Spinuzzi offers for the first time a comprehensive framework for understanding how these new groups function and thrive. His rigorous analysis tackles both the pros and cons of this evolving workflow and is based in case studies of real all-edge adhocracies at work. His provocative results will challenge our long-held assumptions about how we should be doing work.
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Inside the New Workplace Networks
By Clay Spinuzzi
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Becoming All Edge
Maas was small, fast, ruthless. An atavism. Maas was all Edge.
GIBSON (1986, p. 114)
In this quote from William Gibson's short story "New Rose Hotel," a character describes Maas Biolabs, a multinational corporation focused on research. Unlike other multinationals, Maas was stripped down to its essentials, composed of a small core of specialists, forming a "small, fast, ruthless" organization. "Edge" referred not just to the intellectual edge of Maas's specialists but also to the high-speed links that they could form with each other in order to swarm and innovatively address unique problems.
Such an organization was thinkable in 1986, when Gibson published Burning Chrome. In fact, it was thinkable even in 1970, when Alvin Toffler described such organizations in Future Shock as "adhocracies": rotating teams of specialists who could come together to swarm a project, disperse at the end of it, and re-form in a different configuration for the next project. But such organizations are now more than just thinkable, they are becoming commonplace. And their "edge" is their ability to form links both inside and outside an organization.
That is, this edge comes not through sheer ruthlessness and extreme talent, as in Maas's case, but through something much more ordinary and accessible: changes in how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with others. It's a function of communication changes that we have noted and theorized in fields such as business and technical communication (e.g., Dicks 2010; Spinuzzi 2007, 2009; Swarts & Kim 2009), computer-supported cooperative work (e.g., Czarniawska 2013; Kolfschoten, Herrmann & Lukosch 2013), and communication (e.g., Castells 2003, 2009; Rainie & Wellman 2012). But as we'll see, these changes have far-reaching effects on how we organize our work and ourselves, how we live and think, and how we interact with others.
We often tend to think of organizations as having an edge and an interior. The interior is where the real work happens—inside the hierarchy, inside the offices and bullpens, inside the factory, inside the company's databases and records, away from customers, clients, and partners. Those outsiders come in contact with the edge of the organization, its interface: marketing and advertising, customer service, liaisons, spokespeople, interface designers, and technical communicators. But that distinction between interior and edge has more to do with the historical limitations and costs of information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially texts, than it does with a necessary division of organization. When ICTs are slow and costly, it's more efficient to limit the edge and create an interior, restricting forms of communication via a hierarchy. In fact, that's the environment in which many of our business and technical communication genres developed (e.g., Jakobs & Spinuzzi 2014; Yates 1989). But when ICTs are rapid and cheap, the picture changes. Put a phone in everyone's pocket, a mobile computer in everyone's bag, and you have the potential for an organization to become all edge: able to rapidly link across organizational boundaries, combine into temporary work groups, swarm a project with a team of specialists, and disperse at the end of the project, often to re-form in a different configuration, with some different members, for the next project.
We don't all work that way right now, and it's likely that most organizations will not become purely all edge. But many will, and many others will be overlaid with all-edge capabilities, due to these changes in ICTs. Many of us do have a mobile phone in our pocket and a tablet in our bag; we can instantly pull information off the Internet; we're more likely to Google for answers than open a software manual (cf. Novick, Elizalde & Bean 2007); we spend considerable and increasing amounts of time on social networking sites. We can videoconference; many of us can do our work on laptops in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and airports. We can, and do, read and write constantly in a remarkable range of genres and media. And these capabilities have changed how we work together: how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate; how we define our work, our projects, and our products; how we set our goals and objectives; how we manage our time; how we learn on and off the job; how we trust—and doubt—each other.
This change has had remarkable effects on how we organize ourselves. In the twentieth century, we were all about hierarchies. We built bureaucracies to command and control our work; we established specific relationships and regulations and channels; we created training programs and operations manuals and forms so that we could nail down and regulate our work, our relations, our communications. Communicating across a large organization was so difficult and expensive that we reduced the communication channels, forcing people to go through the proper channels to communicate. We did everything we could to make work generic, routine, so that we could train people to do it quickly and produce similar results. And as we made it generic, we made it exportable: once work was reduced to a program, we could train a new worker, or a worker overseas, or (increasingly) a machine to do that work. Bureaucratic hierarchies have shaped much of what we do, and they certainly have shaped how we think about business and technical communication.
Such bureaucratic hierarchies have their place, and probably always will. But for an increasing number of jobs, bureaucratic hierarchies simply don't cut it. They're too rigid, too inflexible, too focused on protocol, too unconnected and clumsy. They don't respond well to rapid change. They don't innovate well. They don't allow strong cross-connections across different parts of the organization. In fact, they emphasize hierarchy too much, walling off agents that have to coordinate with each other across departments, specializations, companies, and locations. Bureaucratic hierarchies sharply limit the organization's edge.
