Distributed Document Production and Use

XRCE is undertaking an ethnographic examination of professional workers at the International Monetary Fund, in Washington, D.C. The main purpose of the study is to understand the role of tools and technology in current work practice, and to use that understanding to determine what changes might be brought about by the introduction of new kinds of tools and technologies. Findings from the study have general implications for the design of technologies in the support of professional collaborative work.

The Work of Professionals

The main purpose of the study is to understand the work of professionals. Professional workers engage in work that is prototypical of the new forms of document work envisaged by Xerox. They are of interest to us for at least two reasons.

First, there is the importance of professional workers to organisational activity. It is professionals who are key to decision-making, who have central roles in information production and use, and whose activities are key to organisational effectiveness. Second, despite their importance, very little is known about professional workers from a systems design perspective. And furthermore, what is known varies considerably in depth and quality. Taken as a whole, it is clear that the work practices of professionals need much more investigation. Theoretical developments from other disciplines, most especially sociology, need to be empirically corroborated; and a great range of empirical material needs to be brought to bear on system design issues.

The International Monetary Fund (the IMF) was selected for investigation for several reasons: First, nearly a third of its staff have a professional role. Second, these staff are involved in producing highly complex and analytical reports. This work is quintessentially professional. Third, the IMF was willing to allow researchers to examine all aspects of their professional work, including the most confidential. Fourth, the IMF was willing to allow examinations over extensive periods of time, enabling the researchers to fully understand the nature of the professional activity. In short, the IMF provided an opportunity for a thorough ethnographic examination of professional activity.


The method used in the research was ethnographic. Ethnographic methods incorporate a number of procedures:

  • Interviews with 138 personnel, including 90 economists, and a selection of staff from all other levels from secretary up to deputy managing director
  • Analysis of the document process for the production of staff reports from first draft through review, to translation, printing, and circulation;
  • Close observation of an IMF `mission' and its allied document production practices.

Document Creation

The study of the IMF has been generating materials that have business value in a number of important ways.

First, the study is uncovering the parameters defining the utility of those collaborative tools that offer information sharing capacities over LANs. These are the most common type of tool, and this knowledge, (and the nature of use), enables the corporation to better direct its marketing efforts. It is also enabling the design of new desk top products.

Second, the study is uncovering important aspects of document design. It is clear that the way information is conveyed and presented is crucial to getting that information accepted and acted upon. The study of the IMF is indicating what are the tacit aspects of document design that professional workers have been incorporating into their work practices, and what are those concerns that they systematically embed in their documents. These systematic features include techniques for the presentation of management summaries, tables and graphs, and the use of formatting styles to indicate the "status' and hence meaning of some documents.

Third, the study is mapping out the life cycle of documents in professional work. Each stage of this life cycle can be supported by various technologies. A particular discovery has been that paper plays an important role in the re-use of certain types of professional documents. In particular it is important in relation to those documents that contain high levels of professional judgement. Document re-use is important for an organisational flexibility.


  • Richard Harper


  • IMF
  • PARC Computer Science Laboratory
  • XSoft

Key Reports

  • What is a Document?, R. Harper, Preliminary Report. XRCE, September 1993.
  • Documents and Desk Officers: Some Preliminary Remarks, R. Harper. XRCE, January 1994.
  • Portable Porthole Pads: An Investigation into the use of a Ubicomp Device to Support the Sociality of Work, R. Harper. XRCE, March 1994.
  • Two Information Machines within One Organisation: Policy, Statistics and Information Work at the IMF, R. Harper. XRCE, June 1994.
  • XRCE's Study of the IMF: Selected Results, R. Harper. XRCE, August 1994.
  • Collaborative Tools and the Practicalities of Professional Work, R. Harper and A. Sellen. XRCE, September 1994.