Other writings by the authors of
The Social Life of Information:
Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice:
Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation
1991 2(1): 40-57
About the authors
© 1991, The Institute of Management Sciences (now INFORMS)
Recent ethnographic studies of workplace practices indicate that the ways
people actually work usually differ fundamentally from the ways organizations
describe that work in manuals, training programs. organizational charts, and
job descriptions. Nevertheless, organizations tend to rely on the latter in
their attempts to understand and improve work practice. We examine one such
study. We then relate its conclusions to compatible investigations of learning
and of innovation to argue that conventional descriptions of jobs mask not only
the ways people work, but also significant learning and innovation generated in
the informal communities-of-practice in which they work. By reassessing work,
learning, and innovation in the context of actual communities and actual
practices, we suggest that the connections between these three become apparent.
With a unified view of working, learning, and innovating, it should be possible
to reconceive of and redesign organizations to improve all three.
Working, learning, and innovating are closely related forms of human
activity that are conventionally thought to conflict with each other. Work
practice is generally viewed as conservative and resistant to change; learning
is generally viewed as distinct from working and problematic in the face of
change; and innovation is generally viewed as the disruptive but necessary
imposition of change on the other two. To see that working, learning, and
innovating are interrelated and compatible and thus potentially complementary
not conflicting forces requires a distinct conceptual shift. By bringing
together recent research into working, learning, and innovating, we attempt to
indicate the nature and explore the significance of such a shift.
The source of the oppositions perceived between working, learning, and
innovating lies primarily in the gulf between precepts and practice. Formal
descriptions of work (e.g., "office procedures") and of learning (e.g.,
"subject matter") are abstracted from actual practice. They inevitably and
intentionally omit the details. In a society that attaches particular value to
"abstract knowledge," the details of practice have come to be seen as
nonessential, unimportant, and easily developed once the relevant abstractions
have been grasped. Thus education, training, and technology design generally
focus on abstract representations to the detriment, if not exclusion of actual
practice. We, by contrast, suggest that practice is central to understanding
work. Abstractions detached from practice distort or obscure intricacies of
that practice. Without a clear understanding of those intricacies and the role
they play, the practice itself cannot be well understood, engendered (through
training), or enhanced (through innovation).
We begin by looking at the variance between a major organization's
formal descriptions of work both in its training programs and manuals and the
actual work practices performed by its members. Orr's (1990a, 1990b, 1987a,
1987b) detailed ethnographic studies of service technicians illustrate how an
organization's view of work can overlook and even oppose what and who it takes
to get a job done. Based on Orr's specific insights, we make the more general
claim that reliance on espoused practice (which we refer to as canonical
practice) can blind an organization's core to the actual, and usually valuable
practices of its members (including noncanonical practices, such as "work
arounds"). It is the actual practices, however, that determine the success or
failure of organizations.
Next, we turn to learning and, in particular, to Lave and Wenger's (1990)
practice-based theory of learning as "legitimate peripheral participation" in
"communities-of. practice." Much conventional learning theory, including that
implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract
knowledge over actual practice and, as a result, to separate learning from
working and, more significantly, learners from workers. Together Lave and
Wenger's analysis and Orr's empirical investigation indicate that this
knowledge-practice separation is unsound, both in theory and in practice. We
argue that the composite concept of "learning-in-working" best represents the
fluid evolution of learning through practice.
From this practice-based standpoint, we view learning as the bridge between
working and innovating. We use Daft and Weick's (1984) interpretive account of
enacting organizations to place innovation in the context of changes in a
community's "way of seeing" or interpretive view. Both Orr's and Lave and
Wenger's research emphasize that to understand working and learning, it is
necessary to focus on the formation and change of the communities in which work
takes place. Taking all three theories together, we argue that, through their
constant adapting to changing membership and changing circumstances, evolving
communities-of-practice are significant sites of innovating.
a Canonical Practice
Orr's (1990a, 1990b, 1987a, 1987b) ethnography of service technicians
("reps") in training and at work in a large corporation paints a clear picture
of the divergence between espoused practice and actual practice, of the ways
this divergence develops, and of the trouble it can cause. His work provides a
"thick" (see Geertz 1973), detailed description of the way work actually
progresses. Orr contrasts his findings with the way the same work is thinly
described in the corporation's manuals, training courses, and job
The importance of such an approach to work in progress is emphasized by
Bourdieu (1973), who distinguishes the modus operandi from the opus
operatum--that is, the way a task, as it unfolds over time, looks to
someone at work on it, while many of the options and dilemmas remain
unresolved, as opposed to the way it looks with hindsight as a finished task.
(Ryle (1954) makes a similar point.) 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. Bourdieu makes a useful analogy
with reference to a journey as actually carried out on the ground and as seen
on a map ("an abstract space, devoid of any landmarks or any privileged centre"
(p. 2)). The latter, like the opus operatum, inevitably smoothes over
the myriad decisions made with regard to changing conditions: road works,
diversions, Memorial Day parades, earthquakes, personal fatigue, conflicting
opinions, wrong-headed instructions, relations of authority, inaccuracies on
the map, and the like. The map, though potentially useful, by itself, provides
little insight into how ad hoc decisions presented by changing conditions can
be resolved (and, of course, each resolved decision changes the conditions once
more). As a journey becomes more complex, the map increasingly conceals what
is actually needed to make the journey. Thick description, by contrast,
ascends from the abstraction to the concrete circumstances of actual practice,
reconnecting the map and the mapped.
Orr's study shows how an organization's maps can dramatically distort
its view of the routes its members take. This "misrecognition," as Bourdieu
calls it, can be traced to many places, including pedagogic theory and
practice. Often it has its more immediate cause in the strategy to downskill
positions. Many organizations are willing to assume that complex tasks can be
successfully mapped onto a set of simple, Tayloristic, canonical steps that can
be followed without need of significant understanding or insight (and thus
without need of significant investment in training or skilled technicians).