Near the end of the twentieth century, and accelerating during the first decade of this century, we have begun to see less bureaucratic, more agile ways for people to connect—ways that expand that edge, putting nearly everyone on the organization's edge (cf. Spinuzzi 2008). These adhocracies are loose, spontaneously forming, often temporary arrangements that reach across an organization. Adhocracies are less stable than bureaucracies, but they aren't (necessarily) chaotic either, and in fact we're seeing some remarkably intricate, connected work structures emerge. They're certainly not the bureaucratic hierarchies that dominated so much of the previous century. They're more connected, more flexible, more open. They're temporary and interdependent. They excel at creativity and innovation—although they don't do as well at producing reliable, predictable outcomes. Adhocracies ignore the old borders between organizations, between disciplines, between locations, between work and leisure and family. They are enabled by new ICTs, certainly, but they also represent a different kind of work with different values and principles. They aren't based on hierarchies; they're based on networks that simply route around these old borders, creating new capabilities and new characteristics of work.
Moreover, these adhocracies are increasingly all edge, temporarily connecting specialists across organizations rather than just within an organization. They form briefly around a defined project, swarming it, then dispersing once it's completed. They change composition. They communicate, coordinate, and collaborate constantly, usually through digital information technologies. And they bring a level of flexibility, agility, and innovation that is unmatched by institutional hierarchies.
Such organizations quickly made the leap from Toffler's futurism to Gibson's cyberpunk to real life. We read about them in books such as The Starfish and the Spider (Brafman & Beckstrom 2008), Smart Mobs (Rheingold 2003), and Networked (Rainie & Wellman 2012). Yes, digital ICTs change the way we relate. But how? What shapes do these all-edge adhocracies take?
That's what I address in this book. Instead of speaking in general terms, I examine real incidents, in real organizations, talking to real people, demonstrating real changes in how people work. I look closely at all-edge adhocracies, comparing them and speculating on how they'll develop in the future.
Throughout the book, I present case studies of all-edge adhocracies in creative fields focused on communication and design, since we are seeing the most movement in those fields (for reasons that I discuss in chapter 2). I specifically examine them in terms of technical communication, although I discuss other aspects of the work as well. These case studies are set in Austin, Texas, a rapidly changing city whose economy has been rated the number one metropolitan economy in the United States, leading in the creation of middleclass jobs (see Barr 2013, Kotkin 2013a, 2013b; Olivieri 2013). But the changes represented in these case studies are happening across fields and sectors as work becomes more informated (Zuboff 1988), so I also touch on how all-edge adhocracies are moving into other fields (such as software development, health care, entertainment, administration, international development, and the enterprise) and into the public sphere (in areas such as parenting and growing up, politics, disaster recovery, and warfare).
In the remainder of this chapter, I first discuss what I mean by communicate, coordinate, and collaborate. Then I discuss how changes in information technology have opened up—and required—new ways to organize our activities. Finally, I preview the rest of this book.
Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration
The terms communication, coordination, and collaboration are often used broadly. Here, I follow Clarence A. Ellis, Simon J. Gibbs, and Gail L. Rein (1991) by understanding them in broad terms related to computer-supported cooperative work.
By communication I mean the act of transferring information from one person or group to another—broadly speaking. That information can be highly abstract, such as a mathematical formula, or highly concrete, such as a face-to-face demonstration in an apprenticeship. It can be highly codified, such as the Internet protocols that allow digital communication, or highly uncodified, such as face-to-face communications over Skype (see Boisot, Nordberg, Yami & Nicquevert 1991). It can be synchronous, such as a telephone call, or asynchronous, such as a message left in a time capsule. It can be textual, like an e-mail, or nontextual, like flashing one's headlights at oncoming cars to warn them of a speed trap. And it can be directed, like a telephone call, or ambient, like signage.
Communication encompasses business and technical communication, and throughout this book, I specifically look at examples of textual communication that can be classified under that heading. But I also discuss examples that go beyond the familiar business and technical communication genres, examples that respond to changes in ICTs and organization.
By coordination I mean the act of meshing our efforts with those of other people in the same or connected activities: ordering and integrating them so that they build on each other rather than conflicting. As Ellis et al. put it, "Coordination can be viewed as an activity in itself, as a necessary overhead when several parties are performing a task" (1991, p. 40). Coordination requires communication. We coordinate when we wave another car on at a four-way stop, when we set an appointment with someone, and when we set a completion date on a project we're trying to achieve with (or for) other parties.
