Kirsh, D., ‘The Context of Work’, Human Computer Interaction, 2001
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Context of Work
Dept of Cognitive Science
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Abstract: The question of how
to conceive and represent the context of work is explored from the theoretical
perspective of distributed cognition.
It is argued that to understand the office work context we need to go
beyond tracking superficial physical attributes such as who or what is where
when, and consider the state of digital resources, people’s concepts, task
state, social relations and the local work culture, to name a few. In analyzing an office more deeply three
concepts are especially helpful: entry
points, action landscapes, and coordinating mechanisms. An entry point is a structure or cue that
represents an invitation to enter an information space or office task. An
activity landscape is part mental construct and part physical; it is the space
users interactively construct out of the resources they find when trying to
accomplish a task.. A coordinating
mechanism is an artifact, such as a schedule, or clock, or an environmental
structure such as the layout of papers to be signed, which helps a user manage
the complexity of his task. Using
these three concepts we can abstract away from many of the surface attributes
of work context and define the deep structure of a setting – the invariant
structure that many office settings share. A long term challenge for
context-aware computing is to operationalize these analytic concepts.
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1. Introduction. 2
2. The deep structure of context 2
3. Office contexts are complex ecologies. 4
4. Entry Points. 6
5. Activity Landscape. 11
6. Coordinative mechanisms. 13
7. Conclusion. 15
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What constitutes work context and how should it be
represented? Consider an office.
Offices are niches we inhabit and construct.
Owing to our interactions over time we build up a system of supports,
scaffolds, at-hand resources, reminders and interactive strategies that help us
to perform our tasks, cope with overload, and recover from interruption. When people enter our office we have a
collection of physical and symbolic resources, such as whiteboards, corkboards,
schedules, email, post’its, day planners, speakerphones, videoteleconference
units, desks, sheet paper, and of course, computers to facilitate discussion,
coordinate our activity, and record outcomes. At any moment, the state of these
resources sets the arena for the next round of activities. Their physical layout and their state partly
constitutes the current context of work.
How shall we represent this complex contextual state?
Context can be understood at many levels. As Dey, Salver, and Abowd (2001 [this
special issue]) have emphasized, the first step is to ground the notion in
directly observable or readily discoverable elements of the environment. These elements include the location and
identity of people and objects, their activity status (tired, hot, noisy), the
general activity they are involved in, such as reading, attending a meeting,
and the time period they are in a location, and engaged in an activity. Working from these, and using background
knowledge and the history of environmental changes, it should be possible to
infer more complex descriptions of context.
This is surely necessary.
Context is a highly structured amalgam of informational, physical, and
conceptual resources that go beyond the
simple facts of who or what is where, when, to include the state of digital
resources, people’s concepts and mental state, task state, social relations and
the local work culture, to name a few ingredients. How these interact is not yet known.
The ultimate goal of ubiquitous and context aware computing
will not be achieved until we have a theory of the interaction of these
elements, and more particularly, an account of how we humans are dynamically embedded
in this contextual nexus. The theory of
distributed cognition has a special role to play in understanding this
relationship. My objective in this
paper is to investigate this more complex notion of context, especially the
context we create in our workplace, and discuss the tangle of ideas it is
2. The deep structure of context
The thesis to be presented here is that there is a deep
structure to well used workspaces. Any
venue that has been adapted to the ongoing workflow needs of a user will
support those task specific needs by providing an underlying structure, or
context for that work. With the right
analytic tools and concepts we can discover this deep structure. A long term challenge for context-aware
computing is to operationalize these analytic concepts and tools.
If this thesis is true it ought to be possible, in principle,
to create a “portable office”. A
portable office is a digital projection of the deep structure of a specific
(momentary) work context. It is a digitally
enhanced space where the relevant affordances of a referent office are
recreated. In the ideal case, a user
with an up to date portable office could move from physical office to office
and pick up where he or she last left off.
From a theoretical perspective this means that, at any given moment, an
office has a deep structure, an underlying system of states, structures, and
relations, that can be manifest in offices with different surface
features. Accordingly, we must be able
to represent these states, structures and relations which define the momentary
deep context of work and then adapt and project them onto new venues.
