social activity theory and the case of University - Industry collaboration
John Perkins, Sharon Cox
School of Computing, Faculty of Computing, Information and English, University of Central England, Birmingham, UK.
Keywords: Knowledge management, information s
ystems analysis, supply-chain management, socio-technical systems,
social activity theory, information requirements analysis, collaborative systems, e-commerce systems.
Abstract: E-commerce systems involve collaborative systems that support and enable trading partners to work
together as members of communities of practice. Eliciting the information requirements necessary to design,
develop and run these systems requires understanding of what practitioners do in practice, as well as what
policy directives impose as practice. A practice-centric approach is proposed for identification of elements
of practice, a brief summary is made of some tools and concepts from Social Activity Theory and their
relevance for further analysis of collaborative system information requirements is assessed.
E-business removes the need for physical contact
between trading partners or agents. Teams of
practitioners, which are dispersed geographically,
organisationally and culturally, need to operate as a
form of community in order to enable the trading
system to work effectively through its technical
infrastructure. The traditional face-to-face approach
to developing mutual trust and a shared
understanding of the trading system is rarely
available to them. Instead they develop practice
within a technical system overlaid with socio-
cultural rules. This is what we refer to here as a
collaborative system.
Communities using these systems are highly
ependent upon sharing knowledge that enables
them to be effective practitioners. This reciprocal
dependency between practice and knowledge
maintains the criticality of communication, co-
ordination and co-operation (Bafoutzou and Mentzas
2002) in collaborative systems that perform
satisfactorily. Sharing of knowledge is, in turn,
highly dependant upon the establishment of trust
within practitioner communities and allows the
community knowledge to be accessed and
contributed to by its members.
In previous work, a socio-technical view of
oping collaborative systems between trading
partners has been examined (e.g. Dingley & Perkins,
2000). This paper proposes an approach to identify
the information requirements of such systems,
exploring the relationship between policy and
collaborative practice.
Problems with the development and management
f systems that attempt to enable collaboration arise
as a result of building the systems on cardinal, or
espoused requirements of practice projected from
policy requirements. We propose that in contrast,
the actual practice that often results from individual
practitioners ‘working around’ policy directives to
achieve finite results in a situation where time and
other operational resources are rationed (Lipsky
1980) should form the basis for determining the
information requirements.
Computer supported co-operative practice
has recognised this problem of identifying
actual as opposed to cardinal practice, but it remains
a difficult problem (Sachs 1995). By the nature of
the encultured and embodied knowledge that enables
expertise, it is highly tacit and often not recognisable
in an explicit form even by the practitioner who
employs it in practice activity. An approach to
develop information systems that more effectively
enables collaborative activity needs to be situated
within the study of practice activity itself.
This paper introduces some recent approaches
nown collectively as Social Activity Theory
Perkins J. and Cox S. (2004).
E-SYSTEMS DESIGN THROUGH THE STUDY OF AUTHENTIC WORK PRACTICE - social activity theory and the case of University - Industry
In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems, pages 317-324
DOI: 10.5220/0002648203170324
developed in the social sciences as a means of
identifying authentic practice with a view to
analysing its information system requirements.
1.1 Approach
This paper aims to propose an approach to
investigate the information needs of groups of
collaborating practitioners. It provides a context for
the critical appreciation of some recent theory.
Collaboration in practice is explored both between
industrial partners and between a UK University and
an industrial organisation. The study is principally
aimed at individual practitioners and the groups, or
communities that they form in the conduct of their
The following section explores the subject of
collaboration to clarify its meaning and practice. A
taxonomy of academic-industry collaboration is then
proposed as it pertains to a computing school in a
UK University in order to develop information
systems based on practitioner needs. The paper will
identify some of the policy developments that
provide explicit influence upon institutional
frameworks. It concludes by identifying means by
which collaborative activity might be examined
more closely to reveal the authentic patterns of
practice of e-trading practitioners
In the UK Higher Education sector there are
considerable pressures upon academic staff to
collaborate with their colleagues inside their
institution, with their colleagues at co-operating
institutions and with commercial and industrial
partners. The rationale for this collaboration may be
positioned at a number of different organisational
levels and orientations. It might be situated at the
level of technical rationality with resource efficiency
and effectiveness as the primary criteria.
Alternatively it might be at the level of academic
research or teaching practice as a means of more
effectively situating learning through immersion in
practice. Yet another situation might involve
collaboration as a tool for social engineering,
especially with a view to redistributing educational
Frequently the collaborations that academics
become involved with are entered into in relative
ignorance of the issues and criteria that surround the
immediate task. The integration of these activities is
ostensibly integrated under the umbrella of
University policies that dictate strategy and lend
guidance to practice (UCE 2002). However policy
frequently falls short of providing adequate and
appropriate direction to the individual or group
engaged in practice involving collaborative work.
