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Organizations and technology
an interview with Paul Duguid

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue April, April 1 - April 30, 2000 | BY John Gehl 

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UBIQUITY: Why don't we start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself.

PAUL DUGUID: I grew up on the Merseyside, and after leaving Bristol University in England I came to St. Louis and taught high school before going to graduate school at Washington University. I then worked in publishing in New York for two or three years before moving to California where I ended up at PARC and the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL).  There I met some anthropologists for which PARC was then famous, including Jean Lave. She is now at Berkeley, and she and I have been working for the past five years on an anthropological-historical project.  So, that led to a position at Berkeley as well as at Xerox.

UBIQUITY: What is Jean Lave's specialty?

DUGUID: At IRL, Jean and Etienne Wenger, a computer scientist, developed the notion of "communities of practice," which I think has attracted a lot attention as a way of understanding how people learn and work.  From the first draft of their first paper on the topic through their books on the subject (Jean and Etienne wrote Situated Learning and Etienne wrote Communities of Practice, based on his dissertation), I worked fairly closely with them -- though I am not sure either would necessarily agree with the direction John Seely Brown and I have taken the topic in The Social Life of Information. To analyze organizations, we have reserved the idea almost entirely for face-to-face communities, and used other concepts (such as "network of practice") to describe looser associations.  Others, including Jean and Etienne, have been less restrictive.

UBIQUITY: What do you think is the worst problem or the most pervasive problem that organizations and businesses have?

DUGUID: For some time, the hardest thing has been to identify their real problems because of the hype and the management nostrums.  For a while, everyone had to analyze themselves in terms of "quality."  Then they were told to abandon that and think of "process" -- which is quite different.  Now there's much talk of managing knowledge.  When that's reduced to manipulating information, it too hides the real problems.  But at their heart, I do think that creating and managing knowledge are defining features of organizations.

UBIQUITY: How can the typical organization deal forthrightly with the problem of figuring itself out? Can it parachute in three or four specialists who will help it understand its own history?

DUGUID: Paratroopers are often purveyors of fads and fashion.  Consultants give managers whiplash, for example, by facing them towards issues of process and structure before suddenly announcing it's time to start looking at practice and people.  And they'll claim (as business process reengineers did) that you have to "forget all you know" -- which doesn't help a lot.  So paratroopers tend to present managers with radical alternatives that spin them in circles. The hardest thing for managers to do, given this advice, is to look at both together: i.e., how the organization is structured as a process organization, and how the underlying practices of the people that work there fit with those processes.  Managers learn when they encounter a tension to overcome that tension, whereas John Seely Brown and I tend to think that this is an inescapable tension.

UBIQUITY: Inescapable -- and, also, possibly, productive?

DUGUID: Yes! In the end, absolutely.  Really good organizations work by balancing these two things: process and  practice, or what we otherwise call the structure  and the spontaneity of an organization. Each one of those is always threatening to overcome the other. The balancing act is really tricky, but, as you say, that's the really productive thing.

UBIQUITY: Do you find a generality here that is increasingly obvious to you? . . .  In other words, are all organizations alike?... Are all unhappy organizations alike?

DUGUID: I suspect that in some ways the answer to your Tolstoyan question is yes. What for us is intriguing about how people work in small groups together is that the analysis seems to apply equally to management as to people on the shop floor or the production line. So it is for us a common thread through all levels and all types of organizations -- though, obviously, the critical, dynamic balance for each organization will look a little different.

UBIQUITY: And, so, it doesn't seem to matter that whether the organization manufactures widgets or develops software or -- .

DUGUID: My hunch is no. Organizations in some way are always trying to restrict the possibility that they will just break down into chaos. They're always trying to impose structure, but to survive and change they need to do that without killing spontaneity: that is the battle that they all face.

UBIQUITY: Organizations seem to have changed a lot in the last 10 years or so -- from being painfully hierarchical entities to becoming -- at least superficially -- painfully non-hierarchical entities. Do you agree?

DUGUID: I think superficially, yes. But underneath there's still a fair amount of insidious hierarchy where the people at the top have all the say and the people at the bottom have no input -- direct or indirect. Certainly some of the change that people are cheerleading is perhaps more imaginary than real:  the idea that large corporations are breaking down into very small ones. The law of the micro cult or the law of the diminishing firm as people tout it, doesn't seem to me to really be true. Everybody is rightly entranced by the extraordinary generation of ideas in Silicon Valley. Yet even in the startup, the least talked-about but most interesting point is the transition as the startup has to form an organizational structure, and has to bring on the sort of people who are no longer designing great software but are, actually, redesigning the organization.  At that point even the new organizations impose the sort of hierarchical structure that is familiar from old organizations, and have to struggle, like the old, with questions of balance.

