Field Work in the Tribal Office
At Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center their’s a new factor in innovation: teams of anthropologists who study how people interact with machines (and each other) in the workplace.
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.
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.”
Suchman cast her findings as fitting into a small movement already under way at parc to shift research from an office automation viewpoint to the wider perspective of the “knowledge worker.” The basic thrust was to use the power of computing-for such tasks as generating, recalling, printing, and transmitting forms-to support the way work actually gets done. At its core were technologies such as the graphical user interface pioneered at parc. Building programs around a desktop metaphor allowed users to view items as icons or lists, either individually or as a group, providing the benefits of computerization without stripping people of control and flexibility. By adding fuel to this movement, Suchman boosted the status of her anthropology work.
But the first real milestone came about a year after her arrival when Suchman and computer scientist Austin Henderson made the two films showing researchers grappling with the 8200 copier. The machine was outfitted with powerful new capabilities such as automatic feeding and double-sided copying. But what Xerox had billed as a self-evident copier was proving a disaster in the real world. As customers complained in droves that the machine was too complicated, engineers brought the problem to parc. Suchman and Henderson had an 8200 installed at the facility, announced their intention to set up video cameras, and asked colleagues to try it out.
Around the time John Seely Brown aired their results to various management groups, the researchers were doing the same for Xerox engineers in Rochester, New York. The more serious film (without Jane Fonda) was called “The Machine Interface from the User’s Point of View.” Because it featured doctorate-wielding computer scientists, it couldn’t be dismissed on the grounds that people were technically incompetent-and it made a deep impression. “They were really sobered by it,” relates Suchman. But rather than chastising the engineers over the 8200’s shortcomings, she tried a positive tack. “The point I really tried to make was that they should not take it as evidence of their failure, but as evidence of the difficulty of the problem they as designers had to solve.”
Rochester rose to the challenge. Today, instead of the 8200’s flashing error codes that had to be looked up in flip cards attached to the machine, a display panel on Xerox’s Series 10 and 50 copier lines shows a picture of where the trouble lies. The friendlier user interface has helped slash the average time needed to clear a paper jam from 28 minutes to under a minute. Of more fundamental importance, the films opened Xerox’s eyes to the potential of workplace studies. “That was what really got us going,” asserts Brown, “recognizing that it’s technology in use that creates value, not technology per se.”
It wasn’t long before that realization brought parc’s anthropologists out of the lab to encounter machines in their natural habitat. Today, from a lone practitioner initially focused simply on observing work practices, such “ethnographic” efforts have swollen to about a dozen anthropologists, artificial intelligence experts, and computer scientists striving to create technology based on the nature of real workgroups in the real world. Their twin goals-probing fundamental aspects of work while designing technologies to make specific jobs easier-have established anthropology as at once one of parc’s farthest-out pursuits and one of its most targeted. “The idea of a corporate research center investing in anthropology may seem exotic,” admits Suchman. “But in many ways we think of ourselves more as champions of the mundane. Others dream of far-out widgets. We’re saying we really have to give people more useful widgets.”
as parc’s anthropological studies grew, they branched out along two main paths: workplace studies aimed at designing new office technologies and parallel attempts to strengthen internal Xerox operations such as service groups. Suchman heads the first effort, which really got going in 1989 with the study of two airline control operations, handling gate assignments, meals, luggage, and the like, at San Jose International Airport. In the early 1990s, a second project was initiated at a Silicon Valley law firm.
While the airport project involved detailed observations of the workplace, its successor at the law firm marked an early attempt to design technology based on what the ethnographers observed. (Suchman and her colleagues call this “case-based prototyping.”) The two-year effort focused on “M,” an attorney whose file cabinet held records that served as templates for drafting other documents.
After pondering videotapes of cabinet-scouring lawyers in action, Suchman and colleagues Jeanette Blomberg and Randy Trigg copied, scanned, and digitized 862 documents, about a quarter of M’s cabinet. Computer scientist Trigg then led a collaborative effort with other parc researchers to design and build a prototype search aid capable of retrieving not just text but document images, which could be presented as thumbnail reproductions spread across the electronic “desktop.” Although the shrunken images were illegible, searchers could find the right ones by recognizing a letterhead, or even the pattern of words on a page-much the way attorneys might leaf through a pile of papers without reading each one.
Although the search technology was improved several times in consultation with subject “M,” it was never intended as anything more than a prototype. In the next field study, however, which started in 1996, the researchers were attuned to commercial possibilities from the start. The “tribe” in question this time is Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation), which is designing a replacement bridge to span the Carquinez Strait at the northeast end of San Francisco Bay.
The parc team on this project, set to last through 1998, includes anthropologists Suchman and Blomberg, joined by computer scientists Trigg and David Levy. Their efforts focus on a contingent of about a half-dozen engineers based at the Caltrans district headquarters in Oakland, across San Francisco Bay about 45 minutes northeast of Palo Alto. To complete its work, however, the Caltrans group must interact with consultants, contractors, and public and government organizations. So the Xerox contingent has dutifully followed them through the urban jungle to a variety of meetings and made extensive visits to the towns bordering the planned construction site, another half-hour north of Oakland.
The Caltrans engineers assemble information from all these venues into project files kept in three-ringed binders. The challenge for Xerox is to move this diverse body of graphical, printed, and hand-written documents (engineering drawings, maps, surveys, letters, memos and more) from the paper world into the digital domain. To that end, parc staffers help scan and digitize these documents, then provide technologies for indexing, accessing, and viewing the data on a web-based interface.
This digitizing may seem easy. Every office has a scanner these days, right? It’s not. Scanned documents are typically converted from bit-mapped images to text, allowing users to cut, paste, and perform other word processing tasks just as if they had been created on a computer. However, the Optical Character Recognition process that makes this possible cannot handle drawings, photographs, and handwriting, and the Caltrans records are loaded with all three.
To get around this problem and give Caltrans access to all its records in digital form, the parc team created a hybrid application called the Integrator that allows the engineers to search, retrieve, and peruse both text and image-based documents together. While the Integrator incorporates the novel thumbnail technology prototyped in M’s records, what really makes it unique is the ability to search for images based on features such as signatures or letterheads. Suppose, for example, that an engineer needed to know the names of everyone with whom she had corresponded in a given month. The Integrator could retrieve all the letters bearing her signature and also provide a summary that listed all the addressees. With a click of the mouse, the engineer could call up and print any of those letters, or send them over the web to a colleague. In late 1997, the parc team filed patents on the image-based search and summarization features.
For Xerox, beyond helping a major customer (the state of California) maintain records, the Caltrans arrangement provides a real-life test bed for a technology aimed at a variety of products. The workplace study is done in close collaboration with Xerox’s Office Document Products Group, which hopes to use technologies like the Integrator in its Document Center Systems line of networked multifunction machines that copy, scan, store, print, and fax all from the same box. Such a strategy marks almost a reversal of normal product development. Typically, notes Suchman, developers start with a general technology and customize it for individual customers. In the Caltrans case, researchers began with a detailed study of a particular job, developed specific tools for helping engineers, and then worked backward to create a powerful general technology applicable to many domains.
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.”
The AI revolution is here. Will you lead or follow?
Join us at EmTech Digital 2019.