It’s a movie classic-but not one you’ll find on late-night television. The short film opens with a scene from “9 to 5.” Jane Fonda’s character arrives for her first day of work. Cold-hearted boss Lily Tomlin guides her to the Xerox room, fires off the incomprehensible instructions for operating a monstrous copier, then leaves an overwhelmed Jane to her own devices.
The scene shifts to real life: a time-lapse videotape of two men in jeans trying to make double-sided copies with a state-of-the-art Xerox copier. In growing frustration, the pair huddle repeatedly to scrutinize the instructions while a mountain of single-sided copies rises nearby. After an hour, they’re defeated. One of the pair sighs: “We’re S-O-L.”
When this video made its debut before an audience of top Xerox managers, one executive scoffed at the technologically incompetent subjects. “You must have got these guys off the loading dock,” he said. That was a perfect setup for the bombshell: Both men were computer scientists filmed at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center (parc). One was well-known computational linguist Ron Kaplan. The other was Allen Newell, a founding father of artificial intelligence.
The film of these two big brains trying to operate a copier hardly ranks as a Hollywood blockbuster. But it’s had a big impact on Xerox. Dubbed “When User Hits Machine,” it was presented to various high-level management groups in 1982 by a mid-level parc lab manager named John Seely Brown. It showed clearly-as did a second, far-less-lighthearted tape of researchers trying to use Xerox’s new 8200 copier-the daunting problem of making any technology truly user friendly.
And it marked one of the first efforts of a unique parc group dedicated to overcoming that barrier: a cadre of academically trained anthropologists who spend their time studying how people interact with machines, and with each other, as information flows through the workplace. John Seely Brown, or JSB as he’s widely known, has since risen to become the director of parc, as well as Xerox’s chief scientist. Under his aegis, the anthropology group has grown to include about a half-dozen people who stalk the halls of government and business as if they were deep in the African bush observing the customs of a strange tribe.
Joined by colleagues in computer science and other disciplines, Xerox anthropologists have gone into the field to conduct extensive workplace studies of such groups as the company’s service reps, airline operations personnel, attorneys, and civil engineers. Their growing understanding of the nature of these jobs has allowed them to write scientific papers on the often-overlooked but important ways knowledge is informally created and shared in the office, while also providing fodder for design of novel technologies to make work easier. Already these exotic and seemingly fuzzy pursuits have paid millions in demonstrable benefits to Xerox and its customers, an indication that parc has a unique approach to innovation that foretells even bigger dividends down the road.