But as Bourdieu, Suchman (1987a), and Orr show, actual practice inevitably
involves tricky interpolations between abstract accounts and situated demands.
Orr's reps' skills, for instance, are most evident in the improvised strategies
they deploy to cope with the clash between prescriptive documentation and the
sophisticated, yet unpredictable machines they work with. Nonetheless, in the
corporation's eyes practices that deviate from the canonical are, by
definition, deviant practices. Through a reliance on canonical descriptions
(to the extent of overlooking even their own noncanonical improvisations),
managers develop a conceptual outlook that cannot comprehend the importance of
noncanonical practices. People are typically viewed as performing their jobs
according to formal job descriptions, despite the fact that daily evidence
points to the contrary (Suchman 1987b). They are held accountable to the map,
not to road conditions.
In Orr's case, the canonical map comes in the form of "directive" documentation
aimed at "single point failures" of machines. Indeed, the documentation is
less like a map than a single predetermined route with no alternatives: it
provides a decision tree for diagnosis and repair that assumes both predictable
machines and an unproblematic process of making diagnoses and repairs through
blindly following diagnostic instructions. Both assumptions are mistaken.
Abstractions of repair work fall short of the complexity of the actual
practices from which they were abstracted. The account of actual practice we
describe below is anything but the blind following of instructions.
The inadequacies of this corporation's directive approach actually make a rep's
work more difficult to accomplish and thus perversely demands more, not fewer,
improvisational skills. An ostensible downskilling and actual upskilling
therefore proceed simultaneously. Although the documentation becomes more
prescriptive and ostensibly more simple, in actuality the task becomes more
improvisational and more complex. The reps develop sophisticated noncanonical
practices to bridge the gulf between their corporation's canonical approach and
successful work practices, laden with the dilemmas, inconsistencies, and
unpredictability of everyday life. The directive documentation does not
"deprive the workers of the skills they have;" rather, "it merely reduces the
amount of information given them" (Orr 1990a, 26). The burden of making up the
difference between what is provided and what is needed then rests with the
reps, who in bridging the gap actually protect the organization from its own
shortsightedness. If the reps adhered to the canonical approach, their
corporation's services would be in chaos.
Because this corporation's training programs follow a similar downskilling
approach, the reps regard them as generally unhelpful. As a result, a wedge is
driven between the corporation and its reps: the corporation assumes the reps
are untrainable, uncooperative, and unskilled; whereas the reps view the overly
simplistic training programs as a reflection of the corporation's low
estimation of their worth and skills. In fact, their valuation is a testament
to the depth of the rep's insight. They recognize the superficiality of the
training because they are conscious of the full complexity of the technology
and what it takes to keep it running. The corporation, on the other hand,
blinkered by its implicit faith in formal training and canonical practice and
its misinterpretation of the rep's behavior, is unable to appreciate either
aspect of their insight.
In essence, Orr shows that in order to do their job the reps must--and
do--learn to make better sense of the machines they work with than their
employer either expects or allows. Thus they develop their understanding of the
machine not in the training programs, but in the very conditions from which the
programs separate them--the authentic activity of their daily work. For the
reps (and for the corporation, though it is unaware of it), learning-in-working
is an occupational necessity.
b Noncanonical Practice
Orr's analyses of actual practice provide various examples of how the reps
diverge from canonical descriptions. For example, on one service call (Orr
1990b, 1987b) a rep confronted a machine that produced copious raw information
in the form of error codes and obligingly crashed when tested. But the error
codes and the nature of the crashes did not tally. Such a case immediately
fell outside the directive training and documentation provided by the
organization, which tie errors to error codes. Unfortunately, the problem also
fell outside the rep's accumulated, improvised experience. He summoned his
technical specialist, whose job combines "trouble-shooting consultant,
supervisor, and occasional instructor." The specialist was equally baffled.
Yet, though the canonical approach to repair was exhausted, with their combined
range of noncanonical practices, the rep and technical specialist still had
options to pursue.
One option--indeed the only option left by canonical practice now that its
strategies for repair had been quickly exhausted--was to abandon repair
altogether and to replace the malfunctioning machine. But both the rep and the
specialist realized that the resulting loss of face for the company, loss of
the customer's faith in the reps, loss of their own credit within their
organization, and loss of money to the corporation made this their last resort.
Loss of face or faith has considerable ramifications beyond mere embarrassment.
A rep's ability to enlist the future support of customers and colleagues is
jeopardized. There is evidently strong social pressure from a variety of
sources to solve problems without exchanging machines. The reps' work is not
simply about maintaining machines; it is also and equally importantly, about
maintaining social relations: "A large part of service work might better be
described as repair and maintenance of the social setting" (Orr 1990b, 169).
The training and documentation, of course, are about maintaining
Solving the problem in situ required constructing a coherent account
of the malfunction out of the incoherence of the data and documentation. To do
this, the rep and the specialist embarked on a long story-telling procedure.
The machine, with its erratic behavior, mixed with information from the user
and memories from the technicians, provided essential ingredients that the two
aimed to account for in a composite story. The process of forming a story was,
centrally, one of diagnosis. This process, it should be noted, begins as well
as ends in a communal understanding of the machine that is wholly unavailable
from the canonical documents.
While they explored the machine or waited for it to crash, the rep and
specialist (with contributions from the ethnographer) recalled and discussed
other occasions on which they had encountered some of the present symptoms.
Each story presented an exchangeable account that could be examined and
reflected upon to provoke old memories and new insights. Yet more tests and
more stories were thereby generated.
