ChapterPDF Available
267
Infrastructural Competence
Steve Sawyer, Ingrid Erickson,
and Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi
We focus here on relationships workers have with information infrastructures
(Erickson and Jarrahi 2016; Henningsson and Hanseth 2011; Jackson et al. 2007),
particularly as they move about between locations and institutions as part of their
working. In doing so, these workers rely on stores of knowledge that allow them to
continue moving forward— both figuratively and literally. These knowledge work-
ers exist within a professional landscape that is increasingly expansive (i.e.,
globalized, interorganizational) and decomposed (i.e., expertise driven, project
based), and we assert that this knowledge not only is becoming highly individual-
ized, but also is progressively more elemental to what it means to be a knowledge
worker (National Academies of Science 2017; Spinuzzi 2015; Barley and Kunda
2006; Davenport 2005).1
We articulate the stores of knowledge that workers draw on as a form of “infra-
structural competence.” This idea builds on Star and Ruhleder’s (1996) contention
that infrastructures are sociotechnical entities, comprising not only a set of inter-
dependent technical elements but also the social layers of norms and knowledge
that make these technical elements function in situ. It also builds from the work of
the late Claudio Ciborra (2000) and his concept of bricolage, or the making- do
practices people use to ply resources at hand toward desired goals.
These conceptual foundations reflect both the scholarly influence of science
and technology studies (STS) and the contributions of organizational scholarship
(where the authors situate our work, straddling the two intellectual communities).
Within organization studies, there has been a constant focus on the roles of infor-
mation and communication technologies (ICT) as means and mechanism for
replacing human effort, automating work, and reducing both errors and tedium.
The STS influence has led many organizational scholars to contest this naïve
utopianism with empirical understandings of the conditionality of computing’s
roles (e.g., Zuboff 1985). In the case of certain kinds of work, such as clerical and
administrative tasks, for example, the introduction of ICTs served to “informate”
rather than liberate, simultaneously creating a class of worker whose agency was
stripped by the demands of the database or the data entry field. In this chapter we
argue from this analytical position, building out the idea of “infrastructural com-
petence” with both critical and empirical insight.
Given this chapter’s focus, it is useful to contextualize some of the complex
conditions that help to shape contemporary forms of knowledge work. At the tech-
nological level, the rising prevalence of (and reliance on) mobile devices in profes-
sional practice has increased communication flexibility while also expanding
268 SAWYER, ERICKSON, AND JARRAHI
expectations of availability and the speed of response (e.g., Mazmanian et al. 2013;
Mazmanian and Erickson 2014; Wajcman et al. 2009; Wajcman 2014). Mobile com-
puting technologies have also helped to hasten the dissolution of work/life bound-
aries and contributed to the belief that life appears to be speeding up (Wajcman
2014). Cloud- based computing infrastructures make it possible for workers to de-
couple device- application pairings (i.e., Excel spreadsheets can run on a Windows
PC and on any number of smartphones, accessing the file stored in some cloud-
based storage service) and reassemble individuated ensembles that they find
personally effective. As such, cloud services like Google Docs and Dropbox have
become infrastructural satellites around which workers now orbit, connecting
and reconnecting in different assemblage patterns as each specific situation
demands.
At the socioeconomic level, knowledge work is also being reshaped. The glo-
balization of work, a shift that began many decades ago, has resulted in an ex-
panded network of actors and institutions upon which knowledge work must be
executed today (e.g., Leonard et al. 2014). The normalcy of these international,
interorganizational collaborations accords a diverse array of boundaries that
must be negotiated— organizational, cultural, temporal, linguistic, legal, and so
on. At the same time, these arrangements have instantiated a new logic for team-
work built ever more on specialized, rather than localized, forms of expertise.
Coupled with this demand for expertise is the rising standardization of a project-
based economy, an organizational structure in which specialists can be ef-
ciently leveraged.
The ways of working have also been evolving, and the current primacy of
project- based work not only has increased the shift to specialization among work-
ers, but also is one of the forces underpinning today’s “gig economy” and its re-
lated dependence on freelance or contract workers. Global platforms such as
Mechanical Turk and Upwork reify the identity of knowledge workers as itinerant
experts who move from one project to the next as they amalgamate a career. In
some ways, the rising recognition of expertise in knowledge work has been the
undoing of work itself, as workers are now more valued for their skills than they
are for their humanity.
