I had an interesting meeting with Gina Venolia this morning during which she used the term “phenomenologist.” I haven’t heard that term in a while, but it was a welcome utterance for sure. Gina and I were talking about knowledge – how it is used in teams, how it moves among people, how it gets captured and embellished in boundary objects. I was somewhat surprised to have an 80 minute conversation with a Microsoft Researcher and not have the topic of software developer (as a researcher’s objective, not as an area of study) come up. I have tremendous respect for much of the work in which Microsoft Research people I know engage, but I’ve always read it as having an eye to what Microsoft might develop for sale next. Not in a bad way, just in a way that’s very different from the product agnostic approach of academic research. Gina seemed welcoming of my phenomenologist tendencies (to study phenomenon with an eye to describing them) and unphased by my explanation that I no longer spend much energy thinking about systems I could build. The idea that I wouldn’t have to spend all my energy thinking about how to build a technical system using the knowledge I learned studying a phenomenon makes me more excited about doing just that. Funny how reverse psychology (or something like it) works, eh?
Gina’s work with and about software development teams and their mental models of code and my work with vaccine developers and civil engineers had a number of remarkable similarities. We both had stories to share about the development and use of boundary objects and how they require embellishment by a human in order to be useful. We both focused on the knowledge activities in these domains – those activities where knowledge is used, shared, clarified, developed, transformed.
Those 80 minutes were another welcome occasion for me to talk about my work with someone outside my lab, and that activity always serves to help me refocus and refuel. It’s easy to forget why something is interesting or significant when one is in the thick of it, but such meetings provide opportunities to talk about the forest through the trees. Sigh. Lovely.