An Ethnography of the Workplace

This section is added by way on an addendum, suggesting an approach towards understanding and describing task-orientated work groups within organisations as cultural information systems, and using such descriptions to better comprehend the nature of the information that is largely taken-for-granted and to chart the flow of information through the group.

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, for example, have adopted 'ethnographic workflow analysis' as a design methodology for "modelling information-related work practices and for deriving specifications for the design of information systems to support these practices" (Fafchamps, 1991, p.709). Other researchers at La Trobe University have designed a software package, NUD*IST, for 'qualitative data analysis' that will handle non-numerical unstructured data by supporting processes of indexing, searching and theorising -- a tool which ideally lends itself (and indeed was designed for) tasks such as ethnographic analysis specifically applied to knowledge acquisition.

In a great many respects the process of knowledge acquisition (broadly enough construed to include relevant parts of systems analysis) and the ethnographic interview are strikingly similar: in each case, in the most general terms, the business of the interviewer is to elicit actors' (for example, a domain expert's) representations of some task, activity, event, or scene, and of the knowledge they use to generate and interpret behaviour (e.g., problem-solving behaviour) in that context. In each case, the interviewer will bring only a bare minimum of prior assumptions into the interviews in the recognition that an understanding of the actor's behaviour (including, of course, verbal behaviour used in reporting) can only be achieved through an understanding of the underlying knowledge structures and cognitive processes. Consequently:

you don't start getting any information from an utterance or event until you know what it is in response to -- you must know what question is being answered. It could be said of ethnography that until you know the question that someone in the culture is responding to you can't know many things about the responses. Yet the ethnographer is greeted, in the field, with an array of responses. He needs to know what questions people are answering in their every act. He needs to know which questions are being taken for granted because they are what 'everybody knows' without thinking ... Thus the task of the ethnographer is to discover questions that seek the relationships among entities that are conceptually meaningful to the people under investigation. (Black & Metzger, 1964, p.144; quoted in Spradley, 1980, p.32)

Hutchison (1993b) proposes that the initial stage in formulating a description of the co-operative work activity should be the determination, by interviewing ('grand tour' questions) and observation, of the following components (adapted from Spradley, 1980, p.78):

  1. ACTORS. Identify the people involved in the work group. Allow the actors themselves to demarcate the boundaries of the work group. A sociometric analysis, based on interview and observation, might produce a sociogram that can then be checked back with the actors for confirmation. Members of the work group should themselves be allowed to identify particular kinds of actor: do actors have descriptive names? are the descriptions done by others or by themselves? do they accept these descriptions? is there an acknowledged co-ordinator of the activity? is there an agreed social structure in the team? are relationships between actors 'personal' or 'positional' (cf. Bernstein, 1971)? etc
  2. GOAL/TASK. The identification of the actors in (i) will have been done on the basis of a preliminary conceptualisation of the ACTIVITIES undertaken by the work group in the EVENTs in which they participate. Actors are asked to name and describe the tasks undertaken individually and collectively by the group.
  3. EVENT. Actors discriminate particular discrete tasks that collectively constitute the motivational basis of the group. Any single task has a temporal -- and frequently narrative -- dimension: it can be described as an event. That is, a set of related ACTIVITIES that actors carry out. We are interested in how participating actors characterise the event.
  4. OBJECTS. This will be in the first place the actors' description of informational units that constitute the core information base of the task domain -- the 'domain conceptualisation' -- as well as (1) the meta-level information-processing concepts that organise and transform the information structures and (2) the physical objects that support the core processing activities. Yet it will include not only the physical and conceptual objects that the actors perceive to be involved in the narrowly technical dimension of the problem-solving activity, but also all other objects with which actors routinely interact in the course of the working day: telephone, fax, photocopier, coffee machine, and so on.
  5. RESOURCES. What are the resources used in the task, as identified by the actors themselves? Time? other people (including support staffs)? white boards? paper? information resources? etc
  6. ACTIVITIES. What are the activities that constitute the EVENT, and that must be undertaken for the event to successfully take place? How is the performance of these activities distributed across the work group? Do individual actors undertake discrete tasks?
  7. ACTS. Identify a set of low-level (atomic) constituent acts of each of the activities. Again, the actors themselves will determine what count as 'acts'.
  8. TIME. Activities take place over time; but actors will be working with complex subjective (and probably intersubjective) time structures that do not map neatly into clock time. How do actors conceptualise the temporal dimension of an EVENT? e.g., do activities and acts take place relative primarily to external temporal constraints (schedules, deadlines, ...) or to each other? How are activities sequenced? are activities linear? interleaved? concurrent? Does an event have an intrinsic tempo distinct from clock time?
  9. SPACE. Actors work in physical environments, and the topography of the environment may to some degree affect work practices; consequently actors' descriptions of spatial arrangements (including spatial relations between actors themselves) should be elicited. Actors are asked to describe places and locations in detail; to describe ways in which space is used by actors; the ways in which space is organised by objects, acts, activities and events; the ways space is related to goals; etc
  10. FEELING. How people feel about the work they do and about the others they work with is likely to have some influence on the way the work is done. Actors will also have personal goals and objectives, and we are interested in how these impinge on performance. Actors are thus probed for the affective correlates of goals, events, fellow actors, time, and so on.

The result of the elicitation should be a rich description of one or more cultural scenes -- an actor's 'deep' knowledge that underpins her behaviour in the task-orientated organisational setting and that enables her both to interpret the influx of information in so far as it relates to her professional activities and to make sense of, in the cultural context, the social (organisational) behaviour of her fellows.