In all, these shifts in the sociotechnical and socioeconomic landscape of knowl-
edge work amount to an unsated need for workers to be productive anytime, any-
where irrespective of context and location (e.g., Czarniawska 2014; Kleinrock
1996; Pittinsky and Shih 2004). For many workers, this may mean an opportunity
to exercise agency, but it also implies the parallel imperative to manage all of the
components of our productivity individually. What are the connotations of this
demand?
A Model Modern Worker: Kaylie, the Realtor
Consider one example of today’s mobile knowledge worker (and increasingly,
doing so provides us a window into tomorrow). She is an agent of her own destiny
as her goal is to excel at her job— whatever its form (e.g., contract worker, indepen-
dent worker, full- time employee). In order to do this, she has to manage herself to
achieve maximum performance across all of the contexts and situations in which
(or through which) her work takes her. She might look something like Kaylie, a suc-
cessful (by which we mean well paid) real estate agent.
269INFRASTRUCTURAL COMPETENCE
We begin with Kaylie’s car, a Subaru, that is clean, inside and out, which is rare
enough in snowy, road- mucky Syracuse that it deserves notice. In the 22 years that
she’s been a Realtor, Kaylie’s car choices have changed. It used to be that the back
seat was the most critical feature because clients were always getting in and out.
Now, her focus is on the car’s front seat: she needs to see her laptop, printer, and
chargers on the swiveling work desk she had installed after market. Clients no lon-
ger get in her car so that she can drive them around; instead, she meets them at the
specific houses they have identified via online searches. More broadly and for the
purposes of this chapter, the car is not the focus, but the means for mobility.
Kaylie is active on several local media spaces. Indeed, Kaylie is active enough
online that she now outsources the work of maintaining her substantial web
presence— posting pictures, videos, and other details of her realty listings along
with a set of news feeds culled from various sources like the county tax office and
a mortgage rate source, among other things— to someone else. A two- person com-
pany that specializes in listing houses for sale posts and updates Kaylie’s residen-
tial links. Kaylie also works with three assistants: two help her to show houses, one
focuses on helping clients ready homes for closing.
Kaylie is always on the phone, talking. She texts using Siri and takes voice notes.
She is also always taking photos, sharing them with her network of lawyers, cli-
ents, contractors, mortgage brokers, the two- person team staging her listings, and
her web people. Kaylie controls her own calendar, but it also remains visible to
some of her most trusted staff and professional associates; access seems to be
granted depending on trust— most of her staff do not has access, but very few con-
tractors do.
Kaylie is always on the move. She always arranges to meet in places that are on
her way from one location to another. Sometimes we simply talk in the car, though
I am in the back seat— as noted, the front passenger seat is for her laptop and printer,
and the foot well is where she stacks her files and papers. Kaylie puts about 25,000
miles on her car per year, but never leaves the county and rarely takes a trip of
more than 10 miles.
From her car/office, Kaylie can copy, print, scan, email, and carry out document
preparation through a common program that keeps all real estate forms pre-
loaded, ready to be populated, printed, and shared digitally. Faxing signed papers
is still required for some legal realty matters, and Kaylie is able to do that from her
car as well. She keeps two old phones in her glove compartment and uses one or
the other when her usual phone dies (something I’ve never seen happen). She also
keeps backup batteries, phone chargers, and the like stuffed into several “cubbies”
and pockets in her car, home, purse, and gym bag. Power matters.
During one of our recent meetings, Kaylie fielded 14 calls, sent dozens of text
messages and emails, enlisted me to scan and send some papers for her, finished
paperwork while I bought us coffee, and bumped into one of her contractors. We
also were able to swing by her dry cleaner and run an errand to the drugstore. She
dropped me at my home as she headed off to Curves for a workout class she never
misses. Kaylie is always talking, noting that it is pretty quiet in her home in the
evenings as by that point she is “talked out.” Kaylie is an early riser and uses the
4:30 to 6:30 AM timeslot, before her spouse wakes up, “most days” to write her blog
posts. For Realtors like Kaylie, “most days” include weekends, which tend to be
busier. Wednesday and Thursday are her quieter days.
