First Monday

Letters to the Editor

Date: Tue, 9 May 2000 15:37:40 -0400
From: David Zager
CC: Bonnie Nardi
Subject: comments on Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz

Dear Editor:

The notions developed in Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz's "It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know," (First Monday 5.5, May 3, 2000) correspond well with my experiences of my own workplace as well as with anecdotes I hear from colleagues.

Since I'm a linguist and cognitive scientist by training, my reactions are not necessarily those of a naÔëve goldfish (i.e., person without the bias that comes from years of training in social and behavioral sciences). I therefore tried a simple and informal quality assurance test against the notions - I asked my wife Jan to read the article and gauged her reactions to it. I found that they rang as true for her as for me: her immediate reaction was, "How can they be describing my life when they've never met me?" Intensional networks, knots, and coalitions all described different aspects of her everyday work relationships. In fact, the presence of all three suggests some new avenues of continued research.

Jan's a lawyer by profession. Her practice has two main parts: she has an independent practice in which she represents the rights of children in Family-Court-assigned cases (representing children in case of divorce, juvenile delinquents, persons in need of supervision, victims of child abuse, etc.). In addition, she's the legal director of a not-for-profit agency that represents the legal rights of children in the schools, ensuring that they receive everything they're due under the law (issues of special education, school suspension hearings, rights of immigrants, etc.).

Her independent practice is largely formed of an intensional network. Often she'll be assigned to appear in two geographically distant courts at the same time and will have to get someone to cover one of the hearings; or she'll cover for someone else in the same predicament. To develop the arguments she needs for cases, she's constantly looking for psychological experts, other law guardians to test ideas with, people in the protective services agencies, court clerks who can fiddle with the ordering of the trial calendar if she's been tied up elsewhere. These people make up her intensional network. Some (the people she networks with most commonly) are programmed into her cell phone; most are entries in her palmtop or the loose-leaf binder she still keeps.

Her agency practice also draws on an intensional network, but not to the same extent, and with an important difference. The intensional network for agency work tends more towards an organized pattern of collaboration. For instance, she's worked with others to put together workshops for parent groups and other interested special interest groups, and has drawn on her intensional network to make it happen. In such cases, there is a focus, a common goal, distinct roles and responsibilities, direct coordinating communications, and an attempt to create something that endures. Contrast this with the intensional network she draws on for her independent practice, where the network provides very fleeting, transient help in a single case. It is much more of an operational setting, and shares characteristics in common with coalitions.

The notion of coalitions describes another kind of experience in her practice that is distinct from intensional networks. She gave an example of a woman she has dealt with for several years who runs a parent-help organization for parents of children with mental illness. This is someone whom she has come to respect for being a dedicated, energetic and effective organizer. Often, however, they are at loggerheads because their perspectives on the same issue - legal rights of the mentally ill - cannot match. What the parent would like for the child is not always what the child is due under the law; and the interests of the parent (for instance, getting the best possible treatment for the child) are not always the interests of the educational system (providing educational services, not being a surrogate delivery mechanism of community mental health care). Functionally, they form two aspects of a coalition, because they are both striving to resolve what an outside observer may see as a single problem, but where at any moment it's unclear if the two participants believe they're on the same side or opposing sides.

In addition to coalitions, the description of knots in the courtroom, or the combination of adversaries and judges into one focused group definitely hit a chord, once again beyond the intensional network. Interestingly, there seems to be a scale of how well any individual hearing fits the description of knot - she felt that there were some cases where it was much more strongly descriptive of the experience than others. We haven't explored just yet what the points on the scale are.

What I come away with from my informal quality assurance test is that intensional networks, knots and coalitions all seem to describe aspects of work life in the current and emerging workplace. They do not appear to be different aspects of the same phenomenon, but rather different phenomena. They share a dimension that I would describe as stretching from operational (and "on the fly") to engineered (focused and well coordinated). Where they differ is that the intensional network takes a participant's point of view: it describes something that enables a process by which people go about collaborating with others; the knot or the coalition, on the other hand, takes an observer's point of view: they are descriptive of the collaborative pattern once formed. My discussions with Jan, in addition to the contrasts that Nardi, Whittaker and Schwarz draw, lead me to see that intensional networks need not lead to coalitions or knots; and coalitions and knots probably do not come about through intensional networks.



David Zager, Ph.D.
Vice President and Chief Scientist
Avesta Technologies, Inc.

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Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Letters to the Editor by David Zager
First Monday, volume 5, number 7 (July 2000),