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Re-visiting the past. A meta-activity for learning in the IT Helpdesk.

Conference paper
Authors Ann-Charlotte Eklund
Åsa Mäkitalo
Published in Symposia paper presented at the EARLI SIG 14 meeting on Diversity in vocational and professional education and training, München, Germany.
Publication year 2010
Published at The Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction, and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS)
Department of Education, Communication and Learning
Language en
Subject categories Pedagogy, Communication Studies, Technology and social change


The use of information technology in organizations today has become critical to the performance of many core business activities. For this reason, IT helpdesks have come to play a fundamental role in ensuring that organizational networking systems and technologies work properly. Defining work tasks of support engineers are diagnosis, repair and maintenance for which they use experience as well as documenting resources. However, these resources are made up of lessons from earlier situations, i.e. not anticipating future problems. The support engineers’ expertise then lies in a constant readiness to act upon not yet known problems. Even though IT helpdesk are usually perceived of as technically oriented, the quality of work is not only a matter of technical expertise. Despite the importance of persistent and steady support functions, little is known about the ways in which helpdesk teams build on expert knowledge and collectively learn situated ways of performing work. Documenting practices are everpresent in work activities, especially with the use of information technology and computers, in which conversations, agreements and so forth are stored for later use. Computers have thus become vehicles that offer availability to the past, that provides a textual means of remembering the past. Carrying out work tasks is in fact often about ‘invoking the past’, that is, to recollect and make use of previous activities in relation to present conditions. Understanding of the ways in which work teams collaboratively cope with work tasks demands in situ studies of authentic work situations in which both people and tools are incorporated in the analysis. A number of researchers from different research traditions have called attention to this. In the area of cognitive anthropology, Hutchins (1995) shows how an aircraft is manoeuvred by analysing the ways in which the two pilots interact and make use of the other and textual resources. He pinpoints the intricate ways in which actions and text are intertwined, how they all together form the basis of actions. By regarding all activities and tools in the cockpit he shows how they together form a functional and redundant system of remembering vital details that will avoid the aircraft to experience danger. Within the ethnometodological tradition, Button and Sharrock (2000), make a close analysis of interacting engineers engaged in a problem-solving process of the design of a copy machine. The log files used by the engineers in the activity come subsequently to be transformed into coming actions by their focus on specific details. Verbalisation of these details, time being an important one, support the team in the sense-making of the problem and to understand it i relation to the copy machine system. It is through the collective work of talking about the document that understanding is developed, something the text in itself thus not allows for. Another means of remembering are stories. Narratives can be seen as material artefacts when they are treated as non-discursive (Brown, Middleton & Lightfoot, 2001). Orr (1996) reports in his ethnographic study how technicians make use of stories in diagnosing and repairing copy machines. The stories are seen to have multiple functions where they provide support in unknown situations as well as forming the identity of the technicians. Orr’s take on stories, are that they are work and thus should be included in the analysis of how teams manage work: “it is crucial to note that stories do more than celebrate the job; they are part of the job.” (Orr, 1996, p. 143). From a sociocultural perspective, the challenges in the IT helpdesk practice can be described as how participants learn to find out what is wrong in a given circumstance, knowing where to find appropriate information, and sharing what is done and how with the rest of the team through face-to-face interaction and documenting practices. Being a competent support team member then calls for participation and learning in institutionalised sense-making activities about work, as well as in the course of daily activities (Brown, 2005). For teams working under changing conditions it has become necessary to pay attention to the ”constantly changing processes and practices of work and try to analyse situationally the different options for practice that are provided by the various aims and tasks” (Collin, 2008, p. 394). In this study we explore a recurrent discursive activity (Scheeres, 2007) set up by the organization to get support engineers together to learn about delivering a service with the high ambition of a team performing in unison. The activity is based on the team’s previous documentation of troubleshooting activities that is revisited and discussed. When previously performed work becomes object of discussion in a systematic way, questions of how collaboration and team learning are achieved and sustained becomes an interesting topic of analysis. The objective of the present study is to explore how such a meta-activity is arranged and to investigate how talk about work is used for team learning purposes. The data we draw on consist of participant observations, video recordings and the documentation used in the activity. The video recordings cover five so called ’Case studios’ and amount to 8,5 hours of talk of 46 cases. The meta-activity studied was found to be productive in a number of ways. Among other things, a) examples of actual conduct showed the importance of each team member in collaborative work, and on the basis of such collective recognition, norms of conduct were formulated as collaborative efforts, and, b) the leaders’ capacity of using the narrative form let the engineers learn about themselves and the organization from an inside-out perspective. Our conclusion is that meta-activities of this kind seem to offer good opportunities for systematic dissemination of knowledge, negotiation of work routines and collective norm modeling which are grounded in documentation of participants’ everyday action. References: Baker, C., Emmison, M., & Firth, A. (2005). Calibrating for competence in calls to technical support. In C. Baker, M. Emmison & A. Firth (Eds.), Calling for help: Language and social interaction in telephone helplines. Amsterdam: John Benjamin. Brown, A. (Ed.). (2005). Learning while working in small companies: comparative analysis of experiences drawn from England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain: SKOPE Monograph No 7., ESRC funded Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, Oxford and Warwick Universities. Brown, S., Middleton, D., & Lightfoot, G. (2001). Performing the past in electronic archives: Interdependencies in the discursive and non-discursive ordering of institutional rememberings. Culture & Psychology, 7(2), 123. Button, G., & Sharrock, W. (2000). Design by problem-solving. Workplace Studies: Recovering Work Practice and Informing System Design, 46-67. Castellani, S., Grasso, A., O’Neill, J., & Roulland, F. (2009). Designing Technology as an Embedded Resource for Troubleshooting. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 18(2), 199-227. Collin, K. (2008). Development engineers' work and learning as shared practice. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 27(4), 379-397. Eklund, A.-C., Mäkitalo, Å., & Säljö, R. (2010). Noticing the past to manage the future: On the organization of shared knowing in IT-support practices. In S. Ludvigsen, A. Lund, I. Rasmussen & R. Säljö (Eds.), Learning across sites. New tools, Infrastructures and Practices. Routledge. González, L. M., Giachetti, R. E., & Ramirez, G. (2005). Knowledge management-centric help desk: specification and performance evaluation. Decision Support Systems, 40, 389-405. Hutchins, E. (1995). How a cockpit remember its speed. Cognitive Science, 19, 256-288.

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