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On definitions: personal perspective at work

My PhD is a constant struggle with definitions and terms. This time it’s about personal perspective at work.

For me (knowledge) work practices are shaped by at least three different contexts: personal (me as a human being), social (my networks and communities) and organisational (a company I work for).

However, when I start talking about personal there are all kinds of misunderstandings, since it could mean both individual and private and I don’t like both terms in relation to my research:

  • Individual means ‘not social’, while I’d like to focus on ‘me’ which has both sides.
  • Private (when you talk about it in a work context) is usually perceived as ‘not work-related’, while I’m interested in ‘me’ as a whole (the one who goes to work and then goes home :).

I have stressed many times that I’m interested in knowledge work from personal, actor-centric perspective (it’s just a matter of focus), however this doesn’t mean that I want to exclude social and organizational sides of it. Even more, I’m interested how things in the middle are shaped by the interactions between two (or all three) perspectives.

Of course, the area in the middle is full of problems as well. For example, I was asked recently to separate in my analysis of work practices organizational and personal concerns. With some things it could be done easily: there are things that are imposed on you by the organization (e.g. working hours) and those that come from your being a person with specific preferences (e.g. preferred modes of communication).

However, the most interesting things at work can’t be separated so easily:

  • If you do your work faster or better – is it for yourself or for your company?
  • If you come up with a good idea – is it to make more money for the business or because it makes you feeling empowered or just fun?
  • If you manage to sustain a good relationship with a customer after your product breaks – is it in order not to lose the contract or because you actually like the challenge and can’t stand making people unhappy?

I think in those cases it’s a sliding scale between ‘me’ and ‘my company’, where the specific ratio between those two is defined by many factors (e.g. situational choices or longer-term work-life balance practices of an employee). I don’t see an easy way to describe all instances of balance of organizational vs. personal interests in relation to that scale and, to be fair, given my focus I don’t believe it adds much value. What I’m trying to do instead is to describe the extremes and types of decisions that are made in the middle zone.

But all this thinking doesn’t make my PhD life much easier: I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about personal perspective without getting into ‘individual’ and ‘private’ and how to talk about all those sliding scales between three perspectives that define how work is actually getting done.

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2006/11/06.html#a1851; comments are here.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Norman Dragt October 14, 2008, 02:21

    I find the model you present very interesting. Although I do think that you link two inanimate objects to a living one. Community as well as organization are human constructs to make it easier to talk about large groups of persons. If you look at both constructs you will see, that they exist of individuals. And both use the same social mechanisms to make it possible for humans to be part of them.
    The strange thing however with the community as well as the organization is that they are influenced by humans and influence humans. So you might say that your model should consist of three adjacent circles in which the personal circle is the connection between the community and the organization. Because you as a person have your influence on both the community and the organization as the two social systems influence you.
    And depending on the organization you are part of, their even might be some kind of overlap between organization and community. A political organization for example will be strongly influenced and will strongly influence the largest community we know, society. Where as a professional organization (e.g. a hospital), will be influenced much stronger by the persons that are part of it, than the communities of which those persons are a part of.
    So depending on the kind of organization and community, you get different kinds of sizes of circles. Where the largest circle will always be the personal circle, because only humans can hold knowledge. If a community or an organization seems knowledgeable, that is because both are made up from humans. But the social constructs in itself are stupid as the bricks used to build houses.
    And maybe that is why you have such a problem with finding an answer. As long as you see those social constructs as living entities, and not as a form of human interaction, you can not see how they influence each other.

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