Xerox aims to make the paperless office a reality

Xerox's aim is to change the culture of paper technology in the workplace. Liam White talks to the social scientist who is...

Xerox's aim is to change the culture of paper technology in the workplace. Liam White talks to the social scientist who is studying how it should be done

Part of the problem with the technology industry is that it's full of technologists. And if the lack of commercial nous among techie types explains why excellent products fail, the involvement of marketeers certainly accounts for the success of so much rubbish.

If technology and marketing professionals are broadly responsible for the current state of the technology industry, perhaps another perspective would be a good idea.

Xerox certainly thinks so, and has put a social scientist - Dr Graham Button - in charge of its European research laboratory in Cambridge.

The only problem, it would seem, is that of qualification. In which area exactly does Button have expertise? He is an ethnomethodologist, a field of sociology that borrows a lot of techniques from anthropology. According to Button, this gives a different view of things to that of classical sociology.

"We're more interested in recognising things, not from the outside, but by accounting for the experiences people have each day. It's about explaining how we organise our lives, as opposed to putting them in external categories," he says.

"I'm interested in how work gets done and put together by those who do it - I'm not interested in the different groups at work, but more how domains of work are organised or develop."

Once again, Button distinguishes his particular field from traditional sociology by citing the way in which data is gathered. "We do a lot of field work. The ways we collect material are not through surveys, we go and work with people - even try and do their jobs."

For his PhD, Button observed situations as varied as Papworth Hospital - to see how the work of medical care was organised - and an artist's commune dealing with an audit by the Inland Revenue.

"Now, I'm not going to try and do a heart surgeon's job, but I can see how the work is organised. It's a technique borrowed from anthropology. But if you look at the problem-solving or decision-making process, you can see similarities and also differences in the ways with which certain types of problems are handled."

However, the most chaotic, fascinating maelstroms of activity that Button has ever seen, and those which today account for his position at Xerox, are software projects.

"Software engineering is a whole technical discipline of problem-solving, but with practical matters - these people, these resources, whatever. Now you may learn about resources and methods, but the problems themselves change, so here we see problem-solving executed as it's experienced in the real world - as opposed to how it's done normally in the theoretical space."

Human interest

Button became interested in software engineering in an organisational context, not in programming, but complexity issues. Or, as he puts it, "in what it takes to concert the notions of people separated by space, organisational divisions and other barriers with no idea of what the final solution will be or whether it will work; in how you co-ordinate so many people in such expansive and long-term projects; and how you make sure you produce something people actually want and fulfills the original specifications".

It seems Button has observed quite a few of these things. But while it may have been his favourite situation to observe as an ethnomethodologist, broader situations of organisational change and the general realignment of business processes are another speciality.

"Recently I've been particularly interested in projects including studying the work of printers. Because digital technology allows networking and remote printing, I'm concerned to understand this," says Button.

Last time new technology allowed the publishing industry to shed some workers, it encountered considerable problems as a result. The job of printing had been outsourced, the link between the editorial and production processes was severed, and expertise in the latter was lost. Heads of IT arriving at a firm where various strategic parts of the IT function have been outsourced badly will be able to imagine the kinds of problem this could cause.

This kind of study is particularly pertinent to Xerox, because it intends to make a significant part of the publishing industry obsolete. The document company's machines in every town will be able to print, bind and finish any book or publication to order, removing the need for any warehouses or distribution systems at a stroke - because the only place any work will permanently reside will be on the owner's network.

Nice idea, but as Button well knows, there is often a chasm between concept and execution. People, particularly managers, get excited about unproven ideas and make rash decisions. While the Xerox lab may be doing well at producing entertaining gizmos, Button will certainly have his work cut out if his bosses' grand plans aren't to go the way of the paperless office.

Designing machines as if people mattered

The philosophy of Xerox's European Research Centre in Cambridge is to develop understanding of the ways people work, and to use technology to think creatively about the ways people use it. The lab has three groups:

  • Context multimedia systems deals mainly with camera and video scanning, Its one product due for imminent release, CamWorks, uses a fixed camera over the desk to provide continuous real-time video and text recognition scanning of whatever's on the desk, so the user can move documents seamlessly between the computer and paper desktop environments

  • Mobile document systems aim to provide real-time mobile data sharing from a very large number of devices. Agreements concerning which devices the software will be released on are currently under negotiation

  • Studies of work aims to achieve a better alignment of technology with the ways in which users work by making attention to the workaday world an integral dimension of technology and work systems design

  • Read more on IT risk management

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