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Writing :: How Nonemployer Firms Stage-Manage Ad-Hoc Collaboration

Posted by: on Jul 18, 2013 | No Comments

Spinuzzi, C. (2014, in press). How nonemployee firms stage-manage ad-hoc collaboration: An activity theory analysis. Technical Communication Quarterly

Here's another entry in my series on writing publications. This particular article hasn't even been typeset yet, but TCQ has posted its accepted author version, so I figure this might be a good time to discuss it. 

The article covers two interrelated studies of nonemployee firms (firms with no employees—such as freelancers and business partnerships) functioning in Austin. What really interested me was how they chose to present themselves to clients, typically as "we" instead of "I"—that is, as larger, more stable organizations. At the same time, on the back end, they had to scramble to assemble a unique set of subcontractors for each project. I use fourth-generation activity theory (4GAT) to analyze why they had to do this and how they accomplished it. It's an interesting story: interesting enough to stick with over the long haul, as I discuss below.

Like many of my publications, this one has a long history—and in fact the piece is definitely a midcareer piece for a few reasons.

I had the luxury of time. First, it's the result of an initial study that I started in July 2007. Yeah, that's five years ago. The length of time that it takes to get tenured. In fact, I originally tried to publish this study in 2010, but received a revise-and-resubmit. The reviewers thought the article was interesting, but that the study involved too few people and drew overbroad conclusions based on that small number. Reluctantly, I agreed. So, rather than trying to revise the paper or try my luck with another journal—which is what I might have done pre-tenure—I decided to be patient and run a second study with additional people. This choice added two more years to the process, since (a) it took a while to set up the study, (b) I began my coworking study at around the same time, and (c) the above was happening at about the same time that I was working through some theoretical issues with activity theory

This brings us to the second reason why this article reflects a midcareer orientation.

I followed my research arc. Yes, people at the beginning of their careers have a research arc too. But post-tenure, you have more flexibility to follow an arc across more projects because the pressure to publish has lessened. Before tenure, my research arc was defined mainly by my two book projects, the one I published for tenure and the one I planned to publish after tenure. About the time I sent my second book off to the publisher, I decided to start a series of studies exploring loosely organized, distributed work, along with some theory to better understand this phenomenon. You can see my 2007 introduction to the TCQ special issue on distributed work as a sort of precis. From there, I studied freelancers (in "How nonemployer firms..."), coworking (in "Working alone, together"), and search engine optimization in an internet marketing company (in "Secret sauce and snake oil"). Each of these examined a different setting of distributed work and helped me to develop genre theory and activity theory to address them (in publications such as "Genre and generic labor," "Losing by expanding," "Integrated writers, integrated writing, and the integration of distributed work," and "Starter ecologies"). And each caused me to further develop my methodological toolkit (as in Topsight and "The genie's out of the bottle" and "How can technical communicators study work contexts?") When "How nonemployer firms..." is published in print in 2014, it will reflect the end of a seven-year arc, one that covers a broader stretch of theoretical and methodological work than my previous efforts. 

And that brings us to the third reason why this article reflects a midcareer orientation.

I didn't try to do everything. When I was writing my first article, and later my first book, I really wanted to shove everything I knew into each project. That's common, I think. It's easy to feel that (a) there's no way to cleanly separate parts of each project, (b) everyone needs to know everything about the project, and (c) maybe we'll get just this one shot to get things right.

From a midcareer perspective, things change. It's easier to think in terms of five- or seven-year arcs. And it becomes impossible to shove everything into a single publication (even, I've found, a long publication such as a book). Neither is it desirable. So in this last set of publications, I've been thinking of the separate articles the way you might think of chapters in a book—or pieces in a Tetris game, or bricks in a wall, or episodes in a miniseries, or dungeons in a Zelda game. Individually, they tell different parts of the major story, the five- or seven-year arc. But they don't have to tell the whole story.

So, for instance, if you read "Losing by expanding," you'll see why I put "How nonemployer firms..." on hold so that I could finish it. I needed that piece. If you read "Working alone, together," you'll similarly see how its analysis dovetails with the 4GAT analysis I describe in "Losing by expanding" and perform to some degree in "How nonemployer firms..."—and you may see where I decided not to open a theoretical can of worms by calling it a 4GAT analysis. 

I experimented with sources. Like "Working alone, together," this piece uses sources outside the mainstream of professional communication research, including industry reports, census figures, and business journals. I had to experiment across a few articles to do this gracefully—reviewers will sometimes overfocus on what they consider lightweight sources—but I gave myself the luxury of experimenting and made sure to use reviewers' comments as a feedback loop rather than becoming frustrated by them. (One trick, I found, is to closely pair nonacademic sources with academic ones.)

Until now, I haven't spent a lot of time reflecting on how my publication strategy has changed post-tenure. But looking back on the last several articles, I certainly do seem to have changed it.