Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations

Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations

Now available in print and Kindle editions!

Topsight—the overall understanding of the big picture—is hard to achieve in organizations. There’s too much going on, too many moving pieces. But without topsight, we have a hard time figuring out how information circulates, where it gets stuck, and how we can get it unstuck.

In Blog

Writing :: Toward a typology of activities

Posted by: on Aug 27, 2014 | No Comments

Spinuzzi, C. (2015, in press). Toward a typology of activities: Understanding internal contradictions in multiperspectival activities. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 29.1. 

Here’s another entry in my series on writing publications. As I began to write this post, I realized that this is the fifth paper I have authored or coauthored with “toward” in the title. Apparently I am always working toward things.

In a lot of ways, the writing process for this article was very similar to that of “Losing by Expanding.” For both articles, I had been thinking about and reading sources for a long while, trying to gain a better understanding of some phenomenon that bothered me. For both, I was trying to work toward a different publication, but had to solve the theoretical problem at hand first—the publications were basically byproducts of the larger research arc. And for both, I had to get out a big tabletop-sized piece of paper to figure out what was going on.

One other similarity: Although both articles represented a lot of reading and thinking, when it came time to write them, they both came together rather quickly.

Thinking through the literature
The specific literature I had been chewing over was that of organizational typologies. I’ve been intrigued by TIMN since 2007, and have expanded to investigate various others, but I’ve also been mindful of criticisms of organizational typologies—particularly the question of whether the axes of a given typology, which are selected a priori, can say much about a specific organization.

I had also struggled to figure out how to reconcile this work with activity theory, which examines human activities rather than organizations. Historically, activity theory has not done much to distinguish between types of activities, instead emphasizing the uniqueness and situatedness of each activity (just as Schein does with organizations). There are some exceptions, but these are inconsistently applied and do not seem to converge on a single principle.

Such a principle is needed, I think. We intuitively realize that some activities are similar (say, judging in Finnish and California courtrooms), while others are less similar (say, courtrooms vs. World of Warcraft gaming). But activity theory-based studies have emphasized uniqueness, making it difficult to compare cases.

Solving the problem
When writing my most recent book, All Edge (which will be published two months later than the print version of this article), I tried a few ways around this question. After all, I was talking about a distinct kind of work organization, so I really needed a way to type organizations so that I could contrast the emergent work organization of all-edge adhocracies with other forms of work organization. And, of course, I wanted to do this in terms of activity theory.

I tried several things. One was to treat typologies as theoretically distinct from activities, but that approach seemed incoherent; the analytical framework has to talk to the theoretical one. Another was to survey what others had said and not take a stand—but, again, that didn’t do enough work. A third was to try to force a theoretical connection. Writing this part of the book, frankly, was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole.

Eventually, I realized that I was too fixated on the quadrants—the types of organizations I was trying to describe. For a typology to be useful, it has to grow from the analytic distinction that one is trying to examine. Here is where the a priori nature of a typology can actually do work: by deepening the already a priori work started by the theoretical framework. In concrete terms, that meant determining what activity theory principles could productively be represented by the axes to yield interesting distinctions.

Once it was framed in that way, the answer was obvious—in fact, it was right there in “Losing by Expanding.” The “seed” of an activity system is the object, the thing that the activity cyclically transforms. So my new typology asked:

