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Recovering the Fumble

parc is the place infamous for “fumbling the future,” as the catchphrase goes. Back in the 1970s, it was the home of a remarkable suite of creations: the digital mouse, the graphical user interface, the laser printer, and the Ethernet, among others-just about the entire infrastructure of the modern office. Yet many of these inventions wound up being commercialized by firms other than Xerox.

Since taking over in 1990, Brown has worked hard to avoid repeating past mistakes by shifting the lab’s orientation from invention to innovation, which he defines as “invention implemented.” This approach extends far beyond merely creating something new to helping it reach the market. In his view, innovation also involves probing the very nature of work, recognizing that technologies will shape work practices-and that those shifting work customs, in turn, reshape technology. While still a small part of what parc does, the anthropology work gets at this feedback cycle and reflects the new spirit as few other pursuits do.

Cascading down the sun-soaked California hills, parc today crackles with big ideas. Home to roughly 250 scientific and technical staff, its offices and labs are interspersed with pleasant lounges to allow informal get-togethers and brainstorming sessions. Descending through the complex’s steep concrete staircases to the various sections, or pods, a visitor finds experts in smart machines or electronic commerce, and display screens made of lightweight and inexpensive organic materials. You can also see the lab where parc researchers grabbed headlines last October by generating a blue diode laser beam that one day might enable computer printers to match the resolution of the best traditional printing technologies. The anthropology group lives down in a corner “pod” on the first level.

The role of the anthropology group is to help Xerox understand today’s workplace, a complex knowledge environment in which information is transferred from subgroup to subgroup as tasks get done. In this structure, individuals play varying roles-sometimes boss, for example, sometimes employee-and the subgroups themselves have subtly shifting connections. “For an anthropologist,” parc researcher Julian E. Orr once wrote, the corporate environment “is oddly reminiscent of the oppositions within segmenting lineages of the Nuer or the Afghans, or of the nisba, an infinitely branching Moroccan system of personal identification.” The kicker for Xerox is that in today’s office, such structures mediate the flow of information-and that’s where Xerox makes its living.

Anthropologists have been part of parc’s staff since 1979, when Lucy Suchman arrived from the University of California to study everyday life in a big company. A down-to-earth type who feels people are too often painted with a broad brush, Suchman questioned the computer scientists’ assumption that office work was so straightforward and procedural that it should be tailor-made for computerization. To prove her point, she began studying the most seemingly procedural group she could find: accounting.

The way a computer scientist might view this job, a customer sends in an order, paperwork is processed, and the goods are shipped-providing a perfect opportunity to improve efficiency by automating processing chores. But Suchman’s investigation showed that clerks really did many tasks in parallel, rather than in a linear fashion. For instance, a customer might phone in his order, assuring the clerk the paperwork was on its way. To help the customer, the goods would then be shipped before all the forms had been completed. Says Suchman: “In the end the record will have all the necessary paperwork. But if you just in a unilateral way insisted on doing things according to the rules, you would actually make your customers very unhappy, and it would be an inefficient way of doing business.”

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