Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Observing Practice


In my last post I said that I'd like to see more attention given to the body of anthropological and ethnographical work that has looked in detail at how work gets done.  I want to say more about this in this post and the implications for learning practice.

Workplace studies - what sort of things have been observed?

Here is a small sample of studies that have been done using ethnographical techniques.  I've added the references in case you would like to search for the source material.   

Call centre work
Whalen, J., Whalen, M and Henderson, K. (2002) ‘Improvisational choreography in teleservice work’. British Journal of Sociology. 53 (2): 239-258
Production scheduling in a print factory
Button, G. and Sharrock, W. (2002) ‘Operating the production calculus: ordering a production system in the print industry’ British Journal of Sociology, 54 (2): 275-289. 
Use of humour in a MBA classroom
Fox, S (2008) ‘That Miracle of Familiar Organizational Things’: Social and Moral Order in the MBA Classroom’. Organization Studies, 29: 733-761.
CCTV surveillance
Heath, C., Luff, P. and Svensson, M.S. (2002) ‘Overseeing organizations: configuring action and its environment’. British Journal of Sociology, 53 (2): 181-201.
Use of management information 
Hughes, J.A., Rouncefield, M. and Tolmie, P. (2002) ‘Representing knowledge: instances of management information’. British Journal of Sociology, 53 (2): 221-238.
Strategy production by senior managers/executives
Samra-Fredericks, D. (2004) ‘Understanding the Production of ‘Strategy’ and ‘Organization’ through Talk Amongst Managerial Elites’. Culture and Organization, 10 (2): 125-141.
Care home work
Conklin, J. (2010) 'Learning in the Wild'. Action Learning Research and Practice 7 (2): 151-166.

 What do these studies tell us? 

As you can see the range of topics is diverse, but what interests me is that each paper works really hard to show, in detail, something about what is happening in the workplace.  None of the papers try to generalise or theorise, as this is not their purpose.  Instead, their aim is to look closely at the fine-grained details of work, in a specific context, with just the people who were involved at that time.

For example, Whalen et al’s paper on call centre work gives a revealing insight into how a telephone service representative organises their workspace to provide co-ordinated and timely information to fulfil orders for products.  What it shows is a range of artful practices being used that have to be produced each time a customer calls.  Daniel Barenboim, the famous conductor and pianist, said something similar about musicians and music; every time they play a piece of music they are starting completely from scratch, but with the added knowledge of last time.

By approaching the study of work in this way, it challenges the idea of work as routine and helps to reveal how people are doing things, dynamically and in response to contexts that are changing minute by minute. 

How might this affect learning practice?

Right at the heart of what I'm exploring is how to place everyday workplace practice centre-stage so that it can be a direct source of learning.  Traditional learning theory and practice endorses, through its methods and assumptions, the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual workplace practice.  This doesn't make much sense to me given that we know that most of our learning comes from experience. So the studies I've highlighted show what there is to be learned from observing the work itself.  This means getting right into the detail of what's happening rather than glossing over things and making generalisations.

Here are 3 suggestions for practice:

 1) Teach observational research skills

As the guys at the Internet Time Alliance say: Work is learning and learning is the work. We teach a whole range of managerial skills like coaching, listening and influencing but nothing on observation and I'm not quite sure why this is.  Just standing back and observing the workplace action for 30 minutes will provide a lot of useful data for learning. However, to do this objectively does require some skills and knowledge on methods and practices.

  2) Use video and audio to produce documentaries of the workplace

We could make management learning much more interesting by inviting managers to make 'scratchy' videos and audio diaries of real workplace action and then share them using organisation-wide social learning platforms like Microsoft SharePoint.  This would give lots of opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, at scale, in the actual context of the organisation rather than the abstracted experience of the classroom.  

Some companies are already doing something like this, for example, take a look at BT's Dare2Share which is an internal You Tube site.

  3) Produce learning content based on talk-based materials

Once you have got the talk and video based materials, these could then be introduced into formal course settings as well.  Dr. Dalvir Samra-Fredericks at Nottingham Trent University in the UK uses her talk based studies with business school students to show the everyday messy and ambiguous nature of senior managers developing strategy as a counterpoint to the traditional theory. 


There is much that happens in the workplace everyday that is seen but unnoticed, simply because it is part of the unconscious ‘way we do things round here’. My position is that understanding how work is done, in situ, will really help move things on in learning practice because it will enable people to pay close attention to their own practice and also see how others are doing things.  And the good news is that we are living through a time where the tools to enable us to produce work-based materials are cheap and quick to share. 

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