Anthropologist Francoise Brun-Cottan, an ethnographer on the WorkPlace Project team, recounts a story about embedding deeply in an active work environment in comparatively primitive time, both in terms of the recording equipment and the field’s sophistication in describing to participants what was happening and why.
It was the winter of 1989. Members of Lucy Suchman’s group at PARC embarked on a multi-year joint Steelcase/Xerox project to look at ground control operations of two airlines at San Jose airport. Airport management and each of the airlines’ managements were “on board.” The project would study ground control operations of each airline in the existing airport facilities and then follow them over to newly built facilities in a new structure.
We were going to look at the interplay of paper (manuals, computer printouts), voice (over the air, walkie-talkies, radio, and telephone), chalkboard and whiteboards, and direct visual observation (versus camera/video feeds) of planes pulling into and out of the gates and being cleaned, fueled, and having baggage loaded and unloaded.
The plan was to use basic ethnographic methods and techniques: interviewing, shadowing (inside and on the tarmac), audio and video taping, still photography, and transcribing recordings to…we weren’t quite sure exactly what we’d come up with. But we wanted to find out what could be extracted using these methods in such a tech-heavy environment. We were betting it would be informative, insightful, and valuable to everyone concerned. We hoped.
In 1989, technology had come a long way from the cameras and recorders that had to be moved about on dollies and trailers but, as portable as they were, the wonderful Panasonic video cameras were heavy, and so were the VHS tapes and batteries. The little Sony audio tape recorders (about a the thickness of a stack of 10 iPhones) were great for interviews but micing a control room took hours. Synching the mikes with the video was a cabalistic art colorfully augmented by below-the-breath expletives.
The members of the airline ground crews had basically been informed by management that they were going to cooperate. In reality that mean they were going to “tolerate”: non-lingo literate researchers climbing over their equipment whenever they weren’t actually underfoot, being recorded for hours at a time (rather gleefully when crises were underway) and being followed around and asked question after question (further confirming the depth of the researchers’ lack of common sense and basic knowledge) whenever there was a moment of down time.
We did try and tell crew what we thought we were doing. But saying that we wanted to understand their work practices, how they would change in new environments using new technologies and how they made sense of their work and communications was not exactly revelatory. As a field, we’re much better at doing that now, partly because we’ve also got lots more examples we can show to prospective participants about results of our work.
Viewing the videos made clear what some of the crew members stated directly, which is that they were deeply suspicious of what we would report about their actions to management. Anytime they deviated from protocol, or made mistakes, or seemed to be resting rather doing some piece of work might be opportunities for management reprisals of one sort or another. Some people were openly, if politely, hostile. No one welcomed us. It was tough on participants and researchers alike. They always cooperated at some level; there was no point in antagonizing us (though some were pretty gruff).
It is known that after a time people seem to forget that cameras are rolling, even if those cameras are right in front of them and so are the researchers. Viewing the weeks of tapes gave us plenty of opportunities to see them cast black glances our way, or whisper something together and laugh at us. In their banter we also learned about their home lives and romances and trials and aspirations. Sometimes that could let us congratulate them, sometimes our knowing was resented.
I don’t remember exactly when it became clear to our team – maybe somewhere toward the end of our fieldwork – that the final report would be a 2-hour video tape, which came to be known as The Workplace Project. We said our good-byes and appreciations on the last days of fieldwork. “Thanks,” they said and (figuratively) “good riddance.”
We made sure that copies of the tapes were made available to the crews at both airlines. We learned that the report was being used by the crews to convey to mid –management complexities about the work that the crew members had not been able to convey. They repeatedly mentioned the benefit of demonstrating how manuals misrepresented events and complicated the work rather than facilitating it. Displaying the degree of expertise needed to differentiate personal task-relevant details from a sonic soup of incoming streams of information highlighted their previously unacknowledged proficiencies.
Sometimes you just have to stick with it, whatever “it” will turn out to be. And then, sometimes, you get to get thanked for revealing aspects of the work that the workers can’t make visible. A few years ago I was told that Steelcase still showed the video to visitors to their user centered division. So, that’s not too bad!