Scenario. To ground the discussion, here is a simple
scenario of how a portable office might work
Spotted around the floor of a modern building in California are a
variety of enclosures or ‘microvenues’
supporting wall displays, telepresence, easy scanning and printing of paper,
and diverse ways of interacting with the digital devices present. Ms. McEx lives in Washington and can readily
telepresent and patch into Mr. Wyman’s
portable space supported in the California building to collaborate on their new
architectural project. Mr. Wyman has
the paper plan of their project and is currently marking it up with
pencil. McEx has been collecting data
from websites on useful equipment and on design ideas described in books and
websites. Together they need to
annotate the architectural plan Wyman has by adding constraints introduced from
McEx’s equipment list, and they want to brainstorm on some new
possibilities. As they proceed, they
also need to make a To Do list identifying the next steps that should be
taken. Each person has a desk pushed up
into the corner of their office where there are wall displays on the front and
side walls. At 6PM EST they leave off
their collaboration. Tomorrow, when they meet again, Mr. Wyman will probably be
using one of the other microvenues in his building, and others may join him. These other microvenues support the same
functionality but may be physically larger or smaller. If Wyman’s portable office is effective
there should be minimal cost to shifting venues.
How plausible is this scenario? How much of a previously active work context can be recreated in
a physically different venue? Clearly,
physical differences in space and layout will have an impact on the perceived
context. And clearly, there are limits
to how much one can digitally augment and reshape a physical space. Yet how
significant the cognitive impact of these perceived differences is, depends on
a host of questions about the way cognition is distributed between agent,
furniture and office resources.
For instance, how is
information about the context of work stored on physical desks, office walls,
whiteboards and shelves? What
coordinating mechanisms do individuals and small groups rely on to synchronize
activity, distribute tasks and activities and manage at hand resources? What
critical elements of a work situation cue memory, making it likely that office
users will recall why they left papers out, why folders are open, why there are
certain marks on the whiteboards, and so on?
All these questions point to aspects of the work context we need to
To make a start at answering these questions we must rethink
what an office is and how we relate to it.
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Figure 1. What must be present in different
environments to ensure equivalent performance on a task? From a theoretical perspective this
question requires identifying the abstract elements that constitute task context. Here we see a referent office undergoing
changes as it’s owner makes progress on his tasks. Corresponding to surface changes of the referent office there
are, at times, changes to the momentary deep structure of the current work
context. These are represented in a
time specific deep structure representation DSTi of
the office. To support portability
there must be projection rules from deep to surface structure SSTi
which explain how to adapt the surface structure of new offices so that they
instantiate the deep structure.
3. Office contexts are complex
The first step in reconceptualizing offices is to view them as
ecologies where office and inhabitant co-evolve. Ecological systems display what
Maturana (1975,1980) called structural coupling: each component of the system has a causal influence on the other. In the biological world organisms interact
with their environment and with other organisms, who, of course, also tend to
be part of each other’s environment, the whole system of components being
interdependent and interlocked. The
result is a highly complex system displaying attractors, instabilities and
cycles typical of dynamical systems.
It is not hard to find examples of office-owner dynamics that
display structural coupling. Most
offices, for instance, tend toward a steady state of clutter during the
different phases of activity, with the owners of the office evolving certain
interactive strategies of trashing papers, filing folders, searching through
piles, displaying reminders, posting stick’ems and so forth, which maintain an
average level of disarray or structural complexity for each phase. The opening phase of a task is less
cluttered than the mid phase, and upon completion there is typically a clean
up. Change the furniture layout or take
away the post’its and in tray, regardless of phase, and the owner’s maintenance
and coordinative strategies will adapt.
The consequence of the owner adapting to his or her office is that the
office too is adapted, so that the two – office and owner – move through an
interlocked history of structural adaptations.
In calling an agent and office a dynamical system we invite
questions about the states this system moves through. Do we have a formal or quantitative transfer function? Are all states measurable? If so, we have reason to hope for a nicely
operational definition of context.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception of structural
complexity, it is unlikely that there are physically measurable features of the
environment that highlight the key structural elements of an office that
explain the dynamics of worker office interaction. The regularities we need are more qualitative: movement of
information, number and arrangement of ‘entry points’, state of coordinative
structures, shape of the activity landscape.
These are the type of abstract characterizations of work context that
are likely to be of greatest value.