Kaylie’s case provides us the means to unpack a concept that we are calling in-
frastructural competence. We advance infrastructural competence as an individual’s
270 SAWYER, ERICKSON, AND JARRAHI
use- oriented relationship with infrastructures that combines social abilities, goal
orientedness, and leveraging of digital and material resources in a way that en-
ables one to generate a functional, operable, and patterned or routinized (while
also being personalized) set of sociotechnical practices to accomplish a necessary
task or set of tasks.
With the rest of this chapter, we situate infrastructural competence as a frame
that empirically illuminates new types of knowledge work practices but, in doing
so, also questions the implications of this competence as a new imperative for
workers of the future. In doing this, we draw on interviews with more than 50
knowledge workers located in New York (and primarily in New York City) and the
Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina. These interviewees represent a
variety of occupations such as architects, consultants, web designers, and sales-
people, yet what bonds them as a group is that they are all engaged in work that
requires them to be highly mobile. We have chosen these “mobile knowledge work-
ers” to build our case for the idea of infrastructural competence because these
professionals largely represent an extreme version of the modern knowledge
worker— embedded in expertise- driven, project- based work and heavy users of
cloud- based mobile infrastructures. In short, we posit that the case of mobile
knowledge workers will help not only to explicate our ideas of infrastructural com-
petence, but likewise to uncover how deft infrastructural use may be morphing
into a required element of all types of work in the near future.
From Infrastructure Use to Infrastructural Competence
The mobile workers with whom we spoke all leverage interconnected digital eco-
systems, increasingly cloud-based, to accomplish their work. Analytically, we refer
to these digital ecosystems as “knowledge” or “information” infrastructures (e.g.,
Edwards et al. 2007; Pipek and Wulf 2009). However, unlike the large- scale cyber-
infrastructures used in the sciences, the knowledge infrastructures in use by the
knowledge workers in our study rarely have a recognizable installed base (Mon-
teiro et al. 2014). This is primarily due to the fact that the demands of these work-
ers are broad and vary from person to person. Moreover, this lack of an installed
base derives from the fact that there are so many possible tools available to the
modern knowledge worker. The key in understanding these infrastructural pat-
terns, thus, lies less in the way a specific installed base learns to accommodate com-
munal changes and more in the patterned ways that workers develop functional,
personalized instantiations of infrastructure for immediate use.
Infrastructures, when considered as vernacular assemblages of software, hard-
ware, and related technological artifacts (Hanseth et al. 1996), belie their configu-
rational natures— configurations that either “move with the worker or are found in
the places in which the worker moves” (Davis 2002, 69). Indeed, for mobile work-
ers, infrastructure is often highly visible (e.g., Rossitto et al. 2014). As they move
between offices or from building to sidewalk, the digital assemblages they create
are at once scripted and dynamic: specific parts are uniquely geared toward nar-
rower task(s), but the whole is able to shift and change over time as professional
needs continue to arise and dissipate (e.g., Sawyer et al. 2014; Ribes and Polk 2014).
When these infrastructural scripts are tested, infrastructural seams (Vertesi
2014) are revealed. Evident seams or boundaries can be physical, in terms of geog-
271INFRASTRUCTURAL COMPETENCE
raphies and companies, as well as virtual, in terms of suites and platforms of pre-
ferred ICTs.
Mobile workers relate to infrastructure in a different way than workers in more
static environments (Erickson et al. 2014; Ciolfi and de Carvalho 2014; see also
Plantin et al. 2016). In traditional workplaces, infrastructure, if working effectively
and as designed, tends to be invisible (Pipek and Wulf 2009). For mobile workers,
alternately, infrastructures are often starkly visible. As they move from one place
to another or from building to street, for example, the limits of their vernacular
infrastructures begin to show— one piece may work well in one context and not
another or infrastructure can fail altogether in other environments. It is not that
mobility forces infrastructural breakdown, rather that it raises illuminates infra-
structural seams (Vertesi 2014) or contextual boundaries (Cousins and Robey
2005). Evident seams or boundaries can be physical, in terms of geographies and
companies, as well as virtual, in terms of suites and platforms of preferred ICTs.
