationships between companies, continual reorganization, the breaking down of "silos" or "stovepipes" in organizations, and perhaps most importantly, the increase in telecommunications (phones, faxes, Internet connections), which has made it possible to connect any point to any other, within or across organizations. One result, Nardi et al. say, is that "many corporations operate in an increasingly distributed manner, with workers, contractors, consultants, and important contacts such as those in the press located in different parts of the country or across the globe" (p.206; cf. Zuboff & Maxmin 2004).
  • One result is that organizations are interpenetrated: anyone can link up with anyone else inside or outside the organization, and consequently any work activities can be intersected -- or reconstituted. There are no necessary boundaries. I saw this a lot at Telecorp, in a lot of different ways. Ex: Internal job shifts, but people were still called on to mentor workers in their former positions. Ex: People in a given functional unit often worked more closely with counterparts at other companies than with workers in other functional units at Telecorp.
  • This interpenetration, paired with constant flux and pervasive interconnectivity, leads to constant learning across boundaries: "vertical" expertise is accompanied by "horizontal" expertise (Engeström, Engeström & Kärkkäinen 1995) characterized by learning across boundaries, including organizations, activities, disciplines, fields, trades, and settings. Such learning is characterized positively, as lifelong learning (Zuboff & Maxmin 2004; Drucker 2003) – and negatively, as continual deskilling and reskilling (Haraway 1991; Ehn 1989).
  • Let's call this sort of work "net work": coordinative, polycontextual, cross-disciplinary work that splices together divergent work activities (separated by time, space, organizations, and objectives) and that enables the transformations of information and texts that characterize such work. Net work involves setting up relatively stable sets of transformations. It’s knowledge work, if you’re familiar with that term, but specifically concerned with how information is propagated and transformed across sociotechnical networks of activity.
  • What does this mean for learning in such organizations? In practical terms, this meant that Telecorp’s workers had to learn both horizontally and vertically. Vertical learning was generally supported through formal training; horizontal learning was supported informally if at all. Let’s look at the three informal ways that workers learned horizontally. Bear in mind that horizontal connections in this organization were absolutely vital for maintaining its integrity and workings.
  • Apprenticeship involves participating in an activity, first peripherally, then with increasing responsibility. And of course it encompasses more than procedures and genres, it encompasses building and conceptualizing relationships among parts of the activity -- and increasingly across activity and organization boundaries. At Telecorp, apprenticeship was the most frequently mentioned form of training, both in terms of raw interviews and in terms of functional areas. And here’s the thing: apprenticeship, at least as enacted at Telecorp, was contingency-based. It reacted to whatever work transpired on that day, with little attempt to extract general principles. Statements such as “you never ever do a partial connection” were as close to summarizing principles as I observed in this organization.
  • Trial-and-error was another frequently mentioned approach: self-directed exploration in lieu of asking others for help. The ethos, especially within certain functional units, was to turn to trial-and-error first; why bother others? In fact, the same people who characterized training at Telecorp as “sink or swim” or “thrown to the wolves” would tall me in the next sentence that “that’s the best way to learn” or “that’s the only way to learn this job.” Like apprenticeship, trial-and-error learning was entirely contingency-based and was shared, if at all, through word-of-mouth. The lack of formal structures for summarizing and relating these lessons meant that this knowledge did not circulate far -- a big problem in a company with high turnover.
  • Finally, stories turned out to be a powerful way to diagnose issues with an eye toward avoiding them in the future. I have a chapter on one particular incident in the Zachry and Thralls collection, one in which the Network Control Center was told about a dog being run over because someone had forgotten to note “dog in yard” on the ticket. Such stories often told how people were meant to relate and work with others in different functional areas and companies as well as customers. But again, this training opportunity was contingency-based, oral, and ephemeral, and it did not provide for building more general principles.
  • At Telecorp, and I think more generally across many organizations, vertical learning has been supported through an ecology of formal and informal structures. But horizontal learning -- which has recently become much more important and prevalent -- has not enjoyed the same level of support. As we saw here, horizontal training was informal, contingency-based, and ephemeral at Telecorp. We need to develop more formal, stable horizontal learning structures and practices. They need to go beyond contingency to teach more abstract principles. They need to go beyond reactive stances to provide strategic overviews. They need to become more stable and to be expressed in genres that can circulate more widely. And they need to be supported ecologically through genres and systems. That’s a huge problem, given the nature -- particularly the sheer scope -- of horizontal learning. But it’s the next problem that we will have to tackle as we continue to examine the nature of writing across the curriculum.
  • Spinuzzi iwac2008 - learning to cross boundaries

    1. 1. Learning to cross boundaries: <ul><li>Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin </li></ul><ul><li>[email_address] </li></ul>Vertical and horizontal learning in interpenetrated organizations
    2. 2. Spinuzzi, Clay. (2008, in press.) Network: Theorizing knowledge work in telecommunications . New York: Cambridge University Press.
    3. 3. Telecorp > 300 workers 20 functional groups high turnover rapid expansion multiple fields, trades
    4. 4. <ul><li>Long-term or lifelong jobs </li></ul><ul><li>Steady contacts with other organizations and public </li></ul><ul><li>Linear development of expertise </li></ul><ul><li>Clearly defined roles </li></ul><ul><li>Vertical expertise </li></ul><ul><li>Organizational, disciplinary, trade boundaries </li></ul><ul><li>Interior vs. exterior </li></ul>Traditional work
    5. 5. But ... <ul><li>Downsizing </li></ul><ul><li>Automation </li></ul><ul><li>Flattening of work hierarchies </li></ul><ul><li>Proliferating intercompany relationships </li></ul><ul><li>Continual reorganization </li></ul><ul><li>Breaking down of “silos”/ “stovepipes” </li></ul><ul><li>Increase in telecommunications , making it possible to connect any two points in the organization </li></ul>
    6. 6. “ Interpenetrated” Anyone can link up with anyone else inside or outside the organization, and consequently any work activities can be intersected. *
    7. 7. Horizontal expertise Learning across organizational boundaries. <->
    8. 8. coordinative polycontextual cross-disciplinary spliced transformative Net work
    9. 9. Dimension Learning context Techniques Vertical Within functional groups Apprenticeship; formal Telecorp training sessions; trial and error; stories; documentation Vertical Within trades, disciplines, fields Computer-based training; corporate training outside Telecorp Horizontal Across functional groups Trial and error, stories, apprenticeship Horizontal Across organizations Trial and error, stories, apprenticeship
    10. 10. <ul><li>Apprenticeship : participating in an activity, first peripherally, then with increasing responsibility (Lave & Wenger). </li></ul><ul><li>The most frequently mentioned form of training (51 of 84 interviews; 20 of 23 functional areas) </li></ul><ul><li>Contingency based: Shadowing, work reviews. </li></ul>Apprenticeship: “You never ever do a partial connection”
    11. 11. <ul><li>Attempting to complete a task through self-directed exploration. </li></ul><ul><li>Entirely contingency-based. </li></ul><ul><li>“ Sink or swim”; “thrown to the wolves.” </li></ul><ul><li>Resulted in limited stable knowledge passed by word of mouth. </li></ul>Trial-and-Error: “Willing to get your hands dirty”
    12. 12. <ul><li>Specific stories about how things went wrong. </li></ul><ul><li>The case of Rex. </li></ul><ul><li>Emphasized contingencies, provided resources to deal with them. </li></ul><ul><li>Oral, ephemeral. </li></ul>Stories: “There was nothing about a dog on the ticket.”
    13. 13. A need for formal horizontal learning structures and practices beyond contingency and reactive stances conferring stability and circulation and built into genres and systems Implications