The key element of diagnosis is the situated production of understanding
through narration, in that the integration of the various facts of the
situation is accomplished through a verbal consideration of those facts with a
primary criterion of coherence. The process is situated, in Suchman's terms,
in that both the damaged machine and the social context of the user site are
essential resources for both the definition of the problem and its resolution .
. . They are faced with a failing machine displaying diagnostic information
which has previously proved worthless and in which no one has any particular
confidence this time. They do not know where they are going to find the
information they need to understand and solve this problem. In their search
for inspiration, they tell stories (Orr 1990b. 178-179).
The story-telling process continued throughout the morning, over lunch, and
back in front of the machine, throughout the afternoon, forming a long but
purposeful progression from incoherence to coherence: "The final
trouble-shooting session was a five hour effort . . . . This session yielded a
dozen anecdotes told during the trouble shooting, taking a variety of forms and
serving a variety of purposes" (Orr 1990b, 10).
Ultimately, these stories generated sufficient interplay among
memories, tests, the machine's responses, and the ensuing insights to lead to
diagnosis and repair. The final diagnosis developed from what Orr calls an
"antiphonal recitation" in which the two told different versions of the same
story: "They are talking about personal encounters with the same problem, but
the two versions are significantly different" (Orr 1987b, 177). Through
story-telling, these separate experiences converged, leading to a shared
diagnosis of certain previously encountered but unresolved symptoms. The two
(and the ethnographer) had constructed a communal interpretation of hitherto
uninterpretable data and individual experience. Rep and specialist were now in
a position to modify previous stories and build a more insightful one. They
both increased their own understanding and added to their community's
collective knowledge. Such stories are passed around, becoming part of the
repertoire available to all reps. Orr reports. hearing a concise, assimilated
version of this particular false error code passed among reps over a game of
cribbage in the lunch room three months later (Orr 1990b, 181ff.). A story,
once in the possession of the community, can then be used-and further
modified-in similar diagnostic sessions.
c Central Features of Work Practice
In this section, we analyze Orr's thick description of the rep's practice
through the overlapping categories, "narration," "collaboration," and "social
construction"--categories that get to the heart of what the reps do and yet
which, significantly, have no place in the organization's abstracted, canonical
accounts of their work.
Narration. The first aspect of the reps' practice worth highlighting is
the extensive narration used. This way of working is quite distinct from
following the branches of decision tree. Stories and their telling can reflect
the complex social web within which work takes place and the relationship of
the narrative, narrator, and audience to the specific events of practice. The
Stories have a flexible generality that makes them both adaptable and
particular. They function, rather like the common law, as a usefully
underconstrained means to interpret each new situation in the light of
accumulated wisdom and constantly changing circumstances.
The practice of creating and exchanging of stories has two important
aspects. First of all, telling stories helps to diagnose the state of a
troublesome machine. Reps begin by extracting a history from the users of the
machine, the users' story, and with this and the machine as their starting
point, they construct their own account. If they cannot tell an adequate story
on their own, then they seek help--either by summoning a specialist, as in the
case above, or by discussing the problem with colleagues over coffee or lunch.
If necessary, they work together at the machine, articulating hunches"
insights, misconceptions, and the like, to dissect and augment their developing
understanding. Story telling allows them to keep track of the sequences of
behavior and of their theories, and thereby to work towards a coherent account
of the current state of the machine. The reps try to impose coherence on an
apparently random sequence of events in order that they can decide what to do
next. Unlike the documentation, which tells reps what to do but not why, the
reps' stories help them develop causal accounts of machines, which are
essential when documentation breaks down. (As we have suggested,
documentation, like machines, will always break down, however well it is
designed.) What the reps do in their story telling is develop a causal map out
of their experience to replace the impoverished directive route that they have
been furnished by the corporation. In the absence of such support, the reps
Orr studied cater to their own needs as well as they can. Their narratives
yield a story of the machine fundamentally different from the prescriptive
account provided by the documentation, a story that is built in response to the
particulars of breakdown.
Despite the assumptions behind the downskilling process, to do their
job in any significant sense, reps need these complex causal stories and they
produce and circulate them as part of their regular noncanonical work practice.
An important part of the reps' skill, though not recognized by the corporation,
comprises the ability to create, to trade, and to understand highly elliptical,
highly referential, and to the initiated, highly informative war stories.
Zuboff (1988) in her analysis of the skills people develop working on complex
systems describes similar cases of story telling and argues that it is a
necessary practice for dealing with "smart" but unpredictable machines. The
irony, as Orr points out, is that for purposes of diagnosis the reps have no
smart machines, just inadequate documentation and "their own very traditional
It is worth stressing at this point that we are not arguing that communities
simply can and thus should work without assistance from trainers and the
corporation in general. Indeed, we suggest in our conclusion that situations
inevitably occur when group improvisation simply cannot bridge the gap between
what the corporation supplies and what a particular community actually needs.
What we are claiming is that corporations must provide support that corresponds
to the real needs of the community rather than just to the abstract
expectations of the corporation. And what those needs are can only be
understood by understanding the details and sophistications of actual practice.
In Orr's account, what the reps needed was the means to understand the machine
causally and to relate this causal map to the inevitable intricacies of
practice. To discern such needs, however, will require that corporations
develop a less formal and more practice-based approach to communities and their
The second characteristic of story telling is that the stories also act as
repositories of accumulated wisdom. In particular, community narratives
protect the reps' ability to work from the ravages of modern idealizations of
work and related downskilling practices. In Orr's example, the canonical
decision trees, privileging the decontextualized over the situated, effectively
sweep away the clutter of practice. But it is in the face of just this clutter
that the reps' skills are needed. Improvisational skills that allow the reps
to circumvent the inadequacies of both the machines and the documentation are
not only developed but also preserved in community story telling.