UBIQUITY: Let's turn now to the organizations that you've been most closely associated with in the last several years -- Xerox PARC and the University of California-Berkeley. Assess those in terms of your ideas.

DUGUID: For John and myself, one of the most interesting and tricky things to write about is Xerox. On the one hand, Xerox demonstrated an amazing creativity when it created PARC and brought those people together, yet on the other hand the company proved incapable of using knowledge created at PARC. That knowledge just didn't "travel" within the organization. And what for us is interesting is that the knowledge that couldn't travel within the organization just slid straight out the door. Of course, some people see that as a case where the organization fails and somehow the market wins.  For us a point to be emphasized is that when the knowledge went out of Xerox, it didn't go into the marketplace but into another organization -- one that was better structured to handle that knowledge and to bring it to market. Apple, too, faced a serious struggle to make that knowledge work. It's the contrast in organizational structures, not a contrast between organization and market, which, for us, is very revealing in this example.

UBIQUITY: And now let's proceed to your experience with academia.

DUGUID: Yes. That, too, strikes me as a really intriguing form of institutional paradox.  Peter Drucker has announced that the university, as we know it, has 30 years left.  The university's reputation, in some ways, is falling, and people think of universities as outdated institutions.  These arguments tend to forget that it was in the universities that a great deal of the Internet was created.  Again, I think there's a tension within the university as an organization about how it creates knowledge, how that knowledge is used, how it relates to society around it, and it supports the whole process of learning. The pressure on the university now is so intense that it's likely to lose sight of some of its greatest assets as it watches institutions like the University of Phoenix or maybe even the Open University from England come and "cherry pick" some of its most lucrative students and courses away from it. To sum up, we've seen an enormous amount of creativity in these two institutions yet a failure to use or sustain that creativity.

UBIQUITY: What is the mood of both places now? Does Xerox -- and particularly Xerox PARC -- feel that it's learned all those lessons?  Is the mood high?  And is the mood of the university high?

DUGUID: Both institutions face the perceptions that say they are failing.  Both have past mythic successes looming over them.  These together make it very difficult -- I think back to your earlier question -- for either to be able to diagnose and respond to where they really need to take action and change.

UBIQUITY: There seems to have been, particularly in industry, a diminution of interest in spending money on research.

DUGUID: That's true in the university as well. I am always worried by the way in which university research seems so often to be aping or imitating or taking on research that really could be better done in the private sector, or should be. As in the private sector, a lot of core long-term research is being sacrificed to immediate market needs and market rewards. Because if you had a success now, in the short term, the market is so very rewarding that keeping your eye on the long term is a much harder thing to do. People are looking at their stock price from day to day rather than what they can do in the long term. I think that really is a big national worry.

UBIQUITY: Let's go from the idea of stock pricing to the idea of making things free. You talk in your book about the shibboleth that "information wants to be free." Say something about that.

DUGUID: Well, I'll say several things. First, the idea of information being the sort of thing that either is imprisoned or, indeed, can be freed, is an attractive but ultimately false over-simplification. Second, I think a lot of comments like that -- along with the John Perry Barlow declaration of the "independence of cyberspace" -- were made in the euphoric early days of the Web.  Those days are gone. The declaration of independence of cyberspace paradoxically marked not the beginning, but really the end of a phase of utopia in cyberspace. For better and for worse, the market has moved onto the Internet, and has changed things drastically.

UBIQUITY: Are you worried about the increasing dominance of very large companies such as AOL and Time Warner?

DUGUID: Indeed I am.  I'm a big fan of Larry Lessig's book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, because he is very good at getting at some of the tensions that are emerging as the Web becomes market-dominated.  It's very hard to see what we will be paying for and what we won't.  Instead of becoming free, a good deal of once-free information is in fact being privatized. A friend out here who recently wrote a book on the history of San Francisco said to me, "Only five years later I don't think I could do that research" because so many of the sources he's used are no longer in the public sector, but have moved into the private sector. I think that's a worry for everybody.

UBIQUITY: Can you elaborate on that concern?