In previous efforts to describe the state of an office,
concepts like: reminders, placeholders, triggers, markers, constraints,
annotations have been used. Notes or
To-Do lists seem to behave as reminders of jobs to be done or
appointments to be kept; an open folder acts as a placeholder indicating
where one is in a task; a ‘sign here’ sticker placed on a sheet appears to trigger
a signature, or a post’it with a phone number may trigger a call; an underlined
phrase seems to mark what is important, or a bookmark indicates the
section to be read; a routing list serves to constrain who you consider
passing a document to, and so on. These
are specific mechanisms found in offices that help office inhabitants manage
their job. For discussion of these see
Dix (1998), Kirsh (1995), Kirsh (1999),
Although these mechanisms are helpful, they do little, however,
to determine the theoretical limits on office portability, and therefore little
to probe what the deep structure of office context is. We can appreciate that a digitally recreated
office must duplicate the reminders, placeholders, markers and triggers found
in a referent office, but it would be helpful if we had a more abstract
characterization of work context.
Thus, although any adequate theory of work context should provide the
basis for identifying elements in the environment which function like
reminders, etc., our goal is to have a more general theory which describes such
elements in more abstract terms.
This is a tall order.
The challenge in seeing an office as an ecology where inhabitants are
structurally coupled to a more abstract structure – the deep structure of their
work context – is that this deep structure must have the right psychological
properties for inhabitants to act appropriately. It will not do to say that office1 and office2 embody the same
deep structure, the same ecology, if they are so different in surface
attributes that inhabitants of office1 are unable to continue working in
office2 because they can’t recognize the cues they rely on to help them manage
their activity. For instance, changes
in the location, color, size, and shape of a clock in office1 and 2, at some
point, may become significant enough that the coordinative power which the
clock exercises in office1 is lost in office2. At that point office2 has failed to implement the deep structure
of office1. So although the deep
structure we are looking for is an abstraction, it must also be psychologically
accessible. Even if the look of
office2 is somewhat different than office1, its feel should be similar.
It is my view that the key components of office deep structure
that can be translated into a psychologically accessible surface structure are
entry points, coordinative structures, the shape of activity spaces, and of
course, the actual information resources available in an office. This involves going substantially beyond
what Dey et al. discuss.
4. Entry Points
Entry points are the first theoretical concept I will
introduce that abstracts away from superficial attributes of a setting. An entry point is a structure or cue that
represents an invitation to do something – to enter into a new venue or
information space. In newspapers and
web sites the information layout provides entry points for reading, scanning
and following (clicking). For instance,
in newspapers there are columns, pictures, figures, tables, and so on. Each title, each new well demarcated
structure, beckons the reader to start their reading there. Because each heading, table, or caption is
relatively small and identifies a relatively self contained article it is
possible for a reader to review a newspaper page and make a rational choice of
where to begin. Indeed, an effective
reader may scan many entry points, picking up as much metadata and ‘information
scent’ as is necessary to obtain a high level conception of what is in today’s
news, and so develop a rough plan for moving through this information
landscape. Well authored entry points
make it easy to scan a paper and maximize the user’s reading experience.
In offices it is
equally instructive to ask about the entry points which a given distribution of
resources provides. We do not expect an
office to be as well laid out as a newspaper, although some offices are. Rather, users, in the course of working in
their offices, create a collection of entry points, invitations to revisit work
threads. For example, an open email
application invites us to do our email, the paper sitting on top of the input
tray invites attending to the task it represents, an open day planner
encourages us to review our schedule and to do list, while the open folder on our desk encourages us to return to the
task linked to that folder. The telephone invites calling or attending to voice
mail. Entry points, like affordances,
are invitations to do things, typically information or communication related
things. And, as with newspapers, we
expect that an effective office dweller, when returning to the office, will
scan entry points, pick up as much metadata and ‘information scent’ as is
necessary to obtain a high level conception of what is ‘on call’, and so develop
a rough plan – often in conjunction with planners, and lists – for moving
through his or her activity landscape.
Here we see two structured desks, both more neat than scruffy, that
support a similar idea to the entry points found in newspapers. The visual attractors which serve to draw
attention to information entry points in an office are the characteristic shape
and color of folders, envelopes, books and planners, the well planned layout of
piles or business cards, the post’its labeling stacks, the vertical orientation
of lists, and, of course, the brightness of one’s computer screen. After a
break, or first thing in the morning, a user scans the desk, glances at the
topics of a few entry points and using memory of the work related implications
of each pile, begins to structure an activity path for the next period of time.