Jordan's (1989) work similarly draws attention to the central, dual role of
informal stories. She studied the clash between midwifery as it is prescribed
by officials from Mexico City and as it is practiced in rural Yucatan. The
officials ignore important details and realities of practice. For instance,
the officials instruct the midwives in practices that demand sterile
instruments though the midwives work in villages that lack adequate means for
sterilization. The midwives' noncanonical practices, however, circumvent the
possibility of surgical operations being carried out with unsterile
instruments. These effective practices survive, despite the government's
worryingly decontextualized attempts to replace them with canonical practices,
through story telling. Jordan notes that the two aspects of story telling,
diagnosis and preservation. are inseparable. Orr also suggests that "The use
of story-telling both to preserve knowledge and to consider it in subsequent
diagnoses coincides with the narrative character of diagnosis" (Orr 1990b,
178). We have pulled them apart for the purpose of analysis only.
Collaboration. Based as it is on shared narratives, a second
important aspect of the reps work is that it is obviously communal and thereby
collaborative. In Orr's example, the rep and specialist went through a
collective, not individual process. Not only is the learning in this case
inseparable from working, but also individual learning is inseparable from
collective learning. The insight accumulated is not a private substance, but
socially constructed and distributed. Thus, faced with a difficult problem
reps like to work together and to discuss problems in groups. In the case of
this particular problem, the individual rep tried what he knew, failed, and
there met his limits. With the specialist he was able to trade stories,
develop insights, and construct new options. Each had a story about the
condition of the machine, but it was in telling it antiphonally that the
While it might seem trivial, it is important to emphasize the collaborative
work within the reps' community, for in the corporation's eyes their work is
viewed individually. Their documentation and training implicitly maintain that
the work is individual and the central relationship of the rep is that between
an individual and the corporation:
The activities defined by management are those which one worker will do,
and work as the relationship of employment is discussed in terms of a single
worker's relationship to the corporation. I suspect the incidence of workers
alone in relations of employment is quite low, and the existence of coworkers
must contribute to those activities done in the name of work . . . The fact
that work is commonly done by a group of workers together is only sometimes
acknowledged in the literature, and the usual presence of such a community has
not entered into the definition of work (Orr 1990a, 15).
In fact, as Orr's studies show, not only do reps work with
specialists, as in the example given here, but throughout the day they meet for
coffee or for meals and trade stories back and forth.
Social Construction. A third important aspect of Orr's account of
practice, and one which is interfused with the previous two and separated here
only to help in clarification, involves social construction. This has two
parts. First and most evident in Orr's example, the reps constructed a shared
understanding out of bountiful conflicting and confusing data. This
constructed understanding reflects the reps' view of the world. They developed
a rep's model of the machine, not a trainer's, which had already proved
unsatisfactory, nor even an engineer's, which was not available to them (and
might well have been unhelpful, though Orr interestingly points out that reps
cultivate connections throughout the corporation to help them circumvent the
barriers to understanding built by their documentation and training). The
reps' view, evident in their stories, interweaves generalities about "this
model" with particularities about "this site" and "this machine."
Such an approach is highly situated and highly improvisational. Reps
respond to whatever the situation itself--both social and physical--throws at
them, a process very similar to Levi-Strauss's (1966) concept of
bricolage: the ability to "make do with 'whatever is to hand'" (p. 17).
What reps need for bricolage are not the partial, rigid models of the
sort directive documentation provides, but help to build, ad hoc and
collaboratively, robust models that do justice to particular difficulties in
which they find themselves. Hutchins, in his analysis of navigation teams in
the U.S. Navy (in press, 1991), similarly notes the way in which understanding
is constructed within and distributed throughout teams.
The second feature of social construction, as important but less
evident than the first, is that in telling these stories an individual rep
contributes to the construction and development of his or her own identity as a
rep and reciprocally to the construction and development of the community of
reps in which he or she works. Individually, in telling stories the rep is
becoming a member. Orr notes, "this construction of their identity as
technicians occurs both in doing the work and in their stories, and their
stories of themselves fixing machines show their world in what they consider
the appropriate perspective" (Orr 1990b, 187). Simultaneously and
interdependently, the reps are contributing to the construction and evolution
of the community that they are joining--what we might call a "community of
interpretation," for it is through the continual development of these
communities that the shared means for interpreting complex activity get formed,
transformed, and transmitted.
The significance of both these points should become apparent in the following
sections, first, as we turn to a theory of learning (Lave and Wenger's) that,
like Orr's analysis of work, takes formation of identity and community
membership as central units of analysis; and second as we argue that innovation
can be seen as at base a function of changes in community values and views.
The theories of learning implicated in the documentation and training view
learning from the abstract stance of pedagogy. Training is thought of as the
transmission of explicit, abstract knowledge from the head of someone who knows
to the head of someone who does not in surroundings that specifically exclude
the complexities of practice and the communities of practitioners. The setting
for learning is simply assumed not to matter.
Concepts of knowledge or information transfer, however, have been under
increasing attack in recent years from a variety of sources (e.g., Reddy 1979).
In particular, learning theorists (e.g. Lave 1988; Lave and Wenger 1990) have
rejected transfer models, which isolate knowledge from practice, and developed
a view of learning as social construction, putting knowledge back into the
contexts in which it has meaning (see also Brown, Collins, and Duguid 1989;
Brown and Duguid, in press; Pea 1990). From this perspective, learners can in
one way or another be seen to construct their understanding out of a wide range
of materials that include ambient social and physical circumstances and the
histories and social relations of the people involved. Like a magpie with a
nest, learning is built out of the materials to hand and in relation to the
structuring resources of local conditions. (For the importance of including
the structuring resources in any account of learning, see Lave 1988.) What is
learned is profoundly connected to the conditions in which it is
Lave and Wenger (1990), with their concept of legitimate peripheral
participation (LPP), provide one of the most versatile accounts of this
constructive view of learning. LPP, it must quickly be asserted, is not a
method of education. It is an analytical category or tool for understanding
learning across different methods, different historical periods, and different
social and physical environments. It attempts to account for learning, not
teaching or instruction. Thus this approach escapes problems that arise
through examinations of learning from pedagogy's viewpoint. It makes the
conditions of learning, rather than just abstract subject matter, central to
understanding what is learned.
