The Activity System model has been orienting much empirical research since 1987. Clay Spinuzzi’s book All Edge: Inside the new workplace networks (2015) is a great example. Spinuzzi adopts the term “adhocracies” from Alvin Toffler to describe the trend of projectification of works and organizations: “rotating teams of specialists who could come together to swarm a project, disperse at the end of it, and re-form in a different configuration for the next project.” (2015, p.1). Spinuzzi highlights a key organizational principle for differing all-edge adhocracies from bureaucracies: projectification.
The term “projectification” was coined by Christophe Midler who is a management professor in 1995. Midler uses the term to refer to the trend of transformation from hierarchical function-centered organization to cross-functional project-centered organization. According to Spinuzzi, “Projectification is the organizing principle of adhocracies: the organization of work around project teams oriented to defined projects, as opposed to departments oriented to narrow functions (the organizing principle of bureaucracies). The adhocracy is organized around a specific, defined project objective with a specific endpoint.” (2015, p.32)
Spinuzzi also identifies two types of projects. He points out, “…networks are well suited to unique projects that require innovation, flexibility, and creativity, particularly if these projects involve the inexpensive, rapid communication that is necessary for supporting constant mutual adjustment. But they’re not well suited for projects that require repeatability, operating efficiency, or control; those requirements are better fulfilled by an institutional hierarchy.” (2015, p.69)
One typical activity of “adhocracies” is knowledge work. According to Spinuzzi, “Knowledge work is, simply put, work that involves thinking about, analyzing, and communicating things rather than growing or manufacturing things. It includes occupations such as graphic design, web development, and copy-writing. It involves specialist work, it tends to be project oriented, and its products tend to be symbolic (designs, working websites, text) and thus electronically transportable, circulable through information and communication technologies. Knowledge work, in fact, tends to be fast and changing and connective — that is, it needs what organizational networks can provide.” (2015, p.60)
Spinuzzi adopts the Activity System model and other theoretical ideas to theorize organizational network and knowledge work. In order to describe the flat structure of nonemployer firms (NEFs), he identifies two key objectives of NEFs: the front-stage performance and the project. The diagram below represents the network of various activities around these two objectives. The small hexagons refer to activities while the big square refers to the backstage subcontractor network.
Spinuzzi distinguishes two parts of the organizational activity network of NEF. The front-stage part and the backstage part. He pointed out, “…the front stage was also long term, lasting beyond a specific project. But behind the front stage, these NEFs organized temporary all-edge adhocracies of subcontractors, adhocracies that swarmed the short-term project…At the same time, the nonemployer firms and their subcontractor networks were organized around projects, like any adhocracy. The project gave shape and unity to the network, providing a temporary back stage…To complete each project objective, a nonemployer firm had to assemble a network of subcontractors who shared this objective but saw different aspects of it…” (2015, p.62)
However, there is a third objective within the organizational activity network of NEF: collarabiton. According to Spinuzzi, “…collaboration (in the board sense of working together to achieve a goal) is a persistent objective in knowledge work organizations…In the third objective (the collaboration), projectification requires coordinating the swarm, ideally in a way that will address both the short-term project and the long-term front stage. This projectification requires mutual adjustment, which in turn requires high-volume information transactions for proper coordination…” (2015, p.65)
Spinuzzi adopts the activity system model and its advanced version “activity network” to theorize the work activities of NEF and other “adhocracies”. Based on the theoretical concepts of these models, he emphasizes the tensions between the above three types of objectives, “Unfortunately, these three objectives (collaboration, the front stage, the project) don’t always line up…the tensions among these objectives provide the network with its shape and — ideally — its coherence…these tensions can produce innovations, but they also produce disruptions and instabilities.” (2015, p.65)
This is an excellent case of activity-theoretical empirical research which is especially based on the activity system model and its advanced version “activity network”.