Consider the case of Monica, an architect in New York City who is building her
own consultancy. Because she is engaged in a lot of business development, Monica
must traverse the city quite extensively on a daily basis. It is not uncommon for her
to meet clients in their offices (as the demands of her expertise are often such that
being “on site” is a critical part of her problem- solving process), attend and orga-
nize professional lectures and meet- ups for the architectural community, and
work with a revolving set of interns at a coworking place where she shares a small
office. There is nothing necessarily unusual about this scenario upon hearing it,
but look a little more closely at the multiple contexts in which Monica must per-
form on a daily basis and you begin to see that she is regularly traversing multiple
boundaries— temporal, spatial, social, institutional, and digital (Cousins and Robey
2005; Kietzmann et al. 2013; Koroma et al. 2014). She has a strong incentive to
maintain connected to her clients and coworkers as she traverses the city; she also
has a strong incentive to do this as smoothly as possible because any gaps or
breakdowns will reflect poorly on the professional reputation she is working hard
to build. Despite this suite of sociotechnical challenges, she manages all of these
traversals quite agilely. Is this merely infrastructural use or something more?
We would suggest that her agility is made possible by her infrastructural
competence.
Infrastructural Competence: Artful Uses of Infrastructure
We define infrastructural competence as an individual’s use- oriented relationship
with infrastructure that enables him or her to generate a functional, operable, per-
sonalized, patterned, or routinized set of sociotechnical practices that accomplish
a necessary task or set of tasks. The knowledge puts infrastructure into action in
such a way that draws together social norms, goal directionalities, and the particu-
larities of digital and material resources at hand.
In keeping with recent discussions of infrastructural generativity, Monica’s
agility with infrastructure is not just (or even mostly) about her ability to use ICTs
well. And we are not suggesting that workers simply need “better technical skills.”
Rather, we advance infrastructural competence as a perspective, a way of framing
and seeing the ways in which digital and material infrastructures provide actors
possibilities (Hanseth and Nielsen 2013; Johnson et al. 2014). We see infrastructural
272 SAWYER, ERICKSON, AND JARRAHI
competence as generative for those who possess it. This understanding of genera-
tivity asserts that actors who possess the infrastructural competence to recognize
where productive infrastructural adjustments or interventions might be made can
leverage this knowledge endlessly. They can use the seams and boundaries articu-
lated above to achieve a goal again and again. Seen this way, Monica’s agility is not
just (or even mostly) about her ability to use ICTs well.
Developing the notion of infrastructural competence shifts the focus necessar-
ily to the behaviors and practices of people. Workers actively draw together a set
of digital components, colleagues, business partners, and working arrangements
to support an intentional agenda— even if these elements are not located in one
place or resist control. These efforts make the invisible visible— identifying,
adopting, and configuring infrastructural arrangements. These actions reflect
Vertesi’s (2014) discussion of “seamfulness”— an idea developed in relation to dis-
tributed teams of scientists who navigate, negotiate, and integrate many dispa-
rate infrastructures to accomplish their work. Referring to these navigational,
negotiated, and integrative alignments as “multi- infrastructural work practice”
(Vertesi 2014, 278), Vertesi further suggests that individuals range over a spec-
trum of greater or lesser “ability”— or, possibly, circumstantial opportunity— to
bring often conflicted sociotechnical systems (or device ecologies) into “artfully
integrated” union.
Vertesi goes on to contend that the ability to achieve artful integration with multi-
infrastructural environments connotes a degree of local knowledge and member-
ship (Vertesi 2014, 270– 71). Likewise, we suggest that someone with infrastructural
competence must also be able to grasp the reality that one person’s needed infra-
structure is another’s obstacle— what count as affordances or constraints in infra-
structural terms are constructed out of individuals’ own personal backgrounds,
goals (Star and Ruhleder 1996), and moment- to- moment needs.
For example, a knowledge worker’s complex use of calendaring (with different
rights of access) reflects both the sociality of who she wants to share with and the
technicalities of sharing (relative to the constantly evolving vagaries of Apple’s
Calendar, Google Calendar, and Microsoft Outlook). As such, any enacted infra-
structural arrangement not only must work technically, but also must conform to
social conventions, routines, and norms (as Kaylie’s case helps to make clear). This
aspect of infrastructural competence is made evident in the awareness of and re-
spect for the shared expectations of work outcomes (if not necessarily processes).