Learning, from the viewpoint of LPP, essentially involves becoming an
"insider." Learners do not receive or even construct abstract, "objective,"
individual knowledge; rather, they learn to function in a community--be it a
community of nuclear physicists, cabinet makers, high school classmates,
street-corner society, or, as in the case under study, service technicians.
They acquire that particular community's subjective viewpoint and learn to
speak its language. In short, they are enculturated (Brown, Collins, and
Duguid 1989). Learners are acquiring not explicit, formal "expert knowledge,"
but the embodied ability to behave as community members. For example, learners
learn to tell and appreciate community-appropriate stories, discovering in
doing so, all the narrative-based resources we outlined above. As Jordan
(1989) argues in her analysis of midwifery, "To acquire a store of appropriate
stories and, even more importantly, to know what are appropriate occasions for
telling them, is then part of what it means to become a midwife" (p,
Workplace learning is best understood, then, in terms of the communities
being formed or joined and personal identities being changed. 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. Lave and Wenger argue that learning, understanding,
and interpretation involve a great deal that is not explicit or explicable,
developed and framed in a crucially communal context.
Orr's study reveals this sort of learning going on in the process of and
inseparable from work. The rep was not just an observer of the technical
specialist. He was also an important participant in this process of diagnosis
and story telling, whose participation could legitimately grow in from the
periphery as a function of his developing understanding not of some
extrinsically structured training. His legitimacy here is an important
function of the social relations between the different levels of service
technician, which are surprisingly egalitarian, perhaps as a result of the
inherent incoherence of the problems this sort of technology presents: a
specialist cannot hope to exert hierarchical control over knowledge that he or
she must first construct cooperatively. "Occupational communities . . . have
little hierarchy; the only real status is that of member" (Orr 1990a, 33).
a Groups and Communities
Having characterized both working and learning in terms of communities, it
is worth pausing to establish relations between our own account and recent work
on groups in the workplace. Much important work has been done in this area
(see, for example, the collections by Hackman (1990) and Goodman and Associates
(1988)) and many of the findings support our own view of work activity. There
is, however, a significant distinction between our views and this work. Group
theory in general focuses on groups as canonical, bounded entities that lie
within an organization and that are organized or at least sanctioned by that
organization and its view of tasks (see Hackman 1990, pp. 4-5.). The
communities that we discern are, by contrast, often noncanonical and not
recognized by the organization. They are more fluid and interpenetrative than
bounded, often crossing the restrictive boundaries of the organization to
incorporate people from outside. (Orr's reps can in an important sense be said
to work in a community that includes both suppliers and customers.) Indeed,
the canonical organization becomes a questionable unit of analysis from this
perspective. And significantly, communities are emergent. That is to say
their shape and membership emerges in the process of activity, as opposed to
being created to carry out a task. (Note, by contrast, how much of the
literature refers to the design or creation of new groups (e.g. Goodman and
Associates 1988). From our viewpoint, the central questions more involve the
detection and support of emergent or existing communities.)
If this distinction is correct then it has two particularly important
corollaries. First, work practice and learning need to be understood not in
terms of the groups that are ordained (e.g. "task forces" or "trainees"), but
in terms of the communities that emerge. The latter are likely to be
noncanonical (though not necessarily so), while the former are likely to be
canonical. Looking only at canonical groups, whose configuration often
conceals extremely influential interstitial communities, will not provide a
clear picture of how work or learning is actually organized and accomplished.
It will only reflect the dominant assumptions of the organizational
Second, attempts to introduce "teams" and "work groups" into the workplace
to enhance learning or work practice are often based on an assumption that
without impetus from above, an organization's members configure themselves as
individuals. In fact, as we suggest, people work and learn collaboratively and
vital interstitial communities are continually being formed and reformed. The
reorganization of the workplace into canonical groups can wittingly or
unwittingly disrupt these highly functional noncanonical--and therefore often
invisible--communities. Orr argues:
The process of working and learning together creates a work situation which
the workers value, and they resist having it disrupted by their employers
through events such as a reorganization of the work. This resistance can
surprise employers who think of labor as a commodity to arrange to suit their
ends. The problem for the workers is that this community which they have
created was not part of the series of discrete employment agreements by which
the employer populated the work place, nor is the role of the community in
doing the work acknowledged. The work can only continue free of disruption
if the employer can be persuaded to see the community as necessary to
accomplishing work (Orr 1990, 48, emphasis added).
b Fostering Learning
Given a community-based analysis of learning so congruent with Orr's
analysis of working, the question arises, how is it possible to foster
learning-in-working? The answer is inevitably complex, not least because all
the intricacies of context, which the pedagogic approach has always assumed
could be stripped away, now have to be taken back into consideration. On the
other hand, the ability of people to learn in situ suggests that, as a
fundamental principle for supporting learning, attempts to strip away context
should be examined with caution. If learners need access to practitioners at
work, it is essential to question didactic approaches, with their tendency to
separate learners from the target community and the authentic work practices.
Learning is fostered by fostering access to and membership of the target
community-of-practice, not by explicating abstractions of individual practice.