The practice that results is likely to reflect the
behaviour referred to as that of the ‘street-level
bureaucrat’ (Lipsky 1980). This refers to behaviour
where the discretion arising from job ambiguity is
used to develop new practices to control the
behaviour of clients and introduce the rationing of
scarce resources. This may give rise to institutional
uncertainty and doubt that changes the nature of
collaborative activity. Alternatively it may provide
sufficient ambiguity of objectives to collaborating
practitioners that they feel enfranchised to take on
board further powers of discretion in their roles. The
problem appears to be of mapping espoused policy
to roles and practice. The determination of the
conceptual foundations of collaboration and in
particular, academic-industrial collaborative
practice, may provide a means to address this
problem of activity specification.
2.1 Generic Concepts of
The notion of collaboration is a broad one. A
dictionary definition gives two meanings: the first is
‘to work together, especially in a joint intellectual
effort’. The second is ‘to cooperate treasonably, as
with an enemy occupation force in one’s country’
(www.yourdictionary.com). This indicates at least
two factors. Firstly, the meaning of the term is
historically and socially situated. It implies that the
partners’ ‘joint-ness’ is equal and that the partners
in collaboration share common goals, enjoy equal
benefits and wield equal power. These initial
assumptions about the nature of collaboration appear
to be contested by much literature on observed
practice in collaborative work situations (Tett 2003,
Booher and Innes 2002). Secondly, collaboration has
not always occupied high moral ground.
Collaboration frequently appears to contain a strong
competitive element. The notion that collaboration
can go too far and become tantamount to
‘fraternisation with the enemy’ is another common
feature of reports on collaborative practice (Loan-
Clarke and Preston 2002). Power and status within
the partnerships undergoing collaboration also
appear to be potentially interesting issues to guide an
investigation into its conceptual foundations.
2.2 Collaboration Policy within the
Industrial Sector
The nature of interaction between suppliers,
customers and fellow competitors in a market driven
capitalist system such as that in the UK remains
reasonably well represented by the original ideas of
Adam Smith (2001) developed 250 years ago. The
introduction of concepts of relative power between
competing participants within competitive
marketplaces was developed further during the early
1980’s when free market economy was developing
as the dominant contemporary paradigm in the USA
and UK (Porter 1980) when the principal motivation
of survival within a competitive marketplace was
extended into a concern with strategic alliances used
to gain competitive advantage. The concept of value
chains and value networks were used to provide
metaphors capturing and objectifying this dialogue
(Porter 1985). Many management approaches
followed in an attempt to develop competitiveness
(Alvesson 2002).
The development of Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) from the 1990s
was perceived as a significant weapon for securing
advantage completive advantage for industry and
commerce (Synnot 1987). The development of the
Internet and the introduction of the world-wide web
in the early 1990s brought about some profound
changes in the way that technology might mediate
traditional ways of competing (Gates 1996).
Within the UK retail sector, for instance, major
supermarkets all established electronic trading
networks. In some research conducted over a four-
year action research programme into a collaborative
e-commerce system in the retail sector, suppliers to
these monolithic organisations were effectively
compelled to change their systems of trading to
comply with the technical and operational
requirements of these systems (Perkins and Dingley
2001). The structure of the collaborative systems
that resulted imposed considerable differences in the
amount of power that the collaborating partners
could bring to bear on other partners (Perkins et al
2003), however, suppliers willingly assented to
become part of the collaborative trading system as
they considered that their position in the supply
chain produced by the collaboration increased their
chances of survival within the market as a whole
(Perkins and Dingley 2001).
2.3 Collaboration Policy within the
University Context
Cycles of mutual dependency and antipathy have
long existed between the UK government and the
University sector. These have been responsible for a
series of legislation and supporting policy that is
well documented (Trowler 2003, Kogan and
Hanney 1999 and Henkel 1999). New expectations
of education/industrial collaboration by the UK
government and its agencies through legislation date
back to at least 1994 with the White Papers on
competitiveness (DTI 1994) and Foresight (DTI
1997). This launched the debate on public-private
interests in research and provided a means of
scanning the environment for determining social,
economic and market trends and deciding upon
appropriately responsive research policy as a result.
