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NetWORK and knowledge work

Nardi, B., Whittaker, S, Schwarz, H. (2002). NetWORKers and their activity in intensional networks. In Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Volume 11, Issue 1-2, 205-242.

Abstract. Through ethnographic research, we document the rise of personal social networks in the workplace, which we call intensional networks. Paradoxically, we find that the most fundamental unit of analysis for computer-supported cooperative work is not at the group level for many tasks and settings, but at the individual level as personal social networks come to be more and more important. Collective subjects are increasingly put together through the assemblage of people found through personal networks rather than being constituted as teams created through organizational planning and structuring. Teams are still important but they are not the centerpiece of labor management they once were, nor are they the chief resource for individual workers. We draw attention to the importance of networks as most CSCW system designs assume a team. We urge that designers take account of networks and the problems they present to workers.

Authors use ethnographical research to document personal social networks in the workplace or, as they call them, intensional networks.

We choose the term intensional to reflect the effort and deliberateness with which people construct and manage personal networks. The spelling of the term is intended to suggest a kind of tension and stress in the network. We found that workers experience stresses such as remembering who is in the network, knowing what people in the network are currently doing and where they are located, and making careful choices from among many media to communicate effectively with their contacts. At the same time, ‘intensional’ also suggests a ‘tensile strength’ in network activity; we found our informants endlessly resourceful and energetic in their everyday collaborative activities within their networks. (p.3)

The authors define “an ongoing process of keeping a personal network in good repair” (p.9) as netWORK and suggest that it “tends to be hidden work, unaccounted for in workflow diagrams or performance evaluations” (p.5). Then they elaborate on specific characteristics of netWORK and illustrate them with examples from the study.

Key netWORK tasks:

1. Building a network: Adding new nodes (people) to the network so that there are available resources when it is time to conduct joint work;

2. Maintaining the network, where a central task is keeping in touch with extant nodes;

3. Activating selected nodes at the time the work is to be done (p.9)

Key actions: remembering and communicating.

See also for comparison with related research on: communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), actor-networks (Law and Callon, 1992; Latour, 1996), networks of strong and weak ties (Granovetter, 1973), knots (Engeström and Vähäaho, 1999) and coalitions (Zager).

From conclusions:

The reduction of corporate infrastructure means that instead of reliance on an organisational backbone to access resources via fixed roles, today’s workers increasingly obtain resources through personal relationships. Rather than being embraced by and inducted into ‘communities of practice’, netWORKers laboriously build up personal networks, one contact at a time.(p.25)

This study highlights the increasing role of personal network in doing work without explicitly looking at learning and knowledge sharing. Studies we do at work show that many people tend to rely on their networks while searching for information (which is related to learning). Supporting knowledge creation and sharing in social networks study is about similar things as well. All of this convinces me more and more that there is something wrong in studying knowledge workers without their networks, but I’m still struggling to understand how knowledge work and netWORK are connected.

See also: Knowledge networker

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2003/08/11.html#a715; comments are here.

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