Thus central to the process are the recognition and legitimation of community
Reliance on formal descriptions of work, explicit syllabuses for learning
about it, and canonical groups to carry it out immediately set organizations at
a disadvantage. This approach, as we have noted, can simply blind management
to the practices and communities that actually make things happen. In
particular, it can lead to the isolation of learners, who will then be unable
to acquire the implicit practices required for work. Marshall (in Lave and
Wenger l990) describes a case of apprenticeship for butchers in which learning
was extremely restricted because, among other things, "apprentices . . . could
not watch journeymen cut and saw meat" (p. 19). Formal training in cuing and
sawing is quite different from the understanding of practice gleaned through
informal observation that copresence makes possible and absence obviously
excludes. These trainees were simply denied the chance to become legitimate
peripheral participants. If training is designed so that learners cannot
observe the activity of practitioners, learning is inevitably
Legitimacy and peripherality are intertwined in a complex way.
Occasionally, learners (like the apprentice butchers) are granted legitimacy
but are denied peripherality. Conversely, they can be granted peripherality
but denied legitimacy. Martin (1982) gives examples of organizations in which
legitimacy is explicitly denied in instances of "open door" management, where
members come to realize that, though the door is open, it is wiser not to cross
the threshold. If either legitimacy or peripherality is denied, learning will
be significantly more difficult.
For learners, then, a position on the periphery of practice is important.
It is also easily overlooked and increasingly risks being "designed out,"
leaving people physically or socially isolated and justifiably uncertain
whether, for instance, their errors are inevitable or the result of personal
inadequacies. It is a significant challenge for design to ensure that new
collaborative technologies, designed as they so often are around formal
descriptions of work, do not exclude this sort of implicit, extendible,
informal periphery. Learners need legitimate access to the periphery of
communication--to computer mail, to formal and informal meetings, to telephone
conversations, etc., and, of course, to war stories. They pick up invaluable
"know how"--not just information but also manner and technique--from being on
the periphery of competent practitioners going about their business.
Furthermore, it is important to consider the periphery not only because it is
an important site of learning, but also because, as the next section proposes,
it can be an important site for innovation.
One of the central benefits of these small, self-constituting communities
we have been describing is that they evade the ossifying tendencies of large
organizations. Canonical accounts of work are not only hard to apply and hard
to learn. They are also hard to change. Yet the actual behaviors of
communities-of-practice are constantly changing both as newcomers replace old
timers and as the demands of practice force the community to revise its
relationship to its environment. Communities-of-practice like the reps'
continue to develop a rich, fluid, noncanonical world view to bridge the gap
between their organization's static canonical view and the challenge of
changing practice. This process of development is inherently innovative.
"Maverick" communities of this sort offer the core of a large organization a
means and a model to examine the potential of alternative views of
organizational activity through spontaneously occurring experiments that are
simultaneously informed and checked by experience. These, it has been argued
(Hedberg, Nystrom and Starbuck 1976: Schein 1990), drive innovation by allowing
the parts of an organization to step outside the organization's inevitably
limited core world view and simply try something new. Unfortunately, people in
the core of large organizations too often regard these noncanonical practices
(if they see them at all) as counterproductive.
For a theoretical account of this sort of innovation, we turn to Daft and
Weick's (1984) discussion of interpretive innovation. They propose a matrix of
four different kinds of organization, each characterized by its relationship to
its environment. They name these relationships "undirected viewing,"
"conditioned viewing," "discovering," and "enacting." Only the last two
concern us here. It is important to note that Daft and Weick too see the
community and not the individual "inventor" as the central unit of analysis in
understanding innovating practice.
The discovering organization is the archetype of the conventional
innovative organization, one which responds--often with great efficiency--to
changes it detects in its environment. The organization presupposes an
essentially prestructured environment and implicitly assumes that there is a
correct response to any condition it discovers there. By contrast, the
enacting organization is proactive and highly interpretive. Not only does it
respond to its environment, but also, in a fundamental way, it creates many of
the conditions to which it must respond. Daft and Weick describe enacting
organizations as follows:
These organizations construct their own environments. They gather
information by trying new behaviors and seeing what happens. They experiment,
test, and stimulate, and they ignore precedent, rules. and traditional
expectations (Daft and Weick 1984, p. 288),
Innovation, in this view, is not simply a response to empirical
observations of the environment. The source of innovation lies on the interface
between an organization and its environment. And the process of innovating
involves actively constructing a conceptual framework, imposing it on the
environment, and reflecting on their interaction. With few changes, this could
be a description of the activity of inventive, noncanonical groups, such as
Orr's reps, who similarly "ignore precedent, rules, and traditional
expectations" and break conventional boundaries. Like story telling, enacting
is a process of interpretive sense making and controlled change.
A brief example of enacting can be seen in the introduction of the IBM
Mag-I memory typewriter "as a new way of organizing office work" (Pava cited in
Barley 1988). In order to make sense and full use of the power of this
typewriter, the conditions in which it was to be used had to be reconceived.
In the old conception of office work, the potential of the machine could not be
realized. In a newly conceived understanding of office practice, however, the
machine could prove highly innovative. Though this new conception could not be
achieved without the new machine, the new machine could not be fully realized
without the conception. The two changes went along together. Neither is
wholly either cause or effect. Enacting organizations differ from discovering
ones in that in this reciprocal way, instead of waiting for changed practices
to emerge and responding, they enable them to emerge and anticipate their
Reregistering the environment is widely recognized as a powerful source of
innovation that moves organizations beyond the paradigms in which they begin
their analysis and within which, without such a reformation, they must
inevitably end it. This is the problem which Deetz and Kersten (1983) describe
as closure: "Many organizations fail because . . . closure prohibits adaptation
to current social conditions" (p. 166). Putnam (1983) argues that
closure-generating structures appear to be "fixtures that exist independent of
the processes that create and transform them" (p. 36). Interpretive or
enacting organizations, aware as they are that their environment is not a
given, can potentially adopt new viewpoints that allow them to see beyond the
closure-imposing boundary of a single world view.