  • How is the object defined? Is it defined explicitly and deductively or tacitly and inductively?
  • Where is the object defined? Is it defined within the activity’s division of labor or outside it?
Lo and behold, the two axes yielded four quadrants that were reasonably similar to those of organizational typologies. But since the typology was grounded in the object of the activity, it allowed me to coherently connect theory with typology. 
Of course, the problem wasn’t completely solved. As I pointed out in “Losing by Expanding,” the object is multiperspectival. Two people may perceive the same work object in very different ways, and those perceptions may drive them to embrace different configurations of activities—configurations that could contradict each other. But the typology I had developed, I reasoned, could be used to characterize these contradictions as well.
I used the basic argument in All Edge to characterize the cases I discussed in that book. But I recognized that the typology could also be used to characterize other activity theory-based studies in professional writing research. From there, it was an easy step to select four representative cases and apply the typology. 
Getting it published
When I sent the first version of the article off to JBTC—which, in retrospect, seems to be where I send most of my AT theory pieces—I included an additional hook: I argued that the typology could be used to anchor a meta-analysis of AT studies. The reviewers didn’t buy this, and probably for good reason. Although the typology can help to characterize activities, I haven’t done the work to connect it to the principled distinctions that would have to underpin a meta-analysis. I overreached, and it damaged my ethos with the reviewers. 
Fortunately, I could remove that argument without doing violence to the piece, and the other comments were easy enough to implement. The article was accepted in October 2013—and slated for the January 2015 issue. This long wait time is probably due to the popularity of the venue (JBTC). For that reason, I’m in the odd situation of having my articles published in a very different order from their writing—this article was accepted before I began serious work on coauthoring “Making the Pitch,” but that article was published first.  
Lessons learned
“Typology” was frustrating for a long time, up until the point that it got easy. It’s a good example of how theory pieces often have very long gestation times, then assemble themselves quickly once the final puzzle is solved. 
As you can see from the other links above, it’s also a good example of how different parts of a research arc can talk to each other. The theoretical problem really did arise from trying to characterize three distinct workplace studies, and it really did connect strongly (once I realized the connection) to my last major theory piece. Like so many of the articles I’ve been publishing lately, this one is a mid-career piece that can take advantage of the research arc I’ve traced up to now. 
Anyway, take a look and see what you think. The print version will be out in January, but the online-first version is up—and it’s citable. 
In Blog

Writing :: Making the Pitch

Posted by: on Aug 15, 2014 | No Comments

Spinuzzi, C., Nelson, S., Thomson, K.S., Lorenzini, F., French, R.A., Pogue, G., Burback, S.D., & Momberger, J. (2014, in press). Making the pitch: Examining dialogue and revisions in entrepreneurs’ pitch decks. IEEE Transactions in Professional Communication 57(3).

Here’s another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article had a very fast turnaround: we were told in June that if we could revise according to editor comments, it could be published by December. But when we received the proofs, the date said September, and as you can see, the early access version is already up. 

You’ll also see that the paper has eight coauthors. I rarely write with teams this big. Although it’s rewarding, it’s also difficult to manage. But in this case, it was worth it: different members of the team handled collecting, coding, analyzing, access, and the other functions, and all had input into the final article. Special mention goes to Scott Nelson, a graduate student in the English department who open-coded the documents, then flew to South Korea to videorecord pitches and conduct interviews. (Scott’s currently working on his dissertation about the pitch and related genres.)

So what can I tell you about the writing process? For me, this was a difficult paper because (a) it put text analysis front and center, and that’s not the sort of analysis I usually conduct; (b) it was situated in a complex activity in which I don’t have much prior experience; and (c) I had to figure out how to handle the issue of cultural differences.

When in doubt, segment
Re (a), we decided early on to segment our investigation, starting with the vast archives that IC2 keeps of pitch documents. Given our level of expertise, we decided to approach the project inductively, using open coding to investigate a relatively small subset of documents (applications, initial pitch decks, final pitch decks, comments on initial pitch decks, and technology commercialization reports). This analysis really is just the tip of the iceberg, but it provided us with a way to develop our understanding of the activity and the vocabulary we would have to use. In fact, we split this paper twice: once when we realized that we had to narrow the scope to focus on the archives, and again when we further narrowed it to focus on claims and evidence.

This is where the long view is helpful. Yes, I wanted to fold in the totality of our evidence, including observations of the process, observations of pitches, and interviews of multiple players. But there was no practical way to do that within one article. By segmenting the investigation, we could get traction on this piece—while working on other segments in the background.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when you write up research, you have to be conscious of your research arc. That was certainly true here: this segment of the research should constitute just one part of a research arc that encompasses other articles on the same topic.

When the activity is complicated, read and backchannel
The phenomenon we were studying, pitching, is inherently interdisciplinary. So we faced the challenge of trying to learn a little about a lot of different fields and a lot about business pitching. Along the way, we learned a lot about the workarounds and local innovations that make a complex program work. Much of that background knowledge doesn’t explicitly make it into the paper, but all of it impacted how we interpreted and coded the data.

