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3 The Artifacts Populating the Milieu

The dimensions discussed in the previous paragraphs consider the capability of the space to enable the construction or the reconstruction of the context where facts, actions and information take their meaning. However, the contents of this context (that is part of the milieu) have been only marginally referred to. The artifacts that people build and locate in the space play a relevant role in defining the context for the sense making that supports their collective action and knowledge creation. The nature of these artifacts is one of the relevant outcomes of several studies of the work practices that make collaboration smooth in routine and in unexpected situations: these studies have been conducted especially in the CSCW ambit (Kuutti, 2013). On the basis of these studies the role played by these artifacts is hereafter analysed in more detail.

There are artifacts whose role is to objectify the state of a collaborative distributed process: they can be called coordinative artifacts since they more or less explicitly show what has already been achieved in the process and what remains to be done and by whom. Examples of coordinative artifacts can be found in any situation where a (semi)structured document is “circulated” among stakeholders that inscribe it and in so doing let the collaborative process progress. For example, a bug report that coordinates the testing phase of a software product (Carstensen & Sorensen, 1996); a card that coordinates the work distribution in a (kanban) production system (Schmidt, 1994); or a Patient Record that is a web of artifacts that coordinate the care process at the patient bed among doctors and nurses (Bardram & Bossen, 2005).

There are artifacts whose role is to induce people to turn their attention to a specific fact or situation to make collaboration smooth and more situated in the current context: they can be called awareness promoting artifacts.[1] Examples of this kind of artifacts are typical alarm devices but also bulletin boards for different usages: from the explicit information contained in the list of approaching trains in a railroad station up to the more implicit and sometimes messy (for the external observer) information jotted down on a whiteboard in a hospital ward (Xiao, 2005).

Finally, there are artifacts whose role is to make permanent part of a repertoire that (typically) a CoP has defined and wants to explicitly share among its members: they have been called knowledge artifacts in (Cabitza, Colombo, & Simone, 2013) where they have been defined as[2]“a physical, i.e., material but not necessarily tangible, inscribed artifact that is collaboratively created, maintained and used to support ... knowledge creation and exploitation, collaborative problem solving and decision making within or across communities of practice; ... the representation language and the representations shared in such a knowledge artifact allow for an affordable, continuous and user-driven maintenance and evolution of both its structure and content at the appropriate level of underspecification (emphasis added)”.

This definition allows for a uniform characterization of different situations in which members belonging to one or more CoPs interact to collaborate and put their knowledge in common. In the same paper two examples of knowledge artifacts are described: we point the interested reader to it for all the details. In both cases the knowledge artifacts were created to support the design of the product that characterized the mission of the organization: they were about the core knowledge that should at the same time make the reuse of past design experiences easier and foster the creativity toward the identification of innovative features by an interdisciplinary community of designers. In both cases the representation language and the constructed representations were based on a very limited (although openended) set of conventional symbols that denoted the “few aspects” and the “few relations” among them that the designers deemed as really matter in “their” interdisciplinary design practices for innovation in the two target application domains. The knowledge artifacts were highly underspecified if compared with the complexity of the problems at hand; however exactly this underspecification was a successful means that the designers used to generate new ideas and to create the new products without being laded with the useless details of each discipline. The underspecified artifacts were cheap to maintain, flexible to changes and extremely effective to sustain the interdisciplinary design because they had been constructed bottom-up, from the shared design local practices. In one of the two cases, a slightly modified version of the knowledge artifact[3] played the role of boundary object between the community of the designers and that of the people involved in the production of the innovative products. Interestingly, the same representations that were the starting point of innovation for the designers community were used to reach the opposite goal by the other community: the uniformity of the production. In other words, the “object” was sufficiently robust to survive the crossing of the border between the two communities and sufficiently plastic to be useful for them to fulfil their different goals.

We conclude this section with a consideration that holds for all the kinds of artifacts presented above. On the one hand, they are not so easy to be identified within an organization: the mechanisms that make them effective are often incorporated in the so called invisible work (Star & Strauss, 1999) that escapes a superficial analysis of the organizations [too often driven by a top-down approach that takes the management perspective only: the management trap mentioned in (Huysman & Wulf, 2006)] or that are unduly confused with the artifacts that are the institutional outputs of the business processes; on the other hand, for their very nature, they are the “killer factors” for the design of useful and usable technologies supporting collaboration and knowledge creation as they capture the true practices that make the organization survive and smoothly reach its mission.

  • [1] The rich notion of awareness for sake of improving collaboration is thoroughly discussed in (Schmidt, 2002) and in the papers contained in the related special issue.
  • [2] This term has been defined in different and contradictory ways in the literature: for this reason we clarify the one we refer to in order to avoid misinterpretations
  • [3] Basically, with the same structure but without the contents that were sensible for sake of innovation
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