The question remains, however, how is this reregistering brought about by
organizations that seem inescapably trapped within their own world view? We
are claiming that the actual noncanonical practices of interstitial communities
are continually developing new interpretations of the world because they have a
practical rather than formal connection to that world. (For a theoretical
account of the way practice drives change in world view, see Bloch 1977.) To
pursue our connection with the work of the reps, closure is the likely result
of rigid adherence to the reps' training and documentation and the formal
account of work that they encompass. In order to get on with their work, reps
overcome closure by reregistering their interpretation of the machine and its
ever changing milieu. Rejection of a canonical, predetermined view and the
construction through narration of an alternative view, such as Orr describes,
involve, at heart, the complex intuitive process of bringing the communicative,
community schema into harmony with the environment by reformulating both. The
potential of such innovation is, however, lost to an organization that remains
blind to noncanonical practice.
An enacting organization must also be capable of reconceiving not only its
environment but also its own identity, for in a significant sense the two are
mutually constitutive. Again, this reconceptualization is something that
people who develop noncanonical practices are continuously doing, forging their
own and their community's identity in their own terms so that they can break
out of the restrictive hold of the formal descriptions of practice. Enacting
organizations similarly regard both their environment and themselves as in some
sense unanalyzed and therefore malleable. They do not assume that there is an
ineluctable structure, a "right" answer, or a universal view to be discovered;
rather, they continually look for innovative ways to impose new structure, ask
new questions, develop a new view, become a new organization. By asking
different questions, by seeking different sorts of explanations, and by looking
from different points of view, different answers emerge--indeed different
environments and different organizations mutually reconstitute each other
dialectically or reciprocally. Daft and Weick (1984) argue, the interpretation
can shape the environment more than the environment shapes the interpretation"
Carlson's attempts to interest people in the idea of dry
photocopying--xerography-provide an example of organizational tendencies to
resist enacting innovation. Carlson and the Batelle Institute, which backed
his research, approached most of the major innovative corporations of the
time-RCA, IBM, A.B. Dick, Kodak. All turned down the idea of a dry copier.
They did not reject a flawed machine. Indeed, they all agreed that it worked.
But they rejected the concept of an office copier. They could see no use for
it. Even when Haloid bought the patent, the marketing firms they hired
consistently reported that the new device had no role in office practice
(Dessauer 1971). In some sense it was necessary both for Haloid to reconceive
itself (as Xerox) and for Xerox's machine to help bring about a
reconceptualization of an area of office practice for the new machine to be put
into manufacture and use.
What the evaluations saw was that an expensive machine was not needed to
make a record copy of original documents. For the most part, carbon paper
already did that admirably and cheaply. What they failed to see was that a
copier allowed the proliferation of copies and of copies of copies. The
quantitative leap in copies and their importance independent of the original
then produced a qualitative leap in the way they were used. They no longer
served merely as records of an original. Instead, they participated in the
productive interactions of organizations' members in a unprecedented way. (See
Latour's (1986) description of the organizational role of "immutable mobiles.")
Only in use in the office, enabling and enhancing new forms of work, did the
copier forge the conceptual lenses under which its value became
It is this process of seeing the world anew that allows organizations
reciprocally to see themselves anew and to overcome discontinuities in their
environment and their structure. As von Hippel (1988), Barley (1988), and
others point out, innovating is not always radical. Incremental improvements
occur throughout an innovative organization. Enacting and innovating can be
conceived of as at root sense-making, congruence-seeking, identity-building
activities of the sort engaged in by the reps. Innovating and learning in
daily activity lie at one end of a continuum of innovating practices that
stretches to radical innovation cultivated in research laboratories at the far
Alternative world views, then, do not lie in the laboratory or strategic
planning office alone, condemning everyone else in the organization to submit
to a unitary culture. Alternatives are inevitably distributed throughout all
the different communities that make up the organization. For it is the
organization's communities, at all levels, who are in contact with the
environment and involved in interpretive sense making, congruence finding, and
adapting. It is from any site of such interactions that new insights can be
coproduced. If an organizational core overlooks or curtails the enacting in
its midst by ignoring or disrupting its communities-of-practice, it threatens
its own survival in two ways. It will not only threaten to destroy the very
working and learning practices by which it, knowingly or unknowingly, survives.
It will also cut itself off from a major source of potential innovation that
inevitably arises in the course of that working and learning.
Organizations as Communities-of-Communities
The complex of contradictory forces that put an organization's assumptions
and core beliefs in direct conflict with members' working, learning, and
innovating arises from a thorough misunderstanding of what working, learning,
and innovating are. As a result of such misunderstandings, many modern
processes and technologies, particularly those designed to downskill, threaten
the robust working, learning, and innovating communities and practice of the
workplace. Between Braverman's (1974) pessimistic view and Adler's (1987)
optimistic one, lies Barley's (1988) complex argument, pointing out that the
intent to downskill does not necessarily lead to downskilling (as Orr's reps
show). But the intent to downskill may first drive noncanonical practice and
communities yet further underground so that the insights gained through work
are more completely hidden from the organization as a whole. Then later
changes or reorganizations, whether or not intended to downskill, may disrupt
what they do not notice. The gap between espoused and actual practice may
become too large for noncanonical practices to bridge.
To foster working, learning, and innovating, an organization must close
that gap. To do so, it needs to reconceive of itself as a
community-of-communities, acknowledging in the process the many noncanonical
communities in its midst. It must see beyond its canonical abstractions of
practice to the rich, full-blooded activities themselves. And it must
legitimize and support the myriad enacting activities perpetrated by its
different members. This support cannot be intrusive, or it risks merely
bringing potential innovators under the restrictive influence of the existing
canonical view. Rather, as others have argued (Nystrom and Starbuck 1984;
Hedberg 1981; Schein 1990) communities-of-practice must be allowed some
latitude to shake themselves free of received wisdom.