The Dearing Report (Dearing 1997) contained
explicit recommendations that UK universities
should collaborate rather than compete. It also
recommended that institutions of higher learning
should be represented on Regional Development
Boards, establishing a participatory role for
universities in local economic development. Tett
sees the concept of collaboration as integral to the
current UK government ideology:
‘These themes of collaboration and partnership,
sometimes referred to by the shorthand term ‘joined-
up government’, are at the centre of New Labour’s
vision of the welfare state’ (Tett et al 2003).
In contrast with the situation in the industrial
sector, and with the exception of the sort of
collegiate research collaboration described by Smith
(2001), collaboration within UK universities is not
as well established. At the corporate level,
universities are frequently involved in collaboration
in research joint ventures as a result of
encouragement by government policy (FEFC 1997).
Also there is considerable incentive to collaborate
with overseas institutions of learning as a means of
increasing income independently of government
funding. Both types of initiative may be seen to be
parallel to the needs within the industrial sector to
create and be protected by the synergy resulting
from monolithic networks of trading influence.
In general however, within UK universities it
appears that tangible collaboration at the level of
individual academic practitioners has been
normative, localised and often ad-hoc. Specific
examples of policy directives on how collaboration
should be achieved are rare. Research collaboration
is encouraged in principle, but the effects of a
structural devolution of power to specialised
faculties and departments tends to become a serious
barrier to managing cross-faculty or cross-
case of University - Industry collaboration
institutional projects that require resources (Smith
2.4 Collaboration policy between
Universities and Industry
The present UK government has made a strategic
commitment to securing collaboration between the
two sectors but there is evidence that academic-
industrial collaboration meets with problems arising
from a lack of common goals and a lack of mutual
benefits (DTI 2000).
Many of the goals that are held in common
between industrial and academic institutions exist
primarily at the top levels of corporate University
management. The financial management of
organisations in both industrial and academic sectors
share common concerns about securing income,
managing costs and optimising cash flow. They are
also both constrained by government policy that
seeks to position research grants and other major
funded projects in elite teams situated within elite
institutions, both industrial and academic (Jarvis
2000). At middle levels of management as well as at
the level of active practitioners in both academic and
industrial organisations there appears to be a much
lower incidence of common goals. Work by
Willmott (1998) identified differing attributes of
practitioners in a sample of industrial organisations
compared to a sample of academic practitioners.
Loan-Clarke and Preston (2002) focus on research
practice but identify areas of tension and power their
case study hybrid practitioner. These include:
theory as opposed to practice orientation
rigour against relevance
insider against outsider orientation
academic (research) role against practice
(management) role.
Academic-industrial collaboration can be
interpreted as potentially beneficial from one of a
number of standpoints. Firstly, and seen from the
viewpoint of national policy, it appears to provide a
cost-effective means of embedding government
policy into the Higher Education sector. Secondly,
seen from the viewpoint of those sponsoring
research for the purpose of increasing national
wealth and academic prestige, it provides a
framework for developing elite research
partnerships. UK government policy is to encourage
the structural embedding of collaboration between
industry and the Universities. However, at the level
of academic and industrial practice there appear to
be some generic problems. Short-term common
goals that are valued by both academic and
industrial partners are difficult to identify (Jones
2002). Government research funding programmes
frequently address this with explicit performance
measurement requirements. However, the implicit
interpersonal relationships that provide the more
tacit components of collaboration, such as mutual
trust, are not so frequently assessed in such
Overall, academic-industrial collaboration
appears to have lacked the drive from survival or
competitive pressures that typically lead industry to
collaborate In general, and with the possible
exception of some practitioner-led research
programmes (Smith 2001), there has been an
absence of bottom-up initiatives for academic-
industrial collaboration. Government policy
requirements have insisted that such collaboration
will take place and this has led to enforced top-down
collaboration in Universities when they bid for
major research and other significant projects. But
top-down pressure for collaboration tends not to be
effective (Smith 2001).
This reflection on the impact of policy on how e-
commerce practitioners interact in collaborative
systems has been examined at a strategic level up to
this point. This is useful for identifying macro
influences on e-commerce systems but is remote
from the operational practice that enabling e-
commerce systems are intended to operate. In order
to identify information requirements it is necessary
to resolve specific activities where practice exists.
This will be the subject of the next part of this paper.
A variety of tasks are called collaboration.
Collaboration comprises many different practices
and policy will impact upon them in different ways.
