Bodong Chen

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Notes: Engeström. (2000). Activity theory as a framework for analyzing and redesigning work



Citekey: @Engestrom2000-yq

Engeström, Y. (2000). Activity theory as a framework for analyzing and redesigning work. Ergonomics, 43(7), 960–974.


Summarize: Engeström expands on the notion of knotworking in this article, in comparison with the 1993 article. This is especially relevant to critical moments of knowledge creation. A bit surprising there has been not much uptake of this concept in KB research.

The notion of constant co-configuration is also interesting.




Cultural ±historical activity theory is a new framework aimed at transcending the dichotomies of microand macro-, mental and material, observation and intervention in analysis and redesign of work. The approach distinguishes between short-lived goal-directed actions and durable, object-oriented activity systems. A historically evolving collective activity system, seen in its network relations to other activity systems, is taken as the prime unit of analysis against which scripted strings of goal-directed actions and automatic operations are interpreted. (p. 1)

Activity systems are driven by communal motives that are often di cult to articulate for individual participants. Activity systems are in constant movement and internally contradictory. Their systemic contradictions, manifested in disturbances and mundane innovations, o er possibilities for expansive developmental transformations. Such transformations proceed through stepwise cycles of expansive learning which begin with actions of questioning the existing standard practice, then proceed to actions of analyzing its contradictions and modelling a vision for its zone of proximal development, then to actions of examining and implementing the new model in practice. New forms of work organization increasingly require negotiated `knotworking’ across boundaries. Correspondingly, expansive learning increasingly involves horizontal widening of collective expertise by means of debating, negotiating and hybridizing di erent perspectives and conceptualizations. (p. 1)

  1. Knotworking as an historical challenge (p. 13)

The notion of knot refers to rapidly pulsating, distributed and partially improvized orchestration of collaborative performance between otherwise loosely connected actors and activity systems. A movement of tying, untying and retying together seemingly separate threads of activity characterizes knotworking. The tying and dissolution of a knot of collaborative work is not reducible to any specific individual or fixed organizational entity as the centre of control. The centre does not hold. The locus of initiative changes from moment to moment within a knotworking sequence. Thus, knotworking cannot be adequately analyzed from the point of view of an assumed centre of coordination and control, or as an additive sum of the separate perspectives of individuals or institutions contributing to it. The unstable knot itself needs to be made the focus of analysis. (p. 13)

The rise and proliferation of knotworking is associated with ongoing historical changes in work and organizations. Victor and Boynton’s (1998) concept of coconfiguration is particularly interesting from the point of view of knotworking. (p. 13)

But co-configuration work takes this relationship up one levelÐit brings the value of an intelligent and adapting’ product. The company then continues to work with this customer±product pair to make the product more responsive to each user. In this way, the customisation work becomes continuous. Unlike previous work, co-configuration never results in afinished’ product. Instead, a living, growing network develops between customer, product, and company. (Victor and Boynton 1998: 195) (p. 13)

A hallmark of co-configuration is `customer intelligence’. To achieve it, a company will have continuously to configure its products and services in interaction with the customer. (p. 14)

Against this background, knotworking may be seen as the emerging interactional core of co-configuration. (p. 14)

To sum up, there are six criteria of co-configuration: (1) adaptive product or service; (2) continuous relationship between customer, product/service and company; (3) ongoing configuration or customization; (4) active customer involvement; (5) multiple collaborating producers; and (6) mutual learning from interactions between the parties involved. (p. 14)

Knotworking is related to the rise of temporary groups (Meyerson et al. 1996). However, temporary groups are understood as one-time formations created for the purpose of completing a task with a clear deadline. Knotworking, on the contrary, is a longitudinal process in which knots are formed, dissolved, and re-formed as the object is co-configured time and time again, typically with no clear deadline or fixed end point. In temporary groups, the centre still firmly rests in a definable, bounded group. In knotworking, the centre does not hold. (p. 14)