Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Turning Inward

a second thrust of workplace pursuits-focused on internal Xerox operations-can be traced largely to Julian Orr, a bearded, motorcycle-riding PARC technician-turned-anthropologist. As Suchman had in her study of office clerks, Orr observed that service people rely on knowledge obtained outside training sessions or manuals. For instance, individual copiers have various idiosyncrasies, giving rise to problems that must be divined through on-the-spot diagnosis and relayed through informal storytelling sessions over lunch or at the parts drop.

In 1992, Orr initiated a Denver-based field test that gave Xerox technicians two-way radios so they could share tips and insights without having to share lunch; all U.S. service reps now have radios or cell phones. His work also helped inspire Eureka, an effort between parc’s Smart Service team and a Xerox unit in France that allowed technicians to distribute choice tidbits not by radio, but via a digital “watering hole” accessible through the country’s ubiquitous Minitel electronic telephone directory system.

Led by parc computer scientist Olivier Raiman, Eureka took off in 1995 with a large-scale field effort. The Minitel-linked central database was created to hold servicing tips arranged by category and machine. Any technician wishing to contribute a new item first sent his suggestion to a team of validators who made sure the idea was valuable. Approved submissions were then placed in a New Tips category, along with the originator’s name. The study showed a 5 to 10 percent savings in parts and labor, catapulting the French service force into one of Xerox’s best. Between 1995 and the end of 1997, about 20 percent of French technicians had submitted a validated tip. Eureka was consulted 7,000 times a month, an average of almost six times for each French service rep. The electronic hotsheet proved so successful that early in 1997 it was extended to 1,500 technical Xerox reps in Canada. Now, in mid-1998, a similar rollout is reaching the 12,000-strong U.S. service force.

Even as Eureka goes global, parc is preparing an offshoot called Alliance aimed at bringing Xerox service reps together with salespeople. Technicians often know when customers are ready to purchase new copiers. Yet because of differences in the way sales and service territories are assigned, even if one wanted to alert a salesperson to a hot prospect, it would be difficult to find the representative handling a particular account. Much like Eureka, Alliance uses e-mail and central databases to make the connection. Tipsters also garner a modest finder’s fee such as a dinner for two. Not long after its fall 1997 launching, the program was claiming more than a million dollars in deals generated each month directly from service people in France alone. Says parc research fellow Daniel G. Bobrow, who heads the Scientific & Engineering Reasoning Area that developed Eureka and Alliance: “It’s easy enough to use that a service person can send a message and the salesperson can be calling the customer while the service person is still there.”

Because the introduction of technology often spawns new problems, all these efforts are fraught with perils that provide grist for the mill of anthropology. In Eureka’s case, for example, the absence of a Minitel-like system in Canada and the United States has dictated a complete technical revision and generated a host of logistical and budgetary headaches. Bobrow reports that while it’s relatively easy to get top people to sign on, effecting changes gets harder as responsibility for implementation is delegated down, since each stop along the way disrupts somebody’s budget. Even if managers spring for laptops, there remain the questions of how workers will accept and utilize computer-based tools-with the answers feeding back in to the design of additional tools.

The Uniqueness of PARC

John Seely Brown emphasizes that parc’s anthropology work highlights how far the facility has come, especially in regard to the constant interaction with Xerox colleagues and customers necessary to encourage successful innovation. In the old days, explains the director, a parc denizen since 1978, “We were these elite scientists sitting in this building inventing the future. Already, talking about inventing the future’ smacks exactly of the ontological problem. We don’t invent the future. We can help enact the future-but we must work with others in making that happen.” Brown cites the anthropological efforts as an example of pioneering research, because they start with real business problems and then reframe the issues to devise never-before-considered solutions-and it is through just such a tactic that he expects parc’s biggest payoffs. “Our goal is not first and foremost to create fundamental knowledge,” he relates. “Our goal is to crack real problems that really make sense, but crack them by going to the root of those problems. In the process I believe very profound fundamental knowledge gets produced.”

For Lucy Suchman, the mix of real-world problems and more academic investigations into the nature of work is particularly attractive. “One of the good things about working at a place like parc is that you can do both those things,” she maintains. “I do think that parc is quite unique in its continued commitment to having near-term problem solving and long-term research both be part of what the place is about.”

Even after nearly two decades spent studying how people in organizations learn and interact, Suchman is fascinated by the way once-isolated researchers are having their eyes opened as the walls between “R” and “D” come down-some of it because of her own efforts. Asserts parc’s original anthropologist, “They discover that the people in other parts of Xerox are extremely interesting and intelligent.”

“And that,” she adds, “is when good things really happen.”

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Business

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me