Design Activities in Project Organisation

The study involved fieldwork investigations into three design and development projects at the Welwyn Garden City site of the (then) Development and Manufacturing (D&M) division of the Xerox Ltd Corporation. The fieldwork was for approximately three months in each case. The projects were varied in character. One was a short, fast track project which was to design and produce an add on high capacity feeder for a model of photocopier which was already on the market within little over a year from inception to launch, but which was cancelled in its first few months. A second project involved the `customisation' of a photocopier developed in Japan for Western markets, with research focusing primarily on the place of the software engineers within the project. Research on the third project studied one of the later phases of what was intended as a five year development of a distributed laser printer, a period in which the main work was the testing of prototype machines.

Real World Design

The research involved observation of the day to day activities of engineers on the various projects, taking notes on and making audio recordings of whatever work they engaged in.

The research aim was to gain an understanding of (design and development) work in an actual `real world' setting, with a view to describing the ways in which that work was organised under `industrial' conditions, with particular reference to the effect that organisational circumstances had upon it. The fact that work was undertaken in a `multi-engineering' environment (involving software and hardware engineers, the latter being of many different kinds) meant that collaboration had to take place between a variety of technical competencies. If the projects were comparatively large then there were requirements for the coordination of work tasks in elaborate patterns of interdependency. The work was, further, carried out under the constraints of the Corporation's apparatus of formal procedures - the Product Development Process (or PDP) and Quality management processes - and through a `matrix' system which involved interplay between departmental and project forms of organisation, as well as between project and departmental managements.

The principal emphasis of the reports from the study have been upon the ways in which the participants in projects managed--often effectively `juggled--the diverse requirements which provided constraints upon their work within the confines of the time, personnel and resources available to them. Commonly the project participants sought to maintain standards of `good engineering practice' in organisational circumstances which were often inimical to the full realisation of these. The tools and procedures which were provided to support and control the work of the engineers were often introduced through processes which did not necessarily best fit them to the xca organisational conditions of their intended use, for though the tools and procedures might themselves be such as could enhance project work they would nonetheless have to be employed on projects where preparation for their introduction, training in the use and opportunities to use them to their full potential would all be restricted. The reports also emphasise the extent to which problematic circumstances of the kind outlined above were treated by the engineers themselves as part of the routine realities of their work, the resolution of troubles in organising the project and its task being integral to the conduct of their work.

Internal Processes

The studies were initially undertaken to help raise the awareness of researchers and designers of the dynamism, complexity and practicality of the `real world' working environment, enabling greater sensitivity to these in the creation and development of new technologies. The research also allowed the continuing development of methods of investigation and analysis into work practice which could provide a basis for further studies in relation to Xerox's need to understand its customers--as with the research into the HMSO which is now under way. The research has also contributed to an understanding of `internal processes' and has enabled recommendations on issues such as `time-to-market', `quality', and `added value' to be made.


  • Graham Button
  • Wes Sharrock


  • Xerox Ltd Technical Centre (RXTC)

Key Reports

  • Bob Anderson, Graham Button and Wes Sharrock, Supporting the design process within an organisational context, in Michelis, Simone and Schmidt, eds, Proceedings of Third European conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Kluwer, 1993
  • Graham Button and Wes Sharrock, The acquisition of requirements and the application of procedures, in M. Jirotka and J. Goguen, eds., Requirements Engineering, Academic Press, 1994
  • Graham Button and Wes Sharrock, The mundane work of writing and reading computer code in G. Psathas and P. Ten Have, eds., Current Work in Ethnomethodology, University Press of America, 1994.
  • Graham Button and Wes Sharrock, Negotiating work practices on an engineering project, in A. Firth, ed., Negotiations, Academic Press, 1994
  • Graham Button and Wes Sharrock, Ethnomethodological studies of technical work, inS. L. Starr and G. Bowker, eds., Across the Great Divide, Social Studies of Technology, MIT, in press.