A major entailment of this argument may be quite surprising. Conventional
wisdom tends to hold that large organizations are particularly poor at
innovating and adapting. Tushman and Anderson (1988), for example, argue
justifiably that the typical, large organization is unlikely to produce
discontinuous innovation. But size may not be the single determining feature
here. Large, atypical, enacting organizations have the potential to be
highly innovative and adaptive. Within an organization perceived as a
collective of communities, not simply of individuals, in which enacting
experiments are legitimate, separate community perspectives can be amplified by
interchanges among communities. Out of this friction of competing ideas can
come the sort of improvisational sparks necessary for igniting organizational
innovation. Thus large organizations, reflectively structured, are
perhaps particularly well positioned to be highly innovative and to deal with
discontinuities. If their internal communities have a reasonable degree of
autonomy and independence from the dominant world view, large organizations
might actually accelerate innovation. Such organizations are uniquely
positioned to generate innovative discontinuities incrementally, thereby
diminishing the disruptiveness of the periodic radical reorganization that
Nadler calls "frame breaking" (Nadler 1988). This occurs when conventional
organizations swing wholesale from one paradigm to another (see also Bartunek
1984). An organization whose core is aware that it is the synergistic
aggregate of agile, semiautonomous, self-constituting communities and not a
brittle monolith is likely to be capable of extensible "frame bending" well
beyond conventional breaking point.
The important interplay of separate communities with independent (though
interrelated) world views may in part account for von Hippel's (1988) account
of the sources of innovation and other descriptions of the innovative nature of
business alliances. Von Hippel argues that sources of innovation can lie
outside an organization among its customers and suppliers. Emergent
communities of the sort we have outlined that span the boundaries of an
organization would then seem a likely conduit of external and innovative views
into an organization. Similarly, the alliances Powell describes bring together
different organizations with different interpretive schemes so that the
composite group they make up has several enacting options to choose from.
Because the separate communities enter as independent members of an alliance
rather than as members of a rigid hierarchy, the alternative conceptual
viewpoints are presumably legitimate and do not get hidden from the core.
There is no concealed noncanonical practice where there is no concealing
The means to harness innovative energy in any enacting organization or
alliance must ultimately be considered in the design of organizational
architecture and the ways communities are linked to each other. This
architecture should preserve and enhance the healthy autonomy of communities,
while simultaneously building an interconnectedness through which to
disseminate the results of separate communities' experiments. In some form or
another the stories that support learning-in-working and innovation should be
allowed to circulate. The technological potential to support this
distribution--e-mail, bulletin boards, and other devices that are capable of
supporting narrative exchanges--is available. But narratives, as we have
argued, are embedded in the social system in which they arise and are used.
They cannot simply be uprooted and repackaged for circulation without becoming
prey to exactly those problems that beset the old abstracted canonical
accounts. Moreover, information cannot be assumed to circulate freely just
because technology to support circulation is available (Feldman and March
1981). Eckert (1989), for instance, argues that information travels
differently within different socio-economic groups. Organizational assumptions
that given the "right" medium people will exchange information freely overlook
the way in which certain socio-economic groups, organizations, and in
particular, corporations, implicitly treat information as a commodity to be
hoarded and exchanged. Working-class groups, Eckert contends, do pass
information freely and Orr (1990a) notes that the reps are remarkably open with
each other about what they know. Within these communities, news travels fast;
community knowledge is readily available to community members. But these
communities must function within corporations that treat information as a
commodity and that have superior bargaining power in negotiating the terms of
exchange. In such unequal conditions, internal communities cannot reasonably
be expected to surrender their knowledge freely.
As we have been arguing throughout, to understand the way information is
constructed and travels within an organization, it is first necessary to
understand the different communities that are formed within it and the
distribution of power among them. Conceptual reorganization to accommodate
learning-in-working and innovation, then, must stretch from the level of
individual communities-of-practice and the technology and practices used there
to the level of the overarching organizational architecture, the
It has been our unstated assumption that a unified understanding of
working, learning, and innovating is potentially highly beneficial, allowing,
it seems likely, a synergistic collaboration rather than a conflicting
separation among workers, learners, and innovators. But similarly, we have left
unstated the companion assumption that attempts to foster such synergy through
a conceptual reorganization will produce enormous difficulties from the
perspective of the conventional workplace, Work and learning are set out in
formal descriptions so that people (and organizations) can be held accountable;
groups are organized to define responsibility; organizations are bounded to
enhance concepts of competition; peripheries are closed off to maintain secrecy
and privacy. Changing the way these things are arranged will produce problems
as well as benefits. An examination of both problems and benefits has been
left out of this paper, whose single purpose has been to show where constraints
and resources lie, rather than the rewards and costs of deploying them. Our
argument is simply that for working, learning, and innovating to thrive
collectively depends on linking these three, in theory and in practice, more
closely, more realistically, and more reflectively than is generally the case
This paper was written at the Institute for Research on Learning with the
invaluable help of many of our colleagues. in particular Jean Lave, Julian Orr,
and Etienne Wenger, whose work, with that of Daft and Weick, provides the
canonical texts on which we based our commentary.
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For a historical overview of anthropology
of the workplace. see Burawoy (1979).
Not all the blame should be laid on the
manager's desk. As several anthropologists, including Suchman (1987a) and
Bourdieu (1977) point out, "informants" often describe their jobs in canonical
terms though they carry them out in noncanonical ways. Lave (1988) argues that
informants, like most people in our society, tend to privilege abstract
knowledge. Thus they describe their actions in its terms.