Clay Spinuzzi discusses his new book, the need to iterate activity theory, and the potential of social network analysis as a method for doing workplace studies.


Intro: [Upbeat Guitar]

Ben: Welcome to Communication Design Quarterly’s podcast. I’m Ben Lauren your host and assistant      professor at Michigan State University. Today we’re talking to Clay Spinuzzi about his new book, All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks. My first question for Clay was how do you think All Edge engages with communication design?

Clay: [00:34] The biggest point of engagement is that it recognizes organizational changes and how they’re rewriting the rules for communication and they overlay new rules over the existing ones. So in other words, as you see these new information communication technologies come online they create the conditions for new sorts or interaction, new sorts of collaboration, new sorts of organization. And that changes the need for different kinds of communication design. We’ve got new communication needs. We’ve got new information communication technologies that don’t just substitute for each other but actually supplement each other and interact together. So, it becomes less of a closed kind of communication design that we were looking at in let’s say the 90’s and more sort of an open toolkit interaction among these communication technologies.

Ben: [01:26] Spinuzzi’s ideas about closed versus open communication technologies I found particularly interesting. I followed up by saying, ‘what do you think the implications are for this technology for the field of communication design?’ Here is what he said.

Clay: [01:42] People have to start thinking in terms of how folks are going to manage a toolkit of different communication technologies. Back in — oh gee — 99’ when I got my PhD, I picked up Beyer and Holtzblatt’s book Contextual Design. Great book. It was both inspirational for me and also kind of depressing because I had just done my dissertation in which I had put together this research methodology and it looked a lot like contextual design. But one of the things that really struck me about Beyer and Holtzblatt is that  they essentially were looking at taking all of the different, disparate practices, pulling them into one single communication interface, and then you’re done. All of your communication tools are right there. That’s a very 90’s way to think about things. We don’t do that anymore. We find people using multiple technologies that they sort of get off the shelf. They add new ones at any point. Some of these might be integrative like Slack but mostly they’re just going to be sort of just cobbled together. So, this is very different from the let’s say the participatory design work done in the 80’s the contextual design in the 90’s where the idea was that you would do the design work and then you would pay somebody to pull together a single system. We don’t have single systems anymore. I think communication designers have to figure out how to design around the fact that what they’re going to put together is just going to be part of a larger ecology.

Ben: [3:12] This idea of a larger ecology is something that’s well represented in All Edge.  The next question I asked Clay was what research contribution does All Edge offer to the field of communication design? Here is how he answered.

Clay: [3:28] The reason that I developed this book was that I had started seeing cases in my own research that were not well explained  by some of the research frameworks that I had been using. You know I’ve been using Activity 3 for like 20 years now and it has got great points but it has some real challenges when you start looking at organizational networks. It’s looking a little worn. You know, a couple of things that are happening here: number one you have an object or an objective around which the activity is being built — great — but that object looks really different when you’re talking about an organizational network or an adhocracy. You have not just multiple perspectives you really have multiplicity in that object. The object is differently scaled depending on who you’re looking at. It’s cycled differently. And so, we have real challenges  for one of our dominant research paradigms: activity theory. And I think one of the things All Edge did for me is start pushing me toward the thinking in terms of how do we iterate activity theory to better deal with this sort of thing. All Edge theorizes organizational changes and really kind of pushes us to think in terms of different ways to bound our traditionally done case studies in an organization.

Ben: [4:51] In some of the ways Spinuzzi suggests we rethink the way we are doing case studies in organizations is by working with social network analysis. Here is what he said.

Clay: [5:03] I don’t think I’m going to be the one to pick up this baton but I would like to see more people in this field doing more with social network analysis. I think that would really illuminate what’s going on in these organizational networks in the way that qualitative time consuming research is not going to do. I think there’s a real opportunity to lay over those two perspective and to get something a lot more rich than what we have now.

Outro: [Upbeat Guitar]

Ben: [5:28] And this is where part one of our interview with Clay Spinuzzi ends. Part two will begin by talking about the takeaways all edge offers academics and practitioners in the field of communication design. I’m Ben Lauren and thanks for listening to the CDQ podcast.

Child: Dad! Let’s go outside the snow melted.

Episode 1 – All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks, Part 1
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