Fortunately, we built in feedback mechanisms along the way, from formal surveys to informal face-to-face contacts to member checks. These were vital for getting our arms around what turned out to be an enormous amount of tacit knowledge—not just knowledge about this specific multiyear program, but also knowledge about business, marketing, and hard-to-pin-down concepts such as the value proposition. The last three authors were particularly helpful here, since they were well steeped in this world.

At the same time, to better understand this background, I found myself reading a procession of books and articles on marketing, innovation, diffusion, and related concepts. The books should sound familiar if you’ve been reading this blog.

When faced with cultural differences, be cautious
The program we investigated attempts to teach small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Korea how to enter global markets, particularly but not exclusively the United States. In practice, this means that an innovator (someone who, say, invents a new technology) needs to learn how to commercialize that technology (i.e., identify a good application for it and a set of stakeholders who require that application) in a different market. As our informants told us, these SMEs face a lot of barriers: How does an innovator learn to be an entrepreneur? How does someone talk to potential stakeholders in another culture? How does someone in a protected “fast follower” economy learn how to address the requirements of a relatively unprotected economy? How does someone whose economy is dominated by a few family corporations (chaebol) get her or his head around an economy with multiple players?

Faced with these questions, it’s easy to reduce these questions to “cultural differences,” e.g., characterizing the US as a market culture and South Korea as a clan culture (cf. Ouchi). I briefly started down this path before realizing that many of these questions were not related to national culture at all. An innovator in the US, such as a physicist in a university setting, will also have trouble figuring out how to commercialize a technology—and they do, which is why research universities in the US tend to have technology commercialization offices. A “fast follower” economy elsewhere in the world will not share South Korea’s cultural milieu, but may face many of the same barriers. And so on.

So, rather than reducing the differences to a vague and overarching culture clash, we focused on the specific issues that we could identify in this particular case.

Making the pitch
One last thing. In writing this paper, we were surprised at how little research there has been into how people develop their pitches. Most of the research we found focused on delivery. So we found ourselves reaching back into the document cycle literature as well as (naturally) the genre assemblage literature to better discuss distributed writing processes.

In doing this, we became sensitive to the fact that we also had to make a pitch—a pitch that identified a research hole and addressed how to fill it. Once we discovered the research hole (the lack of pitch process literature), we couldn’t believe how big it was. Now we get to fill it, and this article represents the first shovelful.

In Blog

(Vote for my SXSWi2015 reading!)

Posted by: on Aug 11, 2014 | No Comments

Longtime readers know that I go to SXSW every once in a while. It’s a great forum for discussing really interesting developments that affect all of us. For instance, in 2009, I discussed coworking. In 2011, I led a core conversation about distributed work. And in 2014 I talked about how liberal arts matter in a STEM world.

This year, I hope to continue that trend of appearing at SXSW—but this time, I want to read from and discuss my new book. In All Edge, I talk about coworking and distributed work, but also some of the long-term changes in how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate at work.

But to talk about All Edge at SXSWi, I need you to help. Click through to the SXSW Panel Picker and take a look at my entry. If it sounds good, please upvote me!

In Blog

Reading :: Distant Publics

Posted by: on Jul 10, 2014 | No Comments

Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis
By Jenny Rice

I finished this book a while back, but have only now eked out some time to review it. Here, Jenny Rice examines public discourse set around issues of development in my beloved hometown and the place where Jenny earned her PhD: Austin, Texas. She asks: “How do people argue, debate, and deliberate about the spaces where we live, work, shop, and travel?” And why does development proliferate even though it seems to be so broadly disliked? Her answer revolves around a figure, “the exceptional public subject,” who “occupies a precarious position between publicness and a withdrawal from publicness. It is a subjectivity thoroughly grounded in feeling, which makes this rhetorical position so difficult to change” (p.5). These “exceptional subjects imagine themselves to be part of a wider public simply by feeling” and “feeling too often serves as the primary connective tissue to our public spaces” (p.6). The fallout: “our habits of public discourse can paradoxically contribute to the demise of healthy public discourse” (p.5).