Users have very different preferences and tolerance for the
number and type of entry points in their offices. Those of us with messy desks,
for instance, are accustomed to many entry points, often in considerable
disarray. Those of us with tidy desks
prefer fewer entry points, each in a standardized place, and tidied up at the
end of the day. These psychological
preferences, which we may call neat vs. scruffy following an AI
tradition, carry with them different costs and benefits, leading each
personality type to prefer their own method of organizing office space.
For neats, the virtue of a tidy desk and office is that
it structures entry points to canonical locations. Need information about a task?
Is it still pending? Go to the
pending tray. Is it completed or mostly
completed? Go to the filing cabinet.
Assuming it is possible to categorize one’s informational goals in terms of
one’s existing filing scheme, it is easy for a neat to figure out where to look
to find the entry point for sought for information.
Neats also differ from scruffies in the way they tend to use
entry points to help start their office day.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[i]<![endif]> When a paradigmatic neat enters the office
in the morning, he or she typically finds a desk and office with a smallish
number of folders or papers in piles, a relatively clean space beside the
computer and any folders that have been left out from the day before are, more
often than not, closed. Neats stabilize
their environment before they leave for the day. This regular maintenance and
stabilizing behavior is a major behavioral feature that characterizes a
neat. But then, because there are few
entry points to attract a neat in the morning, fewer placeholders, reminders,
triggers and markers hanging around, neats typically make use of explicit
coordinating structures such as lists, day planners, the order of documents in
their in tray, to determine their initial activity. According to our pilot data,
their day tends to be more scheduled than scruffies because it is more planned
and less data driven by the attractors in the environment.
For scruffies, by contrast, a tidy office provides too
little direction. The virtue of a
messy office, from a scruffy’s viewpoint, is that it can hold large amounts
of information about activities. Trivially this is true. According to the theory of descriptive
complexity the more random a structure the more information it can encode; the
greater the disarray the greater the amount of information it can store. Of course, this is not what a scruffy
means. Their claim is typically that
the simple categorization schemes used in most filing systems, such as
alphabetical ordering by author or title, or chronological ordering by recency,
do not do justice to the dynamic needs of activity. One reason paper accumulates into piles on a messy desk, then,
is that scruffies dislike the strictures of standard filing systems. They avoid filing. And indeed, the categories that best describe the piles of files
that build up over time on a messy desk are not found in the library of
congress subject catalogue or anywhere else.
They are ad hoc categories.
We need to understand these categories if we are to represent the
structure and work context of desks.
Ad hoc categories are non-standard classification categories
that are constructed in the service of a task. Unlike most categories, which
are based on some degree of feature overlap (including functional features), an
ad hoc category is one that need have no significant feature overlap. For example, objects as diverse as children,
money, and photo-albums may be assigned to the same category, in this case the
ad hoc category of “things to take out of the house in the case of fire”
(Barsalou1983). Such ad hoc categories are created as needed, they bind or
unify a set of otherwise disparate elements that are meaningful to the agent
because of his or her current activity.
When looking for a meaningful category that unifies the papers
in a pile, there is often no category other than an ad hoc one. Scruffies seem to make abundant use of ad hoc categories and so pose a challenge to
those of us trying to represent their work context. Moreover, the more piles there are, typically, the more likely it
is that some files span several piles.
This could be ignored if it were not semantically informative. But again it seems that pile spanning is
intentional; it is a way of multiply indexing or cross classifying
documents. In such cases, a document
that is relevant to both activity1 and activity2 may be laid horizontally so
that it is in two piles.
Despite the abundance of meaning in their environments, or
perhaps because of it, scruffies pay a cost in terms of search time for the
profusion and imprecision of their entry points. Since information is scattered, it is harder to find all of
it. Users cannot know whether partly
completed tasks are in the pending tray, the input tray, or on the table. At times it can take so long to find sought
for information that it is effectively lost.