Collaboration involves working with others toward a shared objective (Ellis et al. 1991, p. 40), particularly when bringing different kinds of expertise to bear (see Sherlock 2009; Swarts 2000). As Charles Heckscher puts it, collaboration involves "a shared objective that cannot be reached without the contribution of all. Thus it necessarily implies processes of dialogue and negotiation, of exchanges of views and sharing of information, of building from individual views toward a shared consensus" (2007, p. 2). When we work together with others to define a project objective, when we develop a shared understanding of a problem, and when we find ways to make sure that everyone gains an advantage from our shared work, we are collaborating.
Notice that although collaboration and coordination often go together, they don't always. I might collaborate with someone else on a project by doing what I think is my part but without coordinating with him or her to make sure that our efforts mesh. I might coordinate with someone (say, by waving them on at a four-way stop) but without meaningfully engaging in a shared, mutually defined activity. But collaboration and coordination both involve the necessary substrate of communication.
So it shouldn't be surprising that collaboration and coordination have changed radically as we have learned new ways to communicate. As we develop and learn to use new ICTs, we open new possibilities for coordination and collaboration. New ICTs create additional communication channels, allowing us to coordinate and collaborate across broader swathes of time, location, and activity. These new opportunities create new needs for coordination: for ordering and integrating our actions, especially when we don't entirely understand each other's specialties. They also create new needs for collaboration: for pulling others into shared, mutually defined objectives. Each time a new ICT is introduced, it presents the possibility for fundamentally changing our work.
ICTs and Writing: A Historical Sketch
In 1870, 20 percent of the people in the United States above the age of fourteen were illiterate—unable to read or write in any language. By 1979, that number dropped to only 0.6 percent (Snyder 1993). The CIA World Factbook similarly estimated that 99 percent of the US population was literate in 2003 (CIA 2013). That is, about 99 of every 100 people in the United States can read and write to some extent. And we do—everywhere: from professional documents to shopping lists to bathroom walls.
It's hard to overstate how extraordinary that fact is. For about 98 percent of human history, writing didn't even exist. And until very recently, writing was an elite and rare skill, practiced by a tiny percentage of the population.
Writing is our most protean tool, fundamentally changing how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate. But those changes aren't uniform: different information and communication technologies inflect writing in different ways, creating new possibilities and affordances, and sometimes nudging people in unexpected directions.
Before writing, communication, coordination, and collaboration looked very different. Our ancestors tended to live in smaller preagricultural communities, simple societies with low population density (Fried 1967). These societies were often nomadic. In those societies, they mostly communicated face-to-face. Although they had developed symbolic artifacts such as art and some rudimentary counters (possibly calendars; see Schmandt-Besserat 1992, 1997), these were context bound, not generally meant to communicate with others outside a limited context. It was not until prewriting—which included symbolic systems such as hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, and counters—that human beings were able to communicate beyond these contexts.
Our ancestors were able to count, but only through correspondence counting, which was concrete rather than abstract: they might match a counted item (say, a sheep) with a counter (say, a pebble), but they had not yet separated the number from the counter. That is, if a herdsman had five sheep, he would match each sheep to a pebble: "sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep." He didn't think of the number as an abstract concept to apply to different kinds of items: "five sheep, five pebbles, five goats."
That system was adequate for small, simple societies that did not practice mass agriculture, especially nomadic societies. But eventually people stopped moving from place to place and started banding together to grow things. And when that happened, their information needs changed.
THE BIRTH OF WRITING
We are used to thinking of writing as a basic and incredibly useful kind of information. So it might be surprising to realize that writing, by some accounts, has been invented only three times in the history of the human race: in Mesopotamia (circa 3200 BCE), in China (about 1250 BCE), and in Mesoamerica (about 650 BCE; Schmandt-Besserat and Erard 2008). As Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Michael Erard emphasize, writing is neither intuitive nor common: "the cognitive steps that led from logography to numerals and phonograms occurred only once in Mesopotamia" (pp. 13–15), and similarly the alphabet was invented only once (p. 15).
Let's look at the first invention of writing, the one that underpins all Western writing systems. According to Schmandt-Besserat (1997), it came in three stages. First, people began using tallies—such as notches in pieces of bone—somewhere between 30,000 and 12,000 BCE (p. 98). These tallies likely helped them record time (p. 101).
Excerpted from All Edge by Clay Spinuzzi. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Becoming All Edge
2 What Are All-Edge Adhocracies?
3 Stage Management: The Case of Nonemployer Firms
4 The Foundation of All-Edge Adhocracies: Organizational Networks
5 Working Alone, Together: The Case of Coworking
6 The Dynamic Structure of All-Edge Adhocracies: Activities
7 Lone Wolves: The Case of Search Engine Optimization
8 The Configurations of All-Edge Adhocracies: Hierarchies, Markets, Clans, and Networks
9 The Work of All-Edge Adhocracies: The Three Integrations
10 The Future of All-Edge Adhocracies