The Xerox Repair Story

May 14, 2006

Organizing Knowledge JSB and Duguid

Shared know-how can turn up quite unexpectedly.

Julian Orr, a colleague at Xerox, studied the firm’s “Tech Reps,” the technicians who service machines on site. These technicians work most of the time in relative isolation, alone at a customer’s office. And they carry with them extensive documentation about the machines they work with. They would seem to be the last people to have collective dispositional knowledge. Yet Orr revealed that despite the individualist character of their work and the large geographical areas they often have to cover, Tech Reps take great pains to spend time with one another at lunch or over coffee. Here they continuously swap “war stories” about malfunctioning machines that outstripped the documentation. In the process of telling and analyzing such stories, the reps both feed into and draw on the group’s collective knowledge.

Orr describes an extraordinary scene in which one technician brought in another to help tackle a machine that had defied all standard diagnostic procedures. Like two jazz players involved in an extended, improvisational riff, they spent an afternoon picking up each other’s half-finished sentences and partial insights while taking turns to run the machine and watch it crash until finally and indivisibly they reached a coherent account of why the machine didn’t work. They tested the theory. It proved right. And the machine was fixed. This case and Orr’s study as a whole suggest that, even for apparently individual workers armed with extensive know-what, collective know-how can be highly significant.

More generally it supports the notion that collective practice leads to forms of collective knowledge, shared sensemaking,  and distributed understanding that doesn’t reduce to the content of individual heads. A group across which such know-how and sensemaking and sensemaking are shared—the group which needs to work together for its dispositional know-how to be put into practice— has been called a “community of practice.” In the course of their ongoing practice, the members of such a group will develop into a de facto community. (Often, the community, like the knowledge, is implicit.

Communities of practice do not necessarily think of themselves as a community in the conventional sense. Equally, conventional communities are not necessarily communities of practice.) Through practice, a community of practice develops a shared understanding of what it does, of how to do it, and how it relates to other communities and their practices—in all, a “world view.” This changing understanding comprises the community’s collective knowledge base. The processes of developing the knowledge and the community are significantly interdependent: the practice develops the understanding, which can reciprocally change the practice and extend the community. In this context, knowledge and practice are intricately involved. (For a related argument, see Nonaka’s celebrated “Knowledge Creation Spiral.”)13

This picture of knowledge embedded in practice and communities does not dismiss the idea of personal, private knowledge. What people have by virtue of membership in a community of practice, however, is not so much personal, modular knowledge as shared, partial knowledge.14 Individual and collective knowledge in this context bear on one another much like the parts of individual performers to a complete musical score, the lines of each actor to a movie script, or the roles of team members to the overall performance of a team and a game. Each player may know his or her part. But on its own, that part doesn’t make much sense. Alone it is significantly incomplete: it requires the ensemble to make sense of it.
 

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