Task Unpacking is the idea that work environments can be understood as ‘activity systems’, which can be unpacked using a few key prompts.
- Learn how different elements of a company fit together.
- Understand all of the pressures and key nodes of power in the organisation's structure.
- Learn where tensions exist between staff.
- Learn how a variety of processes might influence and determine a simple task.
Task Unpacking is particularly useful when changes are being made in your workplace. By unpacking the new way of working, you can identify what has (or has not) fundamentally changed and how it affects you.
For example, how has a new technology at work changed your social relationships in the organisation? Does this new technology negatively or positively affect the way that you go about certain tasks?
Alternatively, you could use this method to understand who you depend on at work, as well as where the bottlenecks for decision-making (and therefore power) are: for instance, who holds sign-off power, or who has a particularly scarce skill within the organisation?
Task Unpacking locates you and your workload within a broader social context, using a framework of seven elements.
By using these to ask questions about our work, this method can help reveal the specific objects, expectations, and relationships that our daily tasks rely upon. This helps us see how our work tasks are always joined up to a wider social context.
We come to a systematic analysis of our work and our position within these 7 elements, defined below:
Task: the 'thing that needs doing'
Myself: you, the task-doer!
Tech: any technology used in a work task, e.g. software, manual tools, desks, computers, phones etc.
Division of Labour: how the steps to achieving the Task are divided amongst staff
Outside Pressure: how customers, clients, board members and others who are outside the immediate staff impact the Task
Rules: what are the explicit "dos and don'ts" that glue your working environment and activity togther to complete the Task?
Outcome: the resulting product of your or your team's activity
Specifically, unpacking our activities in this way gives us a good sense as to the broader impact of changes in our workplaces.
For instance, if management decides to change a working practice - such as by using a new ‘instrument’, like a tool, a process, a new technology, then this might be met with opposition on the grounds that:
- Rules: "It doesn’t fit with our other systems/it breaches policy on X/it’s not the way we do it here", etc.
- Community: "Customers won’t like it, suppliers won’t like it, we’ll look stupid to the general public", etc.
- Division of Labour: "It’s not our responsibility, person X needs to give sign off for that, this would mean that I have less autonomy in my role / this would mean that manager authority is shaken / this tech makes some roles redundant," etc.
- Outside pressure: "It substantially changes the finished product to the customer's dissatisfaction", etc.
'Activity systems' - the overall network constituted by the seven elements ('task', 'tech', 'outside pressure' and so on) - can often seem as though they are fixed in place. However, by 'unpacking' these tasks through this method, we can sometimes start to reveal how different elements may be in tension with each other, such that a change in one aspect may have an impact or meet resistance elsewhere in the system.
- With at least one other colleague, on a piece of paper write 7 headings or 'elements': Myself, Tech, Task, Division of Labour, Outside Pressure, Rules, Outcome.
- Select one of the common, day to day tasks of your job.
- Describe how this task gets completed. The description must include each of the elements represented by the 7 headings. The best accounts will involve descriptions of how each element interacts with others: e.g. how does workplace Tech interact with the Division of Labour and your own position within it?
- Ask other colleagues if they agree with your description. Do they see things differently?
- As you go, draw the relationships between the elements on paper, including any descriptions of these relationships.
This method is an adaptation of the 'Cultural Historical Activity Theory' (CHAT) method, where work environments can be understood as ‘activity systems’.
There are some analogies here with the distinction in operaismo/autonomia between technical composition (the nature of work activities, in the top triangle) and broader political and social composition (recognised by the extension of the top triangle and the introduction of the ‘rules’, ‘community’ and ‘division of labour’).
The idea of the activity system can be used simply as an analytical tool. But in Developmental Work Research, Engeström proposes that it is used within what he describes as ‘change laboratories’ - where people involved in a particular activity system or group of activity systems spend time trying to identify the points in the system(s) where there are tensions and barriers to effective working or change.
This involves describing existing practices, but may also involve analysis of the community (much as in stakeholder analysis), the existing ‘rules’ that govern the system (both explicit and implicit), and ways in which the division of labour is reproduced in the environment.
A central strategy in a change laboratory is the introduction of ‘mirror data’ - collected by researchers or participants themselves, as a focus for these discussions. Thus other approaches to inquiry can feed into a change laboratory, documenting existing practice, illuminating tensions and contradictions already in the system, and providing a focus for discussion.
A Change Laboratory is typically conducted in an activity system that is facing a major transformation. This is often a relatively independent pilot unit in a large organization. Working practitioners and managers of the unit, together with a small group of interventionist-researchers, conduct five to ten successive Change Laboratory sessions, often with follow-up sessions after some months. When feasible, also clients, customers or patients are invited to join Change Laboratory sessions in which their particular cases are analyzed in detail’
— Engeström, Rantavuori & Kerosuo, 2013, p. 82
Engeström, Y. (2000). Activity theory as a framework for analyzing and redesigning work, Ergonomics, 43:7, 960-974, DOI: 10.1080/001401300409143
Engeström, Y. (2005). Developmental work research: Expanding activity theory in practice (Vol. 12). Lehmanns Media.
Engeström, Y., Rantavuori, J., & Kerosuo, H. (2013). Expansive learning in a library: Actions, cycles and deviations from instructional intentions. Vocations and Learning, 6(1), 81-106.
Engeström, Y., Lompscher, J., & Rückriem, G. (Eds.). (2016). Putting activity theory to work: Contributions from developmental work research (Vol. 13). Lehmanns Media.
Miettinen, R. (2009) Contradictions of High-Technology Capitalism and the Emergence of New Forms of Work in: Sannino, A, Daniels, H. & Gutiérrez, K.D. (eds.) Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge University Press.