Knowledge as a social activity

The way a task as it unfolds over time, looks different to someone working on it compared with the way the task looks when finished [RYLE1954](Ryle 1954) [BOURDIEU1977](Bourdieu 1977). This is the foundations PARC Xerox scientists John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid base their research into understanding work practices. The two central terms here are are opus operatum and modus operandi. "The opus operatum, the finished view, tends to see the action in terms of the task alone and cannot see the way in which the process of doing the task is actually structured by the constantly changing conditions of work and the world" [BROWN1991](Duguid and Brown 1991, p. 41). The Oxford Dictionary defines modus operandi as "an unvarying or habitual method of procedure" [DICT](Allen 1991, p. 763), and lists routine as synonym. This difference between actual practice and the abstracted description of it is central to Duguid and Brown's work on organizational learning.

Duguid and Brown's work is based on ethnographic studies of workplace practices, in particular Julian Orr's study of Xerox' field technicians'. Inspired by social anthropology [GEERTZ1973](Geertz 1973) Orr says the best way to understanding what field technicians are, is by looking at what field technicians do [ORR1996](Orr 1996). Like the Scandinavian tradition of software systems development regard software as a means in the inherent tension between management and labor, Julian Orr studies the role work practices and knowledge of work practices play in the same context. Orr bases his findings on his ethnographic study of Xerox' field technicians. By looking at the gap between the espoused work practices laid down by management and the real work of field technicians, he shows the importance of noncanonical practices.

The two terms canonical and noncanonical practices are central in Orr's study. Canonical practices are formal descriptions of work. They are abstracted notions of how work, as espoused by management, is supposed to be. It is prescriptive. Canonic work practices can be understood as the opus operatum. It separates work from learning, and values abstract knowledge over actual practice. More significantly it separates learners from workers [BROWN1991](Duguid and Brown 1991). For the field technicians canonical practices are laid down in directed documentation, which are stepwise guides for debugging and repairing copying machines.

From management's point of view, laying down canonic work practices is an effort to reduce the organization's vulnerability to staff turn over by codifying information previously in the domain of individual field technicians. By making the job less dependent on the individual, the organization is thought to be less vulnerable to flux in the work force. Seen from the point of view of the field technicians, canonic work practices is a tool in the hands of management to de-skill labor [ORR1996]. More importantly, though, Xerox' field technicians also find the canonic work practices falling short of handling the complexity of everyday work.

Both directed documentation and the company's courses for training new field technicians are viewed by the field technicians as valueless. Both are aimed at finding a single point of failure through a decision tree. Where there is no single point of failure, or where the point of failure has yet to be documented, the directed documentation falls short. The gap between actual problems and the canonic practices are bridge by the field technicians' non-canonic practices, their modus operandi.

Narration is a central feature to the field technicians' work practice. The use of narration has two aspects. Narration is used by technicians working together to develop a causal map out of experience to replace the route directed by manuals and technical field guides provided by the company. It is used as a means of exploring possible causal reasons for a machine's breakdown, to keep track of sequences of behavior, and to relate personal hunches, insights, misconceptions and so on in an effort to dissect the problem and thereby increase their own understanding. Narration's second aspect is that of a collective reservoir of accumulated wisdom. Stories told are often incomplete and decoupled from context. They form background knowledge used in making meaning of an otherwise chaotic world.

Field service work is a situated practice, in which the context is part of the activity [ORR1996](Orr 1996). The field technician's work consists of building an understanding of a problem complex through talking with the customer and studying machine logs. This collaboration with the customer is important, but not the only significant communal activity undertaken to make meaning of the problem at hand. Orr also points to the importance of collective work in piecing together the information presented when a machine is faulty. Their work practice makes "do with whatever [is] at hand" [LEVYSTRAUSS1966](Lévy-Strauss 1966, p. 17). Their work practice isn't rigid and structured, but rather situated and thereby reflective of what problems the situation present them with. The field technicians form a community-of-practice, that "continue to develop rich, fluid, noncanonical view to bridge the gap between their organization's static canonical view and the challenge of changing practice" [BROWN1991](Duguid and Brown 1991, p. 50).


While the domain of Julian Orr's field technicians is distinctly different from software systems development, the central activity of repairing machines is not far removed from software systems development as Naur describes it. Both troubleshooting a copying machine and developing software is about building an understanding of the problem domain; building a theory to use Naur's words. Where Naur lacks any details about how to build a theory, Orr is directly concerned with this issue. Orr's conclusion is that making sense of the world, in other words building a theory, is a social activity that is situated within its context. It is an approach of trial and error, where making mistakes is equally important as being right. Each mistake reduces the problem domain's complexity, crystallizing the theory.

The central issue in learning is becoming a practitioner not learning about practice. This approach draws attention away from abstract knowledge and cranial processes and situates it in the practices and communities in which knowledge takes on significance. Learning about new devices, such as the machines Orr's technicians worked with, is best understood (and best achieved) in the context of the community in which the devices are used and that community's particular interpretive conventions. [BROWN1991](Duguid and Brown, p. 49)

The use of directed documentation and espoused work practices is relatable to software engineering's approach to software systems development. Both JSD and RUP lays out a map of the development effort through their steps and iterations. These stepwise guides are directed documentation as good as those used by Xerox' field technicians. It is fair to assume, underpinned by my personal experience with RUP, that the guides suffer from the same short-comings as other types of directed documentation.