Rice develops this argument via various case studies (not in the Yin sense of an empirical research methodology, but rather in the sense of specific incidents that serve as epicenters for rhetorical analysis). These case studies are well developed, providing interesting and sometimes poignant narratives about development issues: urban (over)development as exemplified by strip malls and the Austin Smart Growth Initiative (Ch.1), eminent domain as illustrated by the Kelo decision (Ch.2), a fight over how a developer would affect Barton Springs and the aquifer (Ch.3), the demise of Austin’s beloved Armadillo World Headquarters (Ch.4), and the issue of East Austin gentrification (Ch.5). Each is compelling, and each illustrates different aspects of Rice’s argument about public spaces and the exceptional public subjects who feel for them—sometimes with too much affect, but too little effect.

What shall we do, then, about public discourse? In the next chapter, Rice argues that “we must pursue inquiry as a mode of publicness” (p.164). That is, we must stretch past the vernacular talk that tends to generate the exceptional public subject: as composition teachers, rather than asking students to write and argue about things that ignite their passions, perhaps we should ask them to inquire about things first, making inquiry the telos rather than the means by which students are expected to engage their passions (Ch.6, esp. p.168). By encouraging students to write about their passions, Rice says, we are training them to become exceptional public subjects who feel rather than acting; by making inquiry the object, we are training them to become engaged in public inquiry in which they learn how to interrogate the multiple asymmetrical networks in which they are enmeshed (pp.168-169).

Should you read this book? Of course! It’s outside my particular research focus, but I’m enmeshed in these multiple public networks and so are you. Take a look, even if you’re not specifically interested in public rhetoric and theory. And if you teach, consider taking Ch.6 in particular to heart.

In Blog

Reading :: Diffusion of Innovations, Fifth Edition

Posted by: on Jul 10, 2014 | No Comments

Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition
By Everett M. Rogers

In Bruno Latour’s discussions of science and technology, he often contrasts two models by which new innovations spread: diffusion and translation. Roughly, diffusion is seen as a process by which people take up an innovation “as is” and apply it unaltered. Translation is a process in which people adapt the innovation for their own contexts. That is, as Latour likes to say, there is no adoption without adaptation.

However, Latour is using a fairly crabbed understanding of what scholars mean by diffusion. In this thick and comprehensive book, Everett Rogers, whose name (according to the back cover) is “virtually synonymous with the study of the diffusion of innovations,” gives us a much broader understanding of diffusion research. He acknowledges that diffusion research has had a pro-innovation bias in which researchers coded adoption as positive and adaptation as bad (p.106), but he also notes that diffusion scholars have critiqued this bias since the 1970s (p.110) and says that now “diffusion scholars no longer assume that an innovation is ‘perfect’ for all potential adopters in solving their problems and meeting their needs” (p.115).

I start out with this example for two reasons. One is that it helps me—and, presumably, long-time readers—to situate this book in relationship to the science and technology studies (STS) scholarship with which my own field is familiar. The other is that it illustrates the key advantage of this book: it offers a broad, wide-ranging, and thorough overview of diffusion research, including its history, contributions, and criticisms (Ch.2-3) as well as how innovations are generated (Ch.4), how people decide whether to adopt/adapt an innovation (Ch.5), what innovation attributes affect adoption rates (Ch.6), categories of adopters (Ch.7), diffusion networks (Ch.8), change agents (Ch.9), innovation in organizations (Ch.10), and consequences of innovations—good and bad (Ch.11).

Throughout this massive discussion (471pp, not counting end matter), Rogers overviews the field of diffusion studies, provides illustrative case studies, discusses failures as well as successes, and even discusses and critiques some of his early conclusions that he believes should be revisited. He discusses how various fields and strands (including social construction of technology) have contributed to diffusion studies (although he doesn’t name-check Latour in particular). And he firmly connects this discussion to sociological studies and touchstones (he was trained as a rural sociologist).

Granted, I don’t know a lot about diffusion studies, but my impression is that this book provides a strong introduction to the field. If you’re studying innovations, diffusion, technology commercialization, or related concerns, please do pick it up.