My notes and other stuff


Paper: Moving off the Map

These are notes I have taken elsewhere that I'm re-posting here as my weekly paper reading because it is quite simply one of my favourite papers ever.

Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organizational Operations Empowers and Alienates is a work of ethnography where a researcher embedded herself into 5 organizations including 6 projects aiming at re-structuration—business process redesign (BRP)—and which all had a phase of extensive process mapping. She noticed that at the projects' conclusions, most employees returned to their roles and got raises within the organization, but a subset of them who were centrally located within the organization decided to move to peripheral roles. She decided to investigate this.

What she found was that tracing out the structure of how work is done (and what work is done) and decisions are made was a significant activity behind the split. It happened because people doing this tracing activity had a shock when they realized that the business' structure was not coordinated nor planned, but an emergent mess and consequence of local behaviours in various groups. Their new understanding of work resulted in either Empowerment ("I now know how I can change things") or Alienation ("Nothing I thought mattered does, my work is useless here"), which explained their move to peripheral roles.

Some of these reports are also just plain heart breaking. I have so many highlights for it.

The paper starts by mentioning that centrally-located actors (people at the core of the management structure of an organization) are less likely to initiate change, and more likely to stall it. Additionally, desire for change are likely to come from the periphery, and as people move towards the center, that desire tends to go away. This is a surprise to no one.

However, if central actors are to initiate change, it comes from either a) contradictions, tensions, or inconsistencies are experienced and push them to reflections, and b) being exposed to how other organizations (or even societies) do things, which opens more awareness. These two things are called "disembedding", and can lead to central actors pushing for structural change.

The paper accidentally "discovered" a third approach: taking the time to study how things are done in the organization can cause that dissonance, and encourage central actors to move to the periphery of the organization in order to effect change because they lose trust in the structure of the organization itself and their role in it.

This was found out while the author was doing a study of 5 big corporations with 6 major business restructuration projects with hundreds of workers, and she noticed that while some employees went back to their roles (but with promotions), or towards roles that were more central when it was done, a subset of employees instead left very central roles to go work on the periphery, for sometimes less interesting conditions. So she started asking why and ran a big analysis.

What she noticed is that all the employees who eventually left their roles were assigned different specific tasks from the rest of people in these projects: they had been ask to do process mapping, where essentially they had to make a representation of "what we do here", how the business works, how decisions are made, and how information moves around. People not involved didn't find it significant, but people involved were shocked into leaving their roles, to make it short.

The author makes a point that it's not process mapping causing this, but rather that having a deep engagement in representing and understanding the operations of the organization and how their own role would fit in it would cause this to happen—it was probabilistic.

The tracing was done by employees who would do things like walk the floor, ask people how they do work, sit in meetings with question like "What do we do?" with people in various roles, asked them to list tasks on whiteboards, connecting them with strings, and consolidated into huge maps like the following, which connected local experiences into a broader organizational context:

Walls covered in colorful sheet of papers with strings between all elements. This is an implementation of process-mapping out the organization and who covers what

This had the effect of surface things that were previously invisible and make it discrete. This likely ties into concepts mentioned here before of "work as done" vs. "work as imagined":

The map allowed them to see how the system operated below the surface, integrating all the pieces to generate a comprehensive view. They commented on the uniqueness of this comprehensive view: “We don’t allow people to see the end-to-end view... to see how things interrelate.” One explained that the experience “ruins [one’s] perspective in a good way.” Another described how it gave her a “whole different way of looking at things.” By revealing the web of roles, relations, and routines that coalesce to make the organization, the map made the organization’s actual operation intelligible.


Competent members of organizations draw on everyday knowledge [...] as they perform their roles, but this knowledge does not speak to the organization’s broader order. Despite how remarkably capable these employees were at “recognizing, knowing, and ‘doing’ the lived order,” the broader order or structure is often “resistance to analytic recovery” from the inside. Even if they would like to observe and reflect on their organization’s detailed operating process, they rarely have opportunities, such as building process maps, that provide time and access.

So what were the immediate consequences? I'm quoting this directly:

They expected to observe inefficiencies and waste, the targets of redesign, and they did. Tasks that could be done with one or two hand-offs were taking three or four. Data painstakingly collected for decision-making processes were not used. Local repairs to work processes in one unit were causing downstream problems in another. Workarounds, duplication of effort, and poor communication and coordination were all evident on the map.

Beyond these issues, they observed a more fundamental problem. A team member explained, “I’m getting a really clear visual of what the mess is.” Standing back from the wall, he sighed, and said, “The problem is that it was not designed in the first place.” Instead of observing a system designed, adapted, and coordinated to achieve stated goals, he pointed to three examples on the map that demonstrated the exercise of agency in various places and at various levels in the organization. These change efforts lacked broader perspective and direction as well as coordination and integration with other efforts

They mention examples such as a "kingdom builder" where the map revealed some manager who kept accumulating departments for the sake of accumulating power but was invisible to the organization, and essentially just found a lot of "what the fuck, this is just random shit that's leftovers from really old decisions." People see local problems, general approaches, and they try to fix things. This clashes with things the organization tries to do (when it tries), and there is no coherent organization to anything:

Some held out hope that one or two people at the top knew of these design and operation issues; however, they were often disabused of this optimism. For example, a manager walked the CEO through the map, presenting him with a view he had never seen before and illustrating for him the lack of design and the disconnect between strategy and operations. The CEO, after being walked through the map, sat down, put his head on the table, and said, “This is even more fucked up than I imagined.” The CEO revealed that not only was the operation of his organization out of his control but that his grasp on it was imaginary.

