Ethnographic study of
collaborative knowledge work
S. L. Kogan
M. J. Muller
We present an ethnographic study in which we examine the ways collaborative
knowledge work gets done in a process-oriented environment. The purpose of the
study is to identify the kinds of support that knowledge workers could benefit from
and to make recommendations for tools that might provide such support. The
participants in this study, knowledge workers in various business domains, work in a
collaborative environment; their skills are in their areas of expertise rather than
computer science and programming. The data we collected are based on field
interviews, on observation sessions, and on validation sessions using prototypes. We
analyzed the field data using selected principles from grounded theory, and the results
of each cycle were used to guide the research in subsequent cycles. In our findings we
describe how knowledge workers develop their own strategies and techniques for
getting their work done in complex, dynamic environments in which prescribed work
processes serve only as reference models. By presenting instances of such
environments from our study data, we illustrate how such individualized work
processes are created and demonstrate the need for new supporting technologies and
According to Tom Davenport, a knowledge worker
is ‘‘someone with high degrees of expertise, educa-
tion or experience and the primary purpose of their
jobs involves the creation, distribution, or applica-
tion of knowledge.’’1The term was coined by Peter
Drucker in 1969 to describe someone who adds
value in the workplace by processing existing
information to create new information which can be
used to define and solve problems.2Examples of
knowledge workers include managers, salespeople,
nurses, doctors, lawyers, judges, and analysts. To
get their job done knowledge workers rely heavily
on tacit knowledge, the kind of knowledge that
cannot be codified, but only gained through training
or personal experience.
Companies consider knowledge workers among
their top talent and are looking for ways to improve
their effectiveness. These workers rely on the ability
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IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 45, NO 4, 2006KOGAN AND MULLER 759
to work collaboratively, leverage relationship capi-
tal, and deliver new solutions.3,4Understanding
how they work and what their needs are is a critical
step toward creating tools that enable them to
perform more efficiently. If we can improve tech-
nologies and work practices for knowledge workers,
we may impact the knowledge work component of
We describe an ethnographic study whose goal is to
better understand the ways knowledge workers get
their jobs done, to identify the kinds of support they
could benefit from, and to make recommendations
for tools that might provide such support. We
conducted this study as part of a requirements
gathering initiative for future workflow products for
business users (in this paper the terms ‘‘workflow’’
and ‘‘process’’ are used interchangeably).
The knowledge workers in our study have no special
computer skills—we refer to them as nontechnical
business users of information technology (IT). We
focus on knowledge work that involves collabora-
tion and business processes (we use collaboration in
the sense that at least two people are involved in the
given process). The data we collected are based on
field interviews, on observation sessions, and on
validation sessions using prototypes. We analyzed
the field data using selected principles from
grounded theory and used the results of each cycle
to guide the collection of data in subsequent cycles.
In our findings we describe how knowledge workers
develop their own strategies and techniques for
getting their work done in complex, dynamic
environments in which prescribed work processes
serve only as reference models. By presenting
instances of such environments from our study data,
we illustrate how such individualized work pro-
cesses are created and demonstrate the need for new
supporting technologies and tools.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. In the
next section we describe our methods and study
design, including approach, tools, study partici-
pants, and procedures followed. In the following
section we present the results of the study. Because
the study was realized as a three-cycle process, the
results are presented by cycle. The last section
consists of a discussion of the results and related
METHODS AND STUDY DESIGN
We describe in this section our approach to carrying
out this study, the study participants, and the
methods and procedures we followed. The field
research component of the study was conducted by
an ethnographer (the first author) and was reviewed
by a project team whose 12 members included IT
specialists in design, development, marketing,
product management, and research. For confiden-
tiality reasons the names of people and businesses
Approach and tools
We conducted this study over a six-month period in
2003 and 2004 at five different business sites in the
Boston area. At each site we conducted interview
sessions with a number of study participants. Each
session included a questionnaire-based interview,
an observation period, a task analysis segment, and
a validation segment using prototypes. The tools we
used included semistructured questionnaires, a
low-fidelity storyboard, and two high-fidelity
We performed the data analysis using selected
principles from grounded theory (GT).6Grounded
theory is a qualitative analysis method used in the
social sciences to find relationships and distill
patterns from loosely connected data. The collected
data are analyzed and this analysis guides the
collection of additional data. The process can be
Collect data –. Define concepts –. Build relation-
ships between concepts –. Discover patterns in data
Consistent with the GT approach, the study con-
sisted of three cycles, whereby the results of each
cycle affected the course of the following cycles.
The 52 participants in this study (all three cycles)
are knowledge workers who are business users of IT
and have no specialized computer skills. They are
domain experts in the following areas: biotechnol-
ogy, high technology, medicine, health care, pro-
fessional services, retail, manufacturing, and law.
Table 1 shows the grouping of participants by job
title and the number of participants in each group.
The study was conducted in three cycles, and the
results of each cycle were used to direct the data
KOGAN AND MULLER IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 45, NO 4, 2006
We thank all the people who participated in our study
for generously giving their time and providing
feedback throughout the course of this study. We also
thank Chris Reckling for helping with the data
interpretation, Lori Small for help with the validation
of the user types, and Ralf Heindoerfer for sharing
with us his expertise on workflows. Finally, we thank
Charlie Hill for encouraging us to write this paper and
for his guidance and support throughout this
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Microsoft Corporation or Adobe Systems Incorporated in the
United States, other countries, or both.
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Accepted for publication June 16, 2006.
Published online October 16, 2006.
Sandra L. Kogan
IBM Software Group, One Rogers Street, Cambridge, MA 02142
(email@example.com). Sandra Kogan is a user
researcher and user-experience designer in Workplace,
Portals, and Collaboration Software. She has a B.S. degree
from Concordia University and an M.S. degree in computer
KOGAN AND MULLERIBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 45, NO 4, 2006
science and human computer interaction from the University
of Massachusetts at Lowell. Before joining IBM, she worked as
a human factors engineer in medical informatics at the
Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard University, Boston,
Massachusetts; she also has extensive clinical research
experience in neurology, geriatrics, and gerontology. Since
joining IBM in 2001, she has led several design strategy
initiatives for Lotus Development. Today, her focus is on
empirically derived user models and quantitative analysis.
Michael J. Muller
IBM Research Division, One Rogers Street, Cambridge, MA
02142 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Dr. Muller is a research
staff member in the Collaborative User Experiences group. He
received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Rutgers
University in 1983. A member of Computer Professionals for
Social Responsibility and the Association for Computing
Machinery, Dr. Muller is an internationally recognized expert
in participatory design.&
IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 45, NO 4, 2006KOGAN AND MULLER 771