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The work of the work order: document practice in face-to-face service encounters

 

'Our lives are...infused with a process of inscription,' Dorothy Smith has observed, 'producing printed or written traces or working from them.' Yet the study of the distinct organizational properties and communicative functioning of these 'written traces,' whether inscribed on pieces of paper or other physical artifacts or electronically displayed on computer screens, has been for the most part neglected by the human sciences. Strangely, this has even been the case for studies of formal organizations and bureaucracies. Despite the plain truth of Weber's famous observations on the crucial role played by written documents ('the file') in all matters of organizational business, these studies rarely make more than a passing reference to any actual documenting, reading, or filing activities. In this chapter, we examine how documents enter into the concerting and coordinating of organizational activity and, in doing so, how this opens up and ties locally achieved coordinative practices into courses of action beyond a particular interaction. We thus consider the problem of how documents play a constitutional role in entire activity systems -- systems that may not be organized around physically and temporally co-present actors, where documents can then serve to coordinate the action at one point in time with sequences of action at other points in time, perhaps involving a different set of actors. We focus on the use of a ubiquitous business document, the standard form, in a particular work site: the service counter at a quick print shop. Like all standard forms, the work order used at the quick print shop enables and enforces standardized methods for describing jobs. However, in practice, standard forms prove to be chronically insufficient for providing usable descriptions. Making the particulars of any actual case fit the categories of the form always requires some degree of creative work. Workers routinely rely on free-text notes, annotations to the paper form, and the tagging of a job's 'originals' in making the form usable. Ironically, such remedial practices reintroduce the very nonstandard elements that the form was intended to eliminate.

 
citation

Moore, R. J. ; Whalen, J. The work of the work order: document practice in face-to-face service encounters. In Organization, Interaction and Practice, edited by N. Llewellyn and J, Hindmarsh. (to be published by Cambridge University Press)