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Reading :: From Teams to Knots

Posted by: on May 20, 2008 | No Comments

From Teams to Knots: Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work
By Yrjo Engestrom

Yrjo Engestrom is, of course, well known for his work in developing activity theory via theorization and empirical cases. I’ve reviewed several of his pieces on this blog as I’ve worked through my own thoughts on AT and my own studies. When I found out that he was publishing a new book with Cambridge University Press this year, I immediately preordered it and waited for it with anticipation — and dread.

The anticipation came, of course, from the fact that Engestrom is such a leading thinker in AT and produces both theoretical constructs and empirical research with expertise. The dread comes from the fact that I had just sent the final manuscript for my upcoming book, Network, to Cambridge UP. Network is my own attempt to theorize (and criticize) AT by putting it into dialogue with actor-network theory via a study of a telecommunications company. It also seeks to develop AT to better address knowledge work. And it discusses and (gently, I think) criticizes Engestrom’s own attempts along these lines. So while one part of me was eager to see how Engestrom has developed his work, another part of me worried that his new book would make mine outdated before it could even be published.

I’m happy to report that Network is still relevant — and that Engestrom’s From Teams to Knots is a new essential text for activity theorists.

Engestrom’s book revolves around the question of how to understand, study, and theorize collaborative work and collaborative learning in knowledge work. The book is based on the many articles and conference presentations published by Engestrom and his research teams over the last few years, and almost every chapter is firmly grounded in empirical work. (One partial exception is Chapter 9, the bulk of which involves the analysis of a Tony Hillerman novel.) As Engestrom moves through the chapters, he moves away from the notion of teams and towards the notion of knots, “rapidly pulsating, distributed, and partially improvised orchestration of collaborative performance between otherwise loosely connected actors and activity systems” (p.194). He persuasively argues that this form of collaboration has become more prevalent than traditional teams due to ongoing changes in organizations, particularly the phenomenon of co-configuration (in which products adapt to customers, supported by ongoing conversations between customer-product pairs and the company) (p.195).

To deal with such changes, Engestrom develops some elements of activity theory.

One example is that of “runaway objects,” partially-shared large-scale object(ive)s that bind together multiorganizational, multiactivity fields and that “require new forms of distributed and coordinated agency” (p.208).

Another example is that of mycorrhizae, or subterranean, “horizontal and multidirectional connections in human lives” (p.228), something that is “simultaneously a living, expanding process (or bundle of developing connections) and a relatively durable, stabilized structure; both a mental landscape or mindscape (Zerubavel, 1997) and a material infrastructure” (p.229). Engestrom characterizes this concept as used “in the same general sense” as Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome (p.228). However, Engestrom tends to fixate on the metaphor here (mycorrhizae as the “invisible organic texture underneath visible fungi” vs. rhizome as “a horizontal underground stem,” p.228) rather than the theoretical concept that underlies the metaphor. Consequently, Engestrom reads Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of rhizome as developmental and substitutes his own as a more developed and empirically grounded developmental account.

And this is where I breathed a little, selfish sigh of relief. Engestrom’s work here is definitely important and useful work, and I plan to use these theoretical constructs in my future work. But one of the criticisms of AT that I make in Network is that activity theorists tend to focus on development to the exclusion of the sort of antigenealogical splicing that is described in Deleuze and Guattari and in actor-network theory. Here, Engestrom continues that path by taking development — or weaving, to use the term I coin in Network — as the central feature to investigate. So, although I really wish I had been able to read this book beforehand and incorporate its concepts into my own manuscript, I still think Network will have a contribution to make after all.

But enough about me. If you are at all interested in AT, you really should pick up From Teams to Knots. It develops AT in solid ways and backs the work up with solid case studies.

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