Making work visible

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Citation: Lucy Suchman (1995) Making work visible. Communications of the ACM (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1145/223248.223263
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1145/223248.223263
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1145/223248.223263
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Making work visible
Tagged: Anthropology (RSS) MIS (RSS), CSCW (RSS)


Suchman (1995) is a short piece, published in the Communications of the ACM, that can be seen as an argument for ethnography in the study of information systems and in workplaces more generally. It is extremely dense and rich and offers few concrete conclusions. In some ways, it can be read a sort of high-level summary -- or even a justification -- of Lucy Suchman's ethnographic work on office work and technology over the previous decade.

The paper explores the topic of "making work visible" and essentially an exploration of a contradiction at the heart of ethnography and in empirical studies of work in general. By representing work, we create limited abstractions of the work in question. These imperfect pictures both allow us to give a better idea of what is happening, so we can support work better, but also reduces the work to an incomplete picture which means that the actions taken may limit, rather than facilitate the nature of the work being done.

It turns out that scholars of work don't actually seem to know much about how people do their work. Some research methods are trying to make work visible by representing work in the service of productivity. However, Suchman suggests that one's ability to construct a representation of one's work is a form of empowerment.

Put another way, some kinds of work are "black boxed"; invisible to others in the organization. Making service work visible for example might provoke questions and criticisms of how work is recognized and rewarded.

Suchman's goal is not to understand organizational processes by constructing representations of it, but to interpret work representations in view of the politics of organizations and to practice design in a way that sees representations of work as /part of the work/ and "part of the fabric of meanings with and out of which all working practices--our own and others'--are made.

The paper cites a Wood's (1992) The power of maps repeatedly and at length and makes extensive use of the metaphor of mapping to explore the two different sides of work representation. Maps are representations created with purposes and they necessarily represent some things and not others. Similarly and representation of work is going to include some aspects of work and not others. When it comes to considering how work practices inform technology design, questions of membership and identity are often left out. This is a problem when the fact that these selection choices are practical, political, and economic is sublimated beneath the ideological veneer of necessity.

For example, even video recordings of work practices are misinterpreted by viewers in ways that can reinforce status hierarchy and privilege the proper use of technology according to technologists above what is sensible from the worker's perspective.

Next she turns to the ways that technologies for coordinating work are often also technologies for measuring and constructing representations of work. "In this way technologies for the local coordination of work become incorporated into the interests of global control." For example airlines use ground operations workers to track planes and produces accountability because planes are tracked so that workers can coordinate with one another and by management for evaluation. This system has some wiggle room for ground workers to "maintain a reasonable relation between prescriptive representations like schedules and the actual contingencies of getting airplanes off the ground." Work tracking technologies can change that space.

Representations of work are often simplistic and reductionistic. For example, Lawyers at a firm had a naive and simplified view of a complex interpretive task performed by paralegals. /Distance/ between the observer and the work makes this kind of problematic reductionism and stereotyping possible. Distance might be organizational, but also it can be a distance in social location, or boundaries between technology designers and technology users.

The problem of simplistic reductionism has motivated Suchman to innovate new representational forms. These have "basic assumptions and commitments, including in brief

  1. Specifics of how people work are crucial.
  2. Some details are tacit because of "what our social milieu sanctions"
  3. Designing requires shared understanding across conflicting perspectives
  4. Representing work is itself a kind of work
  5. (Most important) Valid representations are derived from knowledge of the work (not normative accounts).

Normative accounts are particularly useless because they massively idealize or typify work. They might be useful within an organization for use by workers, but when they are "generated at a distance from the sites" of work they lead to problems. Instead we should build new representations that "acknowledge the often power-differentiated dialogues in which design gets done and resist the appropriation of different voices and interests into one dominant logic or single representational form."

Designers should draw from ethnography, and critical ethnography in particular when working to construct representations of work because critical ethnography sees the "cultural positioning" of the ethnographer as a necessary aspect of representation. Our goal should be to achieve dialog about work practices based on understanding the relationships between designers, developers, workers, and researchers. That is, to contribute to the social construction of work.

In conclusion, she returns to maps and to the subjective and power-laden choices involved in constructing representations. Designers and researchers should not just be concerned with the "adequacy of representational forms" but also with the "dialog and debate regarding the various places of representations in work and system design."

The paper was inspired by, and is in some ways encapsulated in, a full page table included in the article that shows the two sides of representing work. This article is a brief and light overview of a longer book on the subject. 

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The paper is highly cited and been used in wide variety of different literature. It is often included as a core theoretical or methodological text in CSCW curricula or readings lists on information systems in particular. It is perhaps most widely used in the knowledge management sub-field of the information systems literature. This article offers multiple tangible examples of how engaging with work practices can lead to better technology design -- or to misunderstandings and oppression of technology users.