Office procedure as practical action: Models of work and system design

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Citation: Lucy A. Suchman (1983) Office procedure as practical action: Models of work and system design. ACM Trans. Inf. Syst. (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1145/357442.357445
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1145/357442.357445
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1145/357442.357445
Internet Archive Scholar (fulltext): Office procedure as practical action: Models of work and system design
Tagged: Anthropology (RSS) CSCW (RSS)

Summary (Abstract)

Suchman (1983) is an ethnographic statement on office work more generally that is a targeted intervention in the literature on office information systems. Suchman's argument is that, "although systems designers recognize the centrality of procedural tasks in the office, they tend to ignore the actual work involved in accomplishing those tasks."

Suchman is an anthropologist who, at the time the paper was written, was working at Xerox PARC and studying the use of computer technologies in offices. The paper includes an in depth description of a long interchange in an accounting office where a purchase order has come in, where there is a discrepancy with some of the material, and where the problem needs to be carefully resolved. The extended example demonstrates, very clearly, the degree to which office work deviates from established routines and, indeed, must deviate from these in order to successfully accomplish tasks.

Suchman explains that either:

  1. Designers can treat work as if it conformed to the traditional view of stepwise instructions and routines
  2. Designers can recognize the judgment used in solving problems and build technology to facilitate this.

Suchman's article a form advocacy for itself and for her type of work. It's an important statement that designers should not just design systems around the way that work should happen but the way it is done in practice. Systems that codify workflow might, in the example Suchman describes, have served to provide a barrier to effect work as opposed to as an assistance.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Suchman (1983) has been cited several hundred times and a number of times by other core texts in the CSCW field. It provides an important first example (and argument for) a type of anthropological takes on group-based work that has been very influential in CSCW. Finally, it provides an important set of links between the literature on groupware, anthropology, and research on organizations more broadly.