This awareness forces one’s own “infrastructured actions” (Vertesi 2014, 267) to
continually acknowledge the constellation of players who may be involved in shap-
ing and maintaining infrastructures in use.
Infrastructural competence is visible through individual workers’ patterns of
action that showcase their ability to bridge and adjust to local sociotechnical and
sociomaterial conditions. It can be identified by the set of routines that a person
uses to address these conditions. Like all routines, these practices encode a set of
recognizable “best practices,” a template or genre known to both the individual and
his or her collaborators that allows them to evoke a script of sociotechnical actions
that helps “bound” (in the spirit of “bounded rationality”) the particular details of a
situation while still acting effectively and efficiently. Routines enable rapid action
while lessening the need for perpetual sense making within interactions, but they
lose their usefulness if they don’t adapt as needed. Doing so aligns with organiza-
tional scholars like Feldman and Pentland (2003) who assert that even established
patterns of action, like routines, are dynamic, constantly evolving to align with
273INFRASTRUCTURAL COMPETENCE
changing conditions while simultaneously maintaining a coherent wholeness that
is both externally and internally recognizable. We develop each of these points in
greater detail below using an example from our ongoing fieldwork.
Infrastructure Competence Is a Use- Centered View
Vertesi’s argument that scientists engage in individual, artful ways to use the mul-
tiple infrastructures that define their work suggests both that the work- arounds
they produce to bridge infrastructural gaps and pair otherwise disparate parts
together as a functional whole are expected and useful. In the large cyberinfra-
structure projects Vertesi studies, these artful bridges and work- arounds occur
continuously as infrastructures grow and evolve. In the case of mobile knowledge
work, these artful interventions are more frequent, but also likely more lightweight.
This occurs because the need to configure— or reconfigure— infr astructure(s) arises
both in direct proportion to a person’s physical mobility as well as in relation to the
social arrangements in which a particular work task is situated. In most knowl-
edge work situations, these are shifting on a daily, if not hourly, rate because of the
distributed, project- based nature of the work. The dynamism of these disparate,
yet oft sequential, situations forces individuals to focus on tasks as triggers for
unique, in situ problem solving. In slight contrast to other conversations about
infrastructural use, the individuated work- arounds and improvisations— this
infrastructure- in- use focus— rely on individual technological response. What may
work best for me in achieving the presenting task’s goals may not be the same con-
figured arrangement as my colleague.
Building on the use- centered and practice- or routines- oriented perspective on
using infrastructure, we identify five characteristics or attributes of infrastruc-
ture competence: goal orientation, reliance on digital assemblages, enacted and
operationally resilient, situated and relational, and an expectation based on pro-
fessional identity. We discuss each of these attributes in the rest of this section.
Goal Oriented
Mobile knowledge workers develop the skills and abilities to assemble and lever-
age a digital assemblage to pursue an outcome. Our subjects are not interested in
the ICTs they are using for any intrinsic or computational goals; these are re-
sources being marshalled to the needs, ends, or goals of their work. This goal ori-
entation leads to practicing, even routinizing, the skills learned through repeated
uses. The use- or task- related orientation of infrastructural competence may con-
note, falsely, that infrastructural practices are merely solution- driven engineering
feats. This is not at all the case.
In order for an infrastructural practice to be successful, it must not only work tech-
nically, but be socially recognized as legitimate and also be accountable to shared
needs. Workers may arrange their working environment in whatever way they would
like, for instance, or deploy a particular set of tools to address a problem, but at its core
an active technological assemblage— like any infrastructure— must adhere to the so-
cial guidelines that define it. In reality, this often means that one cannot stray out of
the bounds of a shared toolset, a common digital platform, or some other socially de-
termined sociotechnical baseline that anchors infrastructural actors to one another.
274 SAWYER, ERICKSON, AND JARRAHI
Reliant on Digital Assemblages
Knowledge workers are dependent on the collections of digital resources they as-
semble, but they are neither building these resources as hackers nor thinking of
themselves as computing experts. We observe that most mobile knowledge work-
ers are in a knowledge- based profession, are well educated, possess unique skills
and experiences, and are busy. The collections of commodity technologies (lap-
tops, phones, public Wi- Fi, cloud storage, available apps) they pull together and the
skills they develop to assemble this dynamic collection create a digital infrastruc-
ture to support their work. We have called these collections “digital assemblages
(Sawyer et al. 2014) in prior work. Others have called these sets “digital” or “artifact
ecologies” (Bødker and Klokmose 2012; Forlano 2010), “digital kits” (Mainwaring et
al. 2005), “individual information systems” (Baskerville 2011), or “constellations
of technologies” (Rossitto et al. 2013).