Although scruffies regularly avow in interview that they know where
everything is, and that their office only seems to be in disarray,
observation has shown that there is inadequate order and clarity to their entry
points to make it easy to reliably predict where information is to be
Yet even this negative often has a compensating factor. In the best case, the chance for
opportunistic discovery of useful information offsets the costs of excess search
time. Opportunism in this context
refers to the act of noticing opportunities for advancing goals that are not
currently on one’s goal stack. A
simple example typical of the AI planning field is setting out to the
supermarket with the goal of buying a lamb chop for dinner and changing dinner
plans at the supermarket because of a great sale on salmon. The goals that should be active at the
supermarket define a relevance function that should have nothing to do with
fish. But street wise shoppers are
always on the lookout for bargains for tonight’s dinner regardless of what
their plans were when they set out. Hence their shift to salmon when they
should have been buying lamb.
In the office environment the greater the number of entry
points the greater the chance that looking for information needed for one task
will prove useful for another task not currently in the immediate goal
stack. As we will discuss in the next
section, an office environment supports many activity spaces, each with its own
set of entry points. Since scruffies
are more likely to keep entry points of other tasks around, invariably with
less than clear demarcation between them, there is a higher chance of
accidentally stumbling on material useful to task2 when looking for material
useful for task1. If the scruffy is a very data driven type of person this will
often cause a shift in activity from task1 to task2.
Opportunism in the office can also apply to task1 as
well. If there are many piles
distributed on a desk, there is also a better chance of opportunistically
discovering information relevant to the current task (task1). We can expect this improvement in
likelihood because the pile containing a target document embodies a categorization
principle which raises the a priori probability of additional documents also
being relevant. Thus it is not
surprising that as a scruffy rifles through a pile of files looking for a
document he recalls placing somewhere in it he may stumble across another
document – one he did not have in mind for this project – that is also
I have been arguing that entry points are a useful abstraction
for representing an important aspect of the office work context. Yet beyond what I have said about individual
differences in the number, crispness, and distribution of entry points found in
offices what more can be said about how to represent entry points? Can we characterize the factors which bias
how people react to entry points disbursed around an office? These are an important component of the
context of work for they influence how people behave.
A first start at an analysis of entry points begins with the
key dimensions along which they vary.
Below are six such dimensions.
Four are ‘objective’ or user independent dimensions, two more are
‘subjective’ or user relative.
The four objective dimensions are:
<![endif]>intrusiveness – how attention getting are the
cues indicating an entry point? Post’its are yellow, business cards have a
characteristic shape and paper quality, planners are leather or textured, but none of these have quite the attention
getting power of ringing telephones, the pulsing lights of answering machines,
the knock of a colleague or the opening of a door. Intrusiveness measures how visually or sensorially attractive an
entry point is, and helps to determine the a priori probability that a user
will approach that entry point.
<![endif]>metadata rich – how much information is there
about what we will find once we enter an entry point? Folders have labels or descriptive stick’ems, papers in in-trays
have large type headings, headlines are descriptive, pictures support quick
glances, books have evocative jackets.
Even the pile itself displays metadata since it is the embodiment of an
ad hoc category. The more metadata
available on an entry point the less memory is required when a user begins to
plan the next phase of activity, and the fewer documents need to be searched
when a user is looking through piles.
<![endif]>visibility – how distinct or unobstructed are
the entry points? My to do list is open
to today, conference invitations posted on corkboards are partly occluded by
other papers, windows on computers are minimized so there is only a simple
link, web page links are either below the fold or ‘directly’ visible. Most entry points in an office are
invisible because they are stored away in filing cabinets. Others are not clearly identified because of
pile merging or multiple pile spanning.
Prima facie, the more visible an entry point the greater its chance of
<![endif]>freshness – when was this file, stick’em, note
on the whiteboard created, placed, last touched? Recency influences recall and so increases the likelihood that a
document will be retrieved for use in a current activity.
The two subjective dimensions are:
<![endif]>importance – how pressing is the activity or
information associated with the entry point? Letters requesting action
typically have a due date and an importance level in a user’s to do list. Importance increases as the due date nears; drops
once the due date passes. Importance
influences probability of use.
<![endif]>relevance to current activity – how useful would
it be to explore the path marked by the entry point given what I am currently
doing? Any significant activity opens
many threads, creating a relevance metric that ties different resources
together for a given user (and task).
Prima facie the more relevant an entry point, other things being equal,
the higher the probability it will be consulted.
Understanding how to
characterize entry points is one step toward improving our representation of
work context. It improves our ability
to predict user behavior.