The taxonomy proposed here will provide a means
of refocusing upon this interaction. The notion of
collaborative practice is distributed over all shades
and varieties of practice. Smith (2001) identifies
categories specifically for the research area of higher
education, and this has a usefully simple, if not fully
explanatory function for collaborative practice in
general. His categories comprise:
Corporate partnerships
Team collaboration
Inter-personal collaboration
This scheme maps well to the notion of practice
at the macro (national/organisational), meso (local
community of practice) and micro (individual and
small group) levels. The macro level addresses the
areas of strategic consideration of overall policy
within the operation of educational schemes. The
micro level addresses the activity of individual
tactical educational practice. Finally, the meso level
bridges the gap between these two end points of the
practice continuum. It does this by considering the
activities of closely co-operating groups, or
communities of practice that interact dynamically
with other communities. This model appears to be a
useful way to structure discussion on how these
categories of collaborative practice act and interact.
Smith bases his work on academic research practice
in Universities. This model may be further qualified
in terms of the universal, reformist and radical
approaches to practice identified by Martin (1987) in
his study of community education. This uses an
alternative characterisation of approaches described
Under the universal model, it is assumed that
there are shared values and a working consensus
with a basic harmony of interests. In this view the
community educator’s role is to make universal non-
selective provision for all ages and groups. Under
the reformist model, it is assumed that there is a
plurality of interests with inter-group competition
for resources. Here, selective intervention is made
by the community educator to assist disadvantaged
people and socially excluded areas. Under the
radical model, it is assumed that interests are in
conflict because existing structures create inequality
and powerlessness. In this model, the community
educator’s intervention is based on ‘developing with
local people political education and social action
focused on concrete issues and concerns in the
community’ (Martin 1987: 25).
Another viewpoint comes from the management
literature. Bush (1995) identifies five distinct types
of educational management orientations through
which collaborative activity might be viewed. These
These categories are by no means an elegant
mapping of approaches to the problem of addressing
the multiple dimensions of collaborative practice.
Each of them assumes that only one archetypal
category is consistently dominant throughout the
course of an element of practice. However, any
area where ‘everything depends on everything else’
may benefit from the sacrifice of some precision in
definition in order to gain a small breakthrough in
discerning patterns of collaborative practice (Fullan
A simple taxonomy of practice was developed
from two interviews conducted with an academic
partner and an industrial partner to a joint project
(Dingley and Perkins 1999). This data was
triangulated with data taken from observation of
collaboration between academic and industrial
institutions. This provides a complementary way of
integrating parts of these three models in order to
look at specific examples of what is meant by
collaborative practice. The taxonomy is built upon a
scale where one end is occupied by practice that is
predominantly controlled, or influenced by academic
institutions (for example, teaching and learning
practice) and the other end by industrial influence
(for instance, applied research and development
At the educationally oriented end of the
practice continuum this taxonomy comprises:
A1 Industrial practitioners from industry -
guest lectures from industry- relation of
categorical information.
A2 Industrial practitioners as guest lectures
relating case studies for problem solving
A3 Industrial practitioners acting as team
members in academic workshops
A4 Groups of industrial practitioners giving
access and information to academic staff
and/or students
A5 Groups of industrial practitioners
providing access to research by academic
A6 Groups of academic staff sharing
resources and research outcomes
A7 Industrial institutions providing access to
academic institutional staff and students
for placements, workshop activities
A8 Industrial institutions providing access
and facilities to academic institutional for
educational projects
A9 Industrial institutions sharing resources
and research outcomes (joint venture).
case of University - Industry collaboration
At the industrially oriented end of the practice
continuum this taxonomy comprises:
B1 Academic practitioners act as
trainers/advisors for the relation of
categorical information
B2 Academic practitioners act as guest
lecturers relating case studies for problem
B3 Academic practitioners acting as team
members in industrial projects
B4 Groups of academic practitioners give
access and information to industrial staff
and/or students
B5 Groups of academic practitioners provide
access to research by industrial staff
B6 Groups of academic staff share resources
and research outcomes with industrial
B7 Academic institutions provide access to
industrial institutional staff for personal
development and training
B8 Academic institutions provide access and
facilities to industrial institutional for
educational projects
B9 Academic institutions share resources
and research outcomes (joint venture).
This simple categorisation provides a
rudimentary taxonomy of this example of
collaborative practice observed between an
academic and an industrial institution, its groups and
its individuals. The development from initial types
of collaborative practices to more mature forms is
characterised by the taxonomy proposed above.
Increasingly intensive forms of collaboration, such
as that from A1 to A3, or B7 to B9, involve more
developed levels of collaborative ability, motivation
and cultural affinity to collaborative action.
