Seminar: Jack Whalen, "Designing Technology, Designing the Organization"

Past Event

30 April 2007, 1:00pm

Oxford University e-Science Laboratory
7 Keble Road, Oxford OX1 3QG

The Oxford e-Research Centre (OeRC) in conjunction with the eHorizons Institute is delighted to be welcoming Jack Whalen from the Computing Science Laboratory at Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC - formerly Xerox PARC) on 30th April.

Abstract: For the past dozen or so years we have been involved in applied, design-oriented research -- using fieldwork and, when possible, 'deep immersion' ethnography -- for information system technology (to support sharing practical knowledge within work communities) and organisational innovation (often involving the problem of organisational learning). Sometimes our projects start with the former but have to deal very carefully with the latter because the system's design and operation challenges certain organisational arrangements. Sometimes we are asked to help bring about the latter but find that the former is useful for achieving this objective. And sometimes we are pressed to work on the design of just one or the other (to our chagrin). In this talk, we will describe our experiences in this work, with special attention to the interrelationships between these two often quite different forms of design.

In this regard, it is plainly the case that there is a direct and very close relationship between the design of an organisation and the design of its information system. For instance, should the information system be centrally designed (believing that knowledge needs to be closely 'managed') it will pre-dispose the organisation to become more centrally dominated in order to be able to effectively and optimally use the system. Conversely, should the system be designed for decentralised use (believing that knowledge cannot be 'managed' in a centralised fashion, and that the main objective should instead be fostering peer-to-peer learning and collaboration), then this may well challenge, and perhaps even overturn, centralised organisational operations and strategies. The designers of such information systems and the 'organisational toolsmiths' thus often confront a dilemma concerning both the design of the system and the design of the organisation.

The organisational innovation research has often faced different challenges, particularly when it is completely divorced from the design of tools to inspire, catalyze, and support the innovation. Most recently, we have been working with a large Japanese software development firm on changing the way its system engineers work with each other and, especially, with its customers. We will report on the many frustrations as well as the gratifying successes of this effort, which is now in its third year.

Jack Whalen is a Principal Scientist in the Computing Science Laboratory at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC - formerly Xerox PARC). He is currently leading a three-year project on system engineering work practice in Japan; the PARC members of his research team are based in both Japan and the States. Prior to this he led a project with a U.S. auto manufacturer to develop an information system for manufacturing engineers; before that, he was a member of the Eureka project and led several related efforts such as LinkLite/Angelo (with Telecom Italia). Whalen received his PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1984. He was Associate Professor of Sociology and Department Head at the University of Oregon until 1996, when he joined the Institute for Research on Learning and then, in 1997, PARC. His research interests cover three areas: (1) socio-technical systems to support knowledge-sharing in work communities; (2) the use of artificial intelligence applications in the workplace; (3) incarnate practices in software development work.