5. Activity Landscape
Activity landscape is the second concept that helps us
understand the abstract structure of the work context. It is a major factor in shaping the behavior
and ecology of an office. Just as entry
points accumulate in physical offices, so do activity landscapes. An office can never be conceived as the
embodiment of a single activity landscape: it is the result of a superposition
of landscapes, each landscape with its own set of entry points, own set of
values and own set of relevant resources.
The notion of an ‘activity landscape’ is a revamp of the
original idea of a task environment, introduced by Simon and Newell. 
. Like a task environment we can think
of an activity landscape as lying at the interface of user, task, and
world. From the user comes the concepts
and categories that carve the physical world up into activity meaningful parts. From the task comes constraints (but now
soft constraints) on whether an action is relevant and how worthwhile it is;
and from the world comes the underlying support for activities and the causal
basis for the consequences which actions have.
An activity landscape is the construct resulting from users projecting
structure onto the world, creating structure by their actions, and evaluating
outcomes. It is the theoretical
structure in which to track and analyze the goal directed activity of a user.
The context of work is tied up intimately with the concept of
an activity landscape. The schematic
structure which workers project helps to shape how they proceed. They see a collection of resources as
relevant to their work. This projected
structure – this notion of being relevant – goes beyond recognizing temporal
dependencies and logical ordering. It
includes ideas of ‘how things are done’ owing to corporate culture. It includes ideas of how to use resources or
scaffolds to do a better job. Work
unfolds in an activity landscape because activity landscape is the term we give
to the structured environment in which specific work tasks unfold. The two are
analytically linked. Too bad the
concept of an activity landscape is still ill defined.
There are several reasons why activity landscape resists
precise definition. First, activities
are open ended processes. For example,
in writing a back to office report, what are the component tasks and sub tasks
involved? Formally the task can be
broken down into a subgoal structure, the logical and temporal ordering of the
task. Yet when close attention is paid
to people’s actual behavior it is evident that people do many things that are
relevant to writing the report but which do not fall into the normal conception
of a subgoal. For instance, before I
begin to write such reports I typically check my schedule to see if I will be
interrupted. This is not a predictable
subgoal. It is rational for a person
who must manage multiple tasks, but it is outside the normal construal of a
subtask of writing. It seems more of a
preparatory move. Similarly, I may have a habit of sharpening or chewing a pencil before I begin – even if I no
longer use pencils in writing reports. Habits and ancillary actions such as
maintenance actions, preparatory actions, trashing activity, exploratory
actions, dropping reminders, and more may be actions somehow associated with an
activity, but which fall outside the concept of an action that is directly
relevant to a goal. This is one reason
activity landscape is hard to define.
Second, activities, unlike moves in a task environment, should
not be understood as a collection of discrete actions taking place at
environmentally defined choice points.
Often what is of most interest in an activity is the way agent and
environment are tightly coupled, as in car driving, or pencil sharpening. Admittedly, it is fair to say that most
information oriented tasks can be discretized to some degree: searching a
website for information, or hunting
through one’s filing system for a document, can both be decomposed to a network
of choices and decisions. But often
when scaffolds and supports are used to help one search there is a dense
pattern of interaction that is not well characterized as a trajectory of
decisions over choice points.
Third, and perhaps most importantly of all, activity
landscapes are hard to individuate. At
any moment, the appearance of an office is likely to be the consequence of
multitasking. Interruptions are
constant, requirements change, and new demands are made before all old ones are
discharged. In ideal cases, different
entry points are associated with different tasks. But in the case of scruffies, entry points are seldom so
disciplined. The same entry point may
lead to information resources relevant to several tasks. It is one thing to observe an agent in
action and infer the boundaries of his activity space so far; it is another to
infer the possible bounds of that activity landscape . Because of the constant cross over and
opportunistic use of resources it is rarely possible to circumscribe an
activity landscape, or a resource space, to a tightly demarcated system of
And yet sharpening the definition of an activity landscape is
just what we must do if we are to make precise the concept of work
context. Because we perform dozens of
activities and tasks in our offices the office landscape is inevitably an
overlay of many activity landscapes.
Given the interaction between these layers they cannot be linearly
separable. So the hope of definitively
isolating the separate contributions each landscape makes is not likely to be
realized. Yet perfect separability is
not necessary for a first approximation.
