Apr 24, 2009

paper in knowledge work

In between coding and analysing data collected from different workers, in different settings, I'm reading «The myth of the paperless office», by Sellen & Harper (2003, paperback, following «How much information?» 2000 & 2003). Their first words relate to the information artefacts sorrounding them, being paper the one that populates the most their visible environment:
"As we write this book, we have paper all around us. On the desks are stacks of articles, rough notes, outlines, and printed e-mail message. On the wall are calendars, Post-it notes, and photographs. On the shelves are journals, books, and magazines. The filling cabinets and the wastebasket are also full of paper. Among all this sit our computers, on which the composition takes place."

Considering that the study was conducted until 2001, one could be surprised to find the same results 8 years later (see above illustration with some data that I've been collecting), unless you read the complete study and understand the role of paper in supporting knowledge work.

One of the main differences between the observations made, concern the place of observing. While in the book their main concern was observations in work settings, they nevertheless acknowledge that the role of the paper in the future would be reinforced in supporting knowledge work. One of such increases would be due to growing mobility of workers and working also at home, which is visible in the exploratory data collection above:
"Paper now populates not only the workplace but also the home office and the mobile worker's briefcase."(p. 208)
We can still sense the myth of the paperless office associated with progress. In December 2008, in an event promoted by the National Association for the Promotion and Development of the Information Society (APDSI), they where refering to it as a natural move forward. In the white paper report, in the introduction section (p.7), one can read:
"Os novos trabalhadores do conhecimento deixarão cada vez mais de usar canetas e papel, passando a autenticar trabalhos e decisões através de assinaturas electrónicas e a trabalhar lado a lado com processos decisórios automatizados por regras e algoritmos computacionais. (...) todos reconhecerão as tarefas substantivas e mais ou menos críticas que lhes são cada vez mais solicitadas neste novo ambiente (electrónico) de trabalho." (p.7)
[my rought translation: "The new knowledge workers will increasingly stop using pen and paper, and start authenticating work and decisions through electronic signatures and working side by side with automated decision making processes by rules and automated computer algorithms. (...) all will recognize the substantive and more or less critical tasks that are increasingly required of them in this new (electronic) environment of work. "]
The thing is that knowledge work is not only autenticating. Something needs to exist for authentication ocurrences. We seem to be still farway (althought spam messages say otherwise) from automation in creating new information that helps build knowledge. Someone has to craft it[1]. Could this automation corresponde to a vision of managers, the ones that live life for a lot of decision making? What we still see is that paper continues to have a roll in supporting knowledge work even among technological environments. Maybe it also captures the so much entangled notion of paper not allowing technological progress, the symbolic problem refered in detail by Sellen & Harper (2003).

One might think that better skills in digital literacy would foster less paper use. But not when it comes to knowledge work, at least. At some points, paper artefacts are crucial for finding meaning, making sense, brainstorming and even getting things done. It's been wonderful to observe what Lilia as accomplished. You can see, according to her own criteria[2], what role did paper play on her way to a finished PhD:

PS [June 26, 2009] According to a new page created, there will be an update to «How much information» 2000 and 2003:
"To answer these questions and others, an updated and expanded How Much Information? (HMI) research program is underway. The initial report will be the first in a three-year research program, sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and seven companies, AT&T, Cisco, IBM, Intel, LSI, Oracle, and Seagate."
Also they have already reserved a space for «The History of Information» and they will be populating the timeline with a series of historical references.

[1] Can you imagine how glad pleanty of people would be, if they could automate the writing of their dissertations? Of course that would reduce the dissertation value (if any) in the process of learning. Not to talk about books like «How to write a lot: a pratical guide to productive academic writing», by Paul J. Silvia (2008), wouldn't be needed.
[2] One can choose to observe with a set of lenses or (try to) observe with the lenses of the observed. That's the differences of etic (observer lenses) and emic (from the perspective of the observed). In my study, I've choose an emic approach but since I can not put aside my own beliefs and world view, I'm also collecting data about my own behaviour and others in order to explicit it and be more aware of my own bias.
[WC 755]

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