Such collections are not “systems” in that they are neither designed nor controlled
by one person, reflecting instead a multiparty, distributed, and often commodity-
based set of arrangements. They are at once purposeful and ad hoc. A digital assem-
blage is the patterned collection of digital resources that a person brings to bear on a
task or problem in order to pursue a goal or solution. A digital assemblage comprises
the devices, in formation resources, applications and platforms, connect ivity options,
software and computational resources, and other systems that a person brings to-
gether for a particular use. A digital assemblage is neither an infrastructure (which
is shared by many and owned by many) or a specific system (which is owned by a
few even if used by many), it is a personal collection.
Our ideas here build on some of the foundations in infrastructure studies (e.g.,
Hanseth and Monteiro 1997; Hanseth et al. 1996; Hanseth and Lyytinen 2010;
David and Bunn 1988). Without going fully into the resemblances between the
digital assemblages of mobile knowledge workers and infrastructural examples in
prior studies, it is important to underscore the parallelisms in our ideas. The digi-
tal assemblages contrived by the workers in our study are personal, but they are
built on, shaped by, and constrained by their relationship to a preinstalled base.
This pattern is consistent with the relational nature of infrastructures; different
individuals are positioned differently in relation to the infrastructure based on the
goals they want to achieve, and they use gateway technologies to facilitate infor-
mation sharing and communication among fragmented systems and interconnect
them into a single integrated system (Jackson et al. 2007). Another way to say this
is that the creation of a technological assemblage is an example of “installed base
cultivation” (Hanseth et al. 1996), meaning that an important aspect of infrastruc-
tural competence is learning “how to wrestle with the inertia of the installed
base” (Bowker and Star 1999, 382; see also Edwards et al. 2009), or a set of given
constraints, to achieve what you want to achieve.
Enacted and Operationally Resilient
This use in doing is reflected in the efforts directed at keeping all the elements of a
digital assemblage working together. Doing so requires substantial m icro- innovat ion
to learn, problem solve, adapt, and be productive. People develop redundancies
and work- arounds through trial and error, and they measure new devices, plat-
forms, and other digital resources relative to their operational usefulness and reli-
275INFRASTRUCTURAL COMPETENCE
ability. It is a pragmatic and evidence- based use, visible in the stories of Monica
above as well as those of many of our other interview subjects. In essence, enacting
operational resilience is what brings the digital assemblage and goals together.
Situated and Relational
This characteristic of infrastructural competence is reflected in these workers’
skills and abilities to balance goals, dependencies, resources (such as what the
digital assemblage can enable), and priorities. We have observed that mobile
knowledge workers are able to maintain situational awareness across several
tasks and to leverage their digital resources to support multithreading. Such ac-
tivities reflect an expertise, an ability to “riff” on routines (adapting) and balance
competing goals and issues, that appears as a distinct set of skills beyond their
particular and specific expertise and professional knowledge. In this way, no-
madic workers have a common set of skills related to their mobility, even as they
are not professional colleagues, in the same profession (or even aware of one
another’s existence). They share the experiences and skills of being mobile.
A Professional Expectation
More broadly, infrastructural competence reflects an expectation by others that
the mobile workers can perform their role (as professionals, in this location, as
needed). As such, infrastructure competence reflects social accountability: what
others expect of you regarding acceptable professional behavior, norms of connec-
tion and availability, and knowledge base. This relates to the way that one learns to
enact infrastructure as a member of a community (Sandvig 2013). In this way, the
social environment (e.g., a particular professional, social, or cultural community)
articulates and perpetuates a common set of understandings about how certain
infrastructural practices should unfold or take shape. Within the roles of actors
such as real estate agents, for instance, these that can often be identified as profes-
sional routines (Pentland and Feldman 2005). In more mixed environments, these
routines are solidified at the course of a collaboration engagement or as the result
of certain technical requirements (e.g., privacy concerns). It is these routines that
enable different people to play the same song with different instruments, at differ-
ent tempos and in different keys, and sometimes with new riffs added. Difference
is allowed in the expression of the routine in situ, but nevertheless the pattern is
socially translucent enough among colleagues that a shared convention is identifi-
able and, thus, trusted. At the same time, it is imperative to note that routines are
always flexible and evolving (Feldman 2000), so these patterns that serve to order
sociotechnical actions are likewise ever in flux and open to updating.
