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Engestrom, Yrjo.  “Activity Theory as a Framework for Analyzing and Redesigning Work.”  Ergonomics 43 7 (2000):  960-974.

  • E. starts by acknowledging that CHAT is a research framework that aims to move beyond the mirco-macro, mental-material, observation-intervention binaries that typically frame workplace analysis.  As such CHAT attempts to distinguish between “short-lived goal-directed actions and durable, object-oriented activity systems” (960).  E. recognizes that activity systems are typically driven not by individual desires but by communal motives (which often makes said motives difficult to identify and articulate by individuals participating in the system) and these communal motives are directed at particular objects embedded in the activity.  The object and motive end up giving coherence to any activity system . . . even if the individual actions that make up that system appear at odds or don’t directly engage the object of the overall activity.
  • By concentrating on the everyday innovations that workaround “systemic contradictions” that occur in activity systems, E. (preceeding Spinuzzi in Network) claims that work can be redeveloped in expansive and transformative ways.  Using the method of “expansive learning” that he originally developed in his book-length works, E. claims that to perform the task of redesigning work we should:

o    Begin with actions of questioning the existing standard practice

o    Proceed to actions of analyzing the contradictions in said standard practice

o    Model a vision for its zone of “proximal development” (see entry on Nardi and Kaptelenin for more information).

o    Move on to actions of examining and implementing the new model in practice (960).

  • E. provides two wonderful activity system diagrams to represent the smallish case he begins the article with: a physician in a hospital performing a couple of different actions.  Here are the figures:

  • E. draws out an interesting point – in the move from action three to action four the subject shifts from the initial physician in actions 1-3 to the lung specialist in action 4.  This draws attention to the fact that a singular subject must always remain at the heart of an action in an activity system. . . in fact, understanding the coherence of an action often requires shifting subject emphasis to different participants (965).  Pushing this point farther, E. questions the role of “scripts” or structured, standardized habits that direct activity (as opposed to rational willpower).  So, which is it – the subject acting or the subject being willed to act through habit/structure?
  • What happens when there are deviations from the “script?”  Well, you end up with “disturbances” or actions that address contradictions in any activity system – they’re workarounds!  Here’s how E. uses the previous activity system graph to demonstrate contradictions in patients who have multiple problems/pathologies (the lightning bolts indicate problems/contradictions in the system design):

  • Developing a new instrumentality:  when contradictions in activity systems exist it is often a good idea to develop new textual/technological instruments to mediate the contradictions; thus changing the activity system as a whole by resolving contradictions through mediating artifacts (in the example E. provides those artifacts are a “care agreement”) (968).  So if it is a good idea, what sort of learning process is needed to facilitate the development of new instrumentalities that can mediate systemic contradictions?  Answer: Expansive learning
  • What is expansive learning?  Here’s a diagram to help you out:

  • Expansive learning in CHAT have interesting implications for the way we see learning occur.  Rather than thinking of learning as vertical (or building progressively toward higher and higher levels of competence), EL in CHAT actually increases horizontal learning (learning that poses new models/alternative methods that don’t build on the models that created the contradiction in the first place).
  • Knotworking:  according to E., this is a new, emerging type of work organization:  “The notion of knot refers to rapidly pulsating, distributed and partially improvised orchestration of collaborative performance between otherwise loosely connected actors and activity systems” (972).  In other words, knotworking is the kind of work that characterizes distributed occupations in the knowledge economy – decentralized, ever-shifting, and developmental (new connections made among workers from disparate fields).  Also known as “co-configuration work” (Victor and Boynton 1998), knotworking creates an environment wherein the ongoing relationship between customer-producer making the product ever unfinished and always in a state of development.  This model of work is much akin to software development – especially in open source environments.  What are the six criteria of co-configuration/knotwork?:

o    Adaptive product or service

o    Continuous relationship between customer, product/service and company

o    Ongoing configuration or customization

o    Active customer involvement

o    Multiple collaborating producers

o    Mutual learning from interactions among parties involved.

  • Knotworking/co-configuration makes the opportunity of innovation from below/beside a real possibility; further, it also threatens the traditional corporate structure (973).

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