Since most users periodically tidy their office precisely to unclutter
their workspace with what is essentially
detritus from other activities, there remains a workable notion of all and only
the right elements required for a particular context of work. This involves deconstructing the context,
understanding the ad hoc categories which the agent projects onto the activity
space. It is a tall order, but an
inescapable part of the abstract structure we are trying to discover.
6. Coordinative mechanisms
The last basic concept we will consider is coordination, and
the mechanisms which facilitate coordination. The idea of coordination is that agents partner with the resources
in their environment when they work toward completion of a task. When I leave a post’it on my computer monitor
to remind me to pick up the dry cleaning, I am relying on the post’it being there,
and relying on my regular noticing of such reminders, to help me achieve one of
my goals. The post’it serves as a
coordinating device. Without such an
external device I would need an alternative method to backup my memory. Although it is an odd way of speaking, the
post’it and I are partners in getting me to my goal.
Any adequate representation of work context must include
information about the state of different coordinative mechanisms in that
context because they play such an essential role in the successful action of an
office worker. How could a neat get
through the day without making a list, consulting his or her daytimer,
schedule, appointment calendar, or clock?
How could a scruffy get through the day without annotating paper,
dropping reminders, markers, placeholders?
All these resources figure in an agent’s coordination with their environment.
To get a feel for the idea of coordination being advanced here
consider the role which clocks, fasteners, containers and forms play in a
standard office. Clocks play the most
obvious role: they facilitate temporal coordination between different
people, and they help an individual person pace him or herself as they
work. Without clocks how would we know
when to show up at a meeting, when to leave?
Clocks allow us to synchronize our actions. At an individual level clocks let us keep an eye on how far off
our deadline is. An essential part of
managing a project is to break it down into logical sub components and then to
map these onto a timeline. Without a
calendar or clock to convert this abstract mapping into here and now directives
to action, we would fall off track, running behind our obligations or
pointlessly running ahead. Short of
relying on other people to tell us the time, time management is not possible
without a clock. Clocks figure deeply
in self coordination. Their presence, in easy view, is an important part of the
Containers and fasteners also serve as coordinating
mechanisms. In almost every office
there are fasteners such as staples and paper clips, and containers such as
trays, drawers, folders, envelopes, and so on.
The role of fasteners as coordinating tools is often overlooked. Yet staples and paper clips allow users to
link individual pieces of paper into a modular group that can be passed
around. They coordinate separate sheets
by mechanically keeping them together.
This saves search, it improves filing and it improves tidiness. It also
defines an entry point. Folders, trays
and large envelopes serve a similar function but are regularly used for papers
that accumulate over a longer period of time and which are often destined for a
drawer or filing cabinet., A folder can
go directly from tabletop to cabinet because folders have been designed to a
standard size. This is not true for
clipped papers. Fasteners and containers, too, are part of the work context.
Forms are another powerful coordinating mechanism in
workplaces. A form is a structured set
of questions or options that must be filled in and then passed on. Forms for routing documents through a
circulation list or authorization chain are popular in paper heavy
offices. They tell the reader to tick
their name off and pass it on to the next person on the list. The value of such forms is that they
constrain the actions a user need consider.
They serve as instructions, another coordinating mechanism. Moreover, by linking the form to a single
physical document, a form on an authorization list serves the secondary
function of keeping in one place all the signatures that are required for an
authorization. It both coordinates
decisions and reduces effort. Well
designed forms are one of the more powerful coordinating devices in an
office. They are part of the work
To say that clocks, fasteners, containers and forms are part
of the context of work is somewhat misleading.
It is because of the way they figure in structuring the environment that
they constitute context. This
agent-artifact coordination is not too hard to understand for most of these
artifacts, but there are other coordinative mechanisms that are far more
To appreciate the complexities here consider the way project
management information is distributed around an office. On the explicit side, there are dozens of
office devices intended to help us stay on task. Day planners, to do lists, check lists, schedules, appointment
calendars, alarms, reminders, and more are the stock in trade of office supply
shops. These artifacts are modified by
office inhabitants and participate in a coordinating loop where the agent
changes the state of the artifact, the artifact prompts the agent to act, and
so on. Business culture has developed
a collection of representational elements and interactive strategies to
structure thought and action. Users are
taught to tick off tasks when done, they are shown how to list and prioritize
tasks, they learn themselves to leave post’its and highlight sections as
annotations and reminders, and they soon rely on the contents of the whiteboard
to keep fractional state of previous conversations and plans (hopefully enough
to allow reconstruction by the authors).