Development of the collaborative practice in this
way is accompanied by a concurrent development of
a number of attributes of the developed collaborative
system. These include time invested in the
collaborative arrangement, by a higher level of trust
amongst the participating practitioners, by an ability
to identify benefits accruing from the partnership, by
holding some goals in common and by having begun
to institutionalise, or ‘tempered’ the relationship in a
way in which interpersonal tensions are released
sufficiently to enable participants to be able to
perform in the joint practice that emerges from the
collaborative work system (Dingley and Perkins
3.1 Refining and Using the Taxonomy
An example of collaborative practice between an
academic member of staff from UCE and a major
industrial manufacturer of soft drinks was used to
test the proposed taxonomy. The investigation
involved an interview with a member of UCE staff
involved in an extended collaborative project and an
interview with a senior member of a business
organisation involved in the same exercise.
Observation of the practice that took place in some
of these activity groupings was done concurrently
through a programme of action research over a
period of four years.
The taxonomy can be used as a basis for
identifying degrees of departure from cardinal
practice, that is practice that ostensibly ‘should’
happen if accepted policy is interpreted literally by
practitioners. This can be compared with authentic
practice, which is about what really happens when
practitioners use ‘work arounds’ that cope with the
work-based pragmatics of managing limited time
and resource availability.
Let us take as an example practice B6 – ‘groups
of academic staff share resources with industrial
staff’. The cardinal practice set by policy in this area
of activity might dictate that e-commerce systems
must enable groups of practitioners from both
industry and academia to access research outcomes
in a particular area. Design activity to carry this out
might result in common data being made available
through a web-based portal and with this technical
infrastructure in place, the policy need is ostensibly
satisfied. In observed practice however the case
study identified differences of preferences for
information presentation between academic and
industrial partners. Summarising the observations
briefly, academic partners expected emerging
research data to be presented and discussed in some
forum. Industrial partners expected a summary of
best practice principles to emerge from the data that
might inform tactical decision making for current
practice. The information was strongly mediated by
its coding and presentation. Frequently the
knowledge of practice that the collaborative system
information was expected to support was of a
category that could not be coded in any explicit
The study of authentic practice within
communities of practitioners is necessary to
determine the cultural rules that underpin routine
practice and provide a process of authentic
information requirements determination. An
approach that is currently emerging from the social
sciences and organization studies that offers some
valuable advice is that of Social Activity Theory.
3.2 The Role of Social Activity
This developing area sets as its main focus the study
of organisational culture through the medium of the
work practices that comprise and result from it. It
comprises an eclectic body of research and provides
useful tools for the analysis of work practice
identified through the taxonomy developed above.
Blackler’s taxonomy of knowledge is a
significant move away from the traditional concept
of knowledge as abstract, disembodied, individual
and formal (Blackler 1995). Instead a model of
knowledge as embodied, embedded, embrained,
encultured and encoded is proposed. Rather than
studying knowledge as something individuals or
organizations supposedly possess, the attribute of
‘knowing’ is seen as something that they do. This is
used to analyse the dynamics of the systems through
which knowing is accomplished. With this
reorientation of approach,
‘..knowing in all its forms is analysed as a
phenomenon which is: (a) manifest in systems of
language, technology, collaboration and control (i.e.
it is mediated); (b) located in time and space and
specific to particular contexts (i.e. it is situated); (c)
constructed and constantly developing (i.e. it is
provisional); and (d) purposive and object-oriented
(i.e. it is pragmatic).’ (Blackler 1995)
Blackler uses Activity Theory (Engestrom 2001)
to identify this knowledge situated within
communities of practice. Engestrom’s model of
socially distributed activity systems explores the
dynamics between agents, such as the users of
collaborative systems, objects of activity, such as
trading processes, and the community that this
trading takes place within. The way that these
elements are mediated by implicit or explicit rules,
by roles and divisions of labour and by instruments
and technology such as their information systems are
then analysed.
Michael Eraut introduces processes of distributed
learning and distributed ‘knowing’ about how
practice should be conducted (Eraut 2000). Recent
research from psychology and education into
memory structures and knowledge acquisition
pathways are presented to allow a deeper
understanding of some of the cognitive processes
taking place within the activities analysed.
Collaborative systems are important to successful e-
commerce systems, which are in turn a vital
component of modern business. But the nature of
collaboration is not clear. This is problematical
practices can turn out to be different from their
ostensible policy specification,
the community in which those practices are
understood to be actioned can reject them
the knowledge that drives work practices can be
located in places or media inaccessible to the
information systems supposedly enabling them.
An approach to improving the ability of
collaborative information systems to support
authentic work practice is proposed. This begins
with the development of taxonomies of practice for
the specific work situation under examination. It
moves on to using participant surveys and
observation to refine the nature of individual
practice. Conceptual tools from Social Activity
Theory are then identified in order to better
determine the information requirements of systems
to support the collaborative practice.
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