The Social Life of Information

Chapter 4: Practice Makes Process

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid.  The Social Life of Information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000. Print.


          The authors start the chapter by outlining problems in business organization that lead to experimentation in business processes. The field is labeled reengineering and the reengineers make a distinction between value-adding and non-value-adding processes. The reengineers return unsatisfactory results. This makes for a change to “knowledge management”, where reengineers focus on longitudinal links of information that do not encompass all of the activity within any organization. This is problematic as the indifference to practices makes for a struggle for meaning among personnel. Etienne Wenger notes that “it is the practice of the people who work in the organization that bring process to life and life to process” (96).

The authors also outline two resources for garnering understanding. There is the from the outside, where meaning is functional, process-based, cross-functional, longitudinal view. Then there is the from the inside, lateral view, using peer-group explanations. Business process reengineering suffers from four biases; firstly it is monotheistic, assuming that process explains everything. Then it is top-down, command-and-control. Thirdly it is not personnel-focused. Lastly, it discourages laterality.

They also note that directive documentation, using the example of Xerox representatives, is designed for rule-following and doesn’t account for reality. What happens, then, is that the reps go “off the maps that process provides” (103), and use collaboration, narration, and improvisation. Collaboration allows for a collective set of tools, where knowledge and resources are pooled for the good of the group. Narrative stories serve many functions, they help provide sequence, causation, cohesion, and lead to learning. Improvisation allows workers to fit people into the proper shapes, if they don’t readily do so. Not everyone falls into one formulaic view, but improvisation keeps the routine balanced.

The database Eureka is mentioned as an example of one that is not top-down, but instead run by the representatives themselves and therefore proves quite useful. Processing is defined as disguising unauthorized behavior so that it looks authorized. Ultimately, Brown and Duguid have contrasted process with practice. In this chapter, process is formal while practice is informal. This is not a new dichotomy, but it serves a useful purpose in their explanation. They favor practice, but note some of the strengths and weaknesses of both methodologies.


On page 105, the authors discuss the idea of how individualized work actually leads to displacement. In their view, the individual is forced to take on tasks that would be better handled by a group that has peers available. They say that what should be shared tasks are given to individuals in a process misnamed “empowerment”. This results in inefficiency and disempowerment. I focused on this paragraph as it really seemed to sum up the thrust of the whole chapter.

The authors mention that some departments are already organized in such a way as to allow for improvisation and lateral processing. For example, on page 109, they refer to “those in R & D or in business planning”. This is not the only instance and I am looking for the explanation as to how this is accomplished, seemingly without any issues for the linear process-based organizations.


Is the divide between the formality of the process and the informality of the practice as hard a line as it is drawn to seem in this chapter? Or is there a lot more blending that goes on, much in the way they describe for forms to be filled out and routines to be unthwarted by the odd man out?

Why is there such a lack of common sense in business practices? (other than the obvious answer of greed)

Keywords and Phrases:

productivity paradox (91)

gradualism (92)

cross-functionality (98)

Related Reading:

Orr, Julian E. Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. New York: Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.

Hammer, Michael. Beyond Reengineering: How the Process-Centered Organization is Changing Our Work and Our Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.


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