They learned that what they had previously attributed to the direction and control of centralized, bureaucratic forces was actually the aggregation of the work and decisions of people distributed throughout the organization. Everyone was working on the part of the organization that they were familiar with, assuming that another set of people were attending to the larger picture, coordinating the larger system to achieve goals and keeping the organization operating. They found out that this was not the case.

This may not necessarily be surprising to people, but it may be surprising for people to learn that CEOs and others think they have so much more control than they do!

Anyway, the two reactions in general were either Empowerment or Alienation.

On the front of Empowerment, this is caused because:

Members of the organization carry on as though these distinctions are facts, burdening the organization’s categories, practices, and boundaries with a false sense of durability and purpose.


The idea that organizations are an ongoing human product was a provocative insight for these employees. This new perspective, as one explained, “made things seem possible.” Once they could see the “what” as a dynamic social creation, they could begin asking better questions about “how.” A team member explained that the logic of organization should not be fixed and how its rules, synthetic creations, are free to deviate


Their peripheral role choices allowed team members to exploit this new understanding of the organization’s operations. They could work with new assumptions about the mutability and possibility of the organization and create structures and systems to coordinate and direct the web of roles and interactions. Their new role choices also allowed them to remain above and outside of the organization’s daily operations.

So in short, getting how a lot of it isn't fixed, how a lot of it is arbitrary but flexible meant that these people felt they understood how to effect change better, and that by moving away from the center and into the periphery, they could start doing effective change work.

Alienation is so god damn heartbreaking though, and the author warns that before starting this process in an organization, you have to be ready that some people may feel a major shock that the work they thought was valuable and important is in fact useless and worth nothing. In fact the author warns that finding work and jobs that were not meaningful or useful at all was a common theme:

As part of the map-building process, employees were invited to identify their role on the map and to indicate how it was connected to other roles through either inputs or outputs. Team members recounted that it was difficult to observe employees “go through a real emotional struggle when they see that what they are doing is not really adding value or that what they are doing is really disconnected from what they thought they were doing.” In one case, a finance manager noticed that his role was on the wall but that it was not connected to any other role on the wall. He had been producing financial reports and sending them to several departments because he understood them to be crucial for their decision-making process; however, no one had identified his work as an input to theirs.

This realization was, in the end, devastating for him. He was on the verge of tears... at first, he became very argumentative and was trying to convince people that you go from this Post-it note down here to mine. [Other employees explained] Well no, we don’t do that. It was a two-hour conversation. And he finally sat down, and he said, so why am I doing this? It was devastating.

The eventual outcome of this “aha” was that the manager was moved to another role in the department after working four years in a position that had served almost no purpose.

After such analyses, team members could not look at particular roles and people in the same way.

A lot of people also found out that they thought they were solving real problems, helping people with real issues, finding real work-arounds, but found that in the overall organizational map, it was meaningless and had no impact: they could be fixing real problems in departments that themselves were not useful.

Others found that they had properly fixed issues by introducing new databases with critical information, but that they had been unable to get any buy-in for that, so analysts and people having spent a lot of time on these just had no impact at all:

Their knowledge of the limits of local, small-scale change and the futility of changing parts of the organization without addressing the system as a whole, discouraged employees from returning to their career in the organization. They did not want to contribute to the mess or reproduce the mess they had observed.


What they had learned could not be unlearned or ignored.

The author state that whether it is due to alienation or empowerment, both behaviours push people to move to the edges of the system, where they can either find new roles or types of changes that they believe are more useful. The structural knowledge gain essentially let them know of better ways to do useful things and enact change. Specifically, learning that the organization's structure is the result of interactions rather than a context in which they take place is a key learning that sociologists knew already:

This perspective or comprehension affects how we speak and act. We speak about organizations as if they are objects that exist independent of us, and we act as though they constrain and guide our actions. When we objectify social systems (organizations, communities, families, gender roles), we apprehend them as “prearranged patterns” that impose themselves on us, coercing particular roles and rules. We free ourselves to talk about and inhabit them as independent of us: as existing prior to us, standing before us, outliving us, and operating without us. Given this, we are relieved of greater responsibility for them. Our responsibility is to skillfully fulfill our role within these objectified realms.


Whereas, as some sociologists “know that organizations and institutions exist only in actual people’s doings and that these are necessarily particular, local and ephemeral”, employees may be less likely to know this. When they do, it problematizes their past and future participation.


The realization that social worlds do not have an independent, stable existence but instead emerge from our collective action is “sometimes arrived at in a moment of heady delight, but often as a horrifying realization”. This realization is considered a “fatal insight” because it destroys assumptions that the current order, roles, rules, and routines are given. Within the system of roles, rules, and routines, there is far more room to maneuver than previously assumed. Rejection of objectivity puts possibility, perhaps even responsibility, squarely in the court of subjectivity.

I think this quote above is real good.

I'm going to conclude with it (, although the author adds a bit of a section about mentioning that given this research means that we can suspect some of the most effective change to be driven by actors who once were at the core of the system and moved to its periphery. This likely is a sign that they know how shit works and have an idea of how to challenge it. Insider knowledge dragged to the edges may be a key for strong means to modifying how things work. I'll let you read the paper if you want the details of that.