Jack Whalen, my co-editor in the new book Making Work Visible: Ethnographically Grounded Case Studies of Work Practice used to always say at PARC that ethnography is a powerful tool for illuminating problems that are “murky” or “wicked”.
Why? Because ethnography reveals not just what people say, but what they do – in context. And context matters.
This is especially true of problems or needs in the workplace, because organizational contexts are complex systems – not unlike living, highly evolved organisms.
Ethnography is a way to address murky or wicked problems
“Murky” can describe problems in organizations where you see the cloudy fog obscuring what you’re trying to get at, but you don’t know what’s behind it. “Wicked” can describe problems in organizations that are too tangled to tease apart, politically loaded, or just plain difficult.
- A murky problem, for example, may be where an organization is unprofitable in a client engagement, but cannot pinpoint the broken process or processes that are causing them to lose money.
- A wicked problem may be something that an organization believes they have good knowledge of and have tried repeatedly to address, until ethnography unlocks the real issues that finally allow resolution.
Whether you want to tactically address an acute process problem in a specific department, or strategically transform the way an entire company fundamentally operates, learns new practices, or engages at the critical “customer front” (where much value resides but is also the interface where things often break down), ethnography-based work practice study is a powerful tool for making work visible.
PARC pioneered the involvement of social scientists – from fields such as anthropology and sociology to psychology – in the innovation and design of technology and better ways of working.
Many people deserve credit here – John Seely Brown helped bring a sensibility for social scientific research to PARC in the 1970s; Lucy Suchman joined PARC as a research intern to write her PhD thesis, which would later become her immensely influential book, Plans & Situated Actions; the group she began anchored ethnographic methodology within PARC and evolved under sociologists Marilyn Whalen and Jack Whalen in the 2000s and led to more applied work practice studies which resulted in successful socio-technical interventions, experimental workscapes, and organizational transformations. Today, PARC continues to offer these services for business practice transformation.
To me, it’s not just about the technologies or tools and the people who use them; it’s about the people and the technologies or tools they use. This nuance matters, because it enables us to understand practices holistically, and in context, and allows us to make needs and desires explicit in ways not possible through other methods.
This book shares, for the first time, a collection of articles that overview PARC and Xerox’s social science work. More importantly, it shares detailed case studies of client ethnographic work practice study engagements – in retail, production, office, and home settings – and how the findings have led to business impact.