They use corkboards, taped papers on the wall, and phone lists to store
long term reminders.
When information about a task can be associated with definite
regions, or with definite devices in an
office, we will call it locally stored.
The input trays, to do lists, and whiteboards, just mentioned, store
information locally. Fasteners,
containers and forms help to store information locally. In principle, we can track the state of
these devices and incorporate them as part of our representation of office deep
But locally stored
information is only a fraction of all the information in office. Incorporating the state of task information
distributed more globally in an office is more difficult. When information is
encoded in spatial arrangements, and in the collective state of many resources,
we will call it globally stored.
Information that is globally stored normally has to do with ‘where’ one
is in a task, not in the sense of ‘you are half way through’, but rather in the
sense of ‘this is the current state of your task’, so that if
interrupted you may be able to recover your train of thought and activity by
It is convenient to think of performance of a task as defining
a trajectory of state changes. Hence
the idea of a task having a current state. Yet what do each of those states on
the trajectory look like? For instance,
in writing a one page memo, completion of the task may require telephoning
people, reading emails, consulting references and previous memos, taking and
redacting notes, and thinking and composing on the computer. Part of the state is found in the current
computer draft. But it is also found in
the progress made on the various sub-tasks – the notes recorded from completed
calls, the email that has been read and distilled, the papers in the folder
opened on the topic, and so on. All
these resources affiliated with the overall task figure in the global state of
the task. And that is before we
consider information in people’s memory, and information that must be inferred
from the strategies they have evolved.
The global state is the collective state of these sub-tasks plus their
structural relations. It is a
How might we represent this distributed state? Certainly tracking the nature and location
of entry points is useful. So is
identifying the activity space of the task.
But there are additional factors concerning the cost structure of the
activity space owing to the physical layout of resources which may serve to
attract, repel or constrain activity, and organizationally wise actions such as
screening out unnecessary documents before they become visible entry points that
make the story more complex.
There is much theoretical work to be done before we understand
the way users interact with coordinating mechanisms. But we cannot hope to understand the influences shaping a workers
activity without a proper study of the coordinating mechanisms they rely on.
The nature, location and way users count on these mechanisms is an integral
part of the context of work. It is a
further reason why understanding work context lies outside the reach of simple
models of who, what, where, when and how.
I have been describing the context of work as a highly
structured amalgam of informational, physical, and conceptual resources that go
beyond the simple facts of who or what
is where, when. Some of these resources
are shared knowledge between participants, others have to do with the structure
of the tasks a user is involved in and the different ways he or she has of
coordinating the use of physical, informational and conceptual resources between himself, the work setting, and
teammates. Many of these resources
could in principle be abstracted from their customary embodiment in a
particular physical place, thereby creating a more abstract structure which
could be re-implemented in different physical venues. Although the goal of creating a portable office will not be
realized anytime soon, the analytic work necessary to understand this structure
is an extension of current work on situated and distributed cognition.
I argued that research must push deeper in three directions if
we are ever to disentangle the notion of context required to support this more
abstract conception of our work setting.
First, we must understand the factors which bias how people react to
rich information spaces, loaded with entry points to more information. Second,
we must unravel the complexities of the activity landscapes we interactively
construct out of the resources we find and the tasks we have to perform. Finally, we must chart the diverse ways people
coordinate their activity with their environment and with others. Concepts like
these represent the next step in our understanding of how humans are coupled
with their environments. They will help us illuminate the everyday mysteries of our context of work.
Acknowledgments. I would like to thank my
colleagues Aaron Cicourel, Ed Hutchins, and Dan Bauer for valuable
conversations about coordination and activity spaces.
Support. The author gratefully acknowledges
support for research on this and related topics by the National Science Foundation
(KDI grant IIS 9873156).
Authors’ Present Addresses. David Kirsh, Dept of
Cognitive Science, UCSD, La Jolla, CA 92093-0515.
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The basis for these comments on neats vs. scruffies is an unpublished pilot
study I have undertaken of five offices having two neats two scruffies and one
person who is not so easily categorized.