DUGUID:  The ideology is, in some sense, that we're "liberating" information for individuals, but that doesn't seem to be true. In some areas, the Net is restricting people's access to what used to thought of as public domain knowledge.  And while there's a lot of cant about the fee-based systems giving authors, inventors, and so on rewards for their work, the people who are more likely to reap the benefits are not the producers, but the people who control the distribution channels. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger, and more and more powerful and facing fewer and fewer restrictions.

UBIQUITY: How do you contrast the way these ideas are seen in Europe versus how they're seen in the United States?

DUGUID: I think that the Europeans, in general, are deeply suspicious of corporations, whereas they tend to be rather naïve or complacent about the functions of the actions of government. By contrast, the Americans seem to me to be profoundly suspicious of anything government does, but rather at ease or less questioning about what corporations do. So, for instance, with the whole debate over genetically modified food, it really came very easily into the American market, yet there were huge protests in Europe.  The same with the whole question of online privacy. Europeans were willing to ask for government control in order to restrict what corporations did, whereas, it seems to me, Americans are very resistant to government control, yet don't really notice the extent to which corporations are extending the control.  So I think that there's two contrasting views. One trusting government and suspecting corporations; the other trusting corporations and suspecting government. To get a reasonable balance, those two views are going to have to move towards each other.

UBIQUITY: In thinking about issues like these, what do you regard as the marching orders for an information technology professional?

DUGUID: I think the first thing he or she has to do is take account much more of what people actually do than what, as designer, they would like people to do. Rather than think of people as resistant to new ideas, one needs to look forward to the challenge of leading those people, willingly, onto interesting new ground. And I think that's a major shift as you try to design or implement or give people technology. You have to pay much more attention to the way people work in the world. Technologists understandably see a great deal of the world as built of constraints that are always inhibiting us -- and therefore they see their role as coming along and simply removing those constraints. . . . But they have occasionally to notice that paradoxically within those constraints there can often be very useful resources for getting things done. And so if they simply wipe away what they see as constraints, they're actually destroying things that we, as inventive human beings, have turned into important resources.

UBIQUITY: Can you think of an example for that?

DUGUID:  Think about the nature of paper.  Since the 1970s and the famous Business Week prediction, the so-called "paperless office" has been the holy grail of a great deal of information technology, along with the paperless newspaper, the online book, and so forth. All of those in some way are good goals, but they've been remarkably hard to reach. Alvin Toffler in the '80s said that faxes and paper in the office are dead; Nicholas Negroponte called the fax a retrogressive technological machine. Well, you can see why they say that, but, on the other hand, they never seem to ask: Why do you people continue to like this stuff? What is it that's valuable about it?

UBIQUITY: In writing your book, did you find one particular point at which all the issues came together and everything seemed to make sense?

DUGUID: We searched for that point desperately.

UBIQUITY: Then you didn't start out with it all being perfectly clear?

DUGUID: Far from it. There were two sets of questions that we used. One was "Why do technologies bite back? Why do things that we think will be useful turn out not to be useful? Why do seemingly wonderful designs actually prove a curse?" And then the other set of questions, related to the first, was "Why do people fight back? Why, when you offer them another great technology or another great organizational design, do they subvert it?"

UBIQUITY: And the answer was -- ?

DUGUID: We came to see that the recurring answer was often this question of resources and constraints. We came to see that a so-called "technological constraint" was often a social resource that allowed people to build social connections, social communication, social communities. So whether we talked about the university, or the paper document, or the organization, or working at home alone, or designing software agents -- all of those were issues that really variations on the fight-back and bite-back issue, and then the resource and the constraint issue.

UBIQUITY: A final question:  In writing The Social Life of Information, was there any intellectual struggle between you and your co-author, John Seely Brown?

DUGUID: I think, yes, and it's one that comes out in the book in a way -- I think in a beneficial way -- in that he tends towards a sort of optimism and I tend towards something of a gloomy pessimism. And so, as we banged our heads over this. One of the things that when I've been giving the odd reading from the book I'm often tempted to begin with the opening lines of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. If you're talking to infotech enthusiasts and you admit "Well, I'm hesitating a bit here," they see you as a technophobe, and if you talk to the technophobes and insist "There's some really promising stuff here," they immediately see you as a rabid technophile with no discrimination at all. It's very hard to say there's a middle ground which is neither technophobia nor technophilia. And, so, in a sense, because John and I each tend towards one side of that divide, we ended up more on the middle ground. And the middle ground is sometimes exactly the right place to be.


Note: The Social Life of Information is published by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid is available in bookstores and online, and can be purchased through its publisher, Harvard Business School Press, at http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu.

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