Conclusion: Expectations of Infrastructural Competence
To possess infrastructural competence, then, is to recognize the goal- oriented
practices that rely on smartly tuned and constantly evolving digital assemblages.
These digital assemblages must be operationally resilient and are enacted in very
situated and relational ways. There is an expectation by others that professional
276 SAWYER, ERICKSON, AND JARRAHI
work requires such a set of skills and resources. Seen this way, infrastructural
competence reflects the stream of research that illuminates the ways in which
humans (and in our particular case, workers) take up and make uses of ICT.
Some readers will see the link between these insights and the broader scholar-
ship of STS that builds on concepts of bricolage (as noted). Some scholars may also
see the partial overlap of artful doing that is at the core of infrastructural compe-
tence with the concept of articulation, drawn from the sociology of work (e.g.,
Strauss 1985; Star 1991). Organizational scholars might also point to Pickering’s
(1995) mangle of practice or the Edinburgh school’s long use of “configurational
technologies and learning by doing” (e.g., Fleck 1994). The value of infrastructural
competence, set against these, is its attention to the artfulness of doing, the ongoing
and embedded nature of this set of skills, and the inherent and evolving flexibilities
of the digital and material resources, the specific situations, and the goals.
A second implication of modern workers’ need to create smartly tuned digital
assemblages is that doing is also a means to showcase infrastructural competence.
The two are bound up: each a window to the other. To understand how digital
resources are developed, deployed, and exploited is also to understand the goals,
situations, and practices of the person who assembled the digital kit. Infrastruc-
tural competence is what gives rise to digital assemblages. The uses and value of
digital assemblages are visible in the practices of infrastructural competence.
There is a need for more empirical work and conceptual development of this
nascent concept: both to provide more clarity and precision regarding the charac-
teristics and processes of infrastructural competence and to identify what makes
a person better or worse at doing or performing competently. Both require describ-
ing and mapping local practices and the competence that emerge as these serve as
bridges among various scales of infrastructure. In the specifics of our study of mo-
bile work, what becomes clear is that more attention is needed on the intertwining
of infrastructural competence and the work lives of organizations and individuals.
This need to see both the work and the digital and material elements that are
bound up in that effort, within the frame created by realities of large- scale infra-
structures and their constitution as platforms, demands extended attention (Ed-
wards et al. 2009; Plantin et al. 2016; Fenwick 2004).
We are acutely aware of the empirical challenges of studying infrastructural
competence and see the need for methodological developments in order to better
understand infrastructural competence. For example, we have valued digital im-
ages and worked to get trace data from workers’ devices even as we interviewed
participants, observed them, and pursued other data. Linking all of these sources
of insight together and doing more to connect the digital and material aspects of
mobility, while also getting more data on the multiple goals and trade- offs that
mobile knowledge workers seem to pursue, are both rich and demanding empiri-
cal spaces.
Thir d, programmatic attention to in frastruct ural competence demand s increas ed
attention regarding the roles of public and organizational policies, institutional
guidance and norms, training, and so forth on individuals and groups. Currently
we rely on individuals (or small groups) to develop infrastructural competence on
their own. If this is indeed a core element of more and more forms of work, more
attention is needed to the relational nature of the conception and to the develop-
ment of technologies that may advance the cause.
Fourth, we need to go beyond the observations from the outset regarding the
changing nature of work to connect with ongoing research streams regarding
277INFRASTRUCTURAL COMPETENCE
changes to labor force structures, the forms of organizing, and the work of
macro- scale scholars such as Manuel Castells (2000, and his concept of networked
societies), Peter Drucker (1969, and his prescient insights on the knowledge
economy), Richard Florida (2001, with his articulation of the “creative class”),
and others. These theorists might be seen as extolling knowledge work and elevat-
ing this form of work and mobility as models of the future. Harkening Neil Post-
man (1993), we also know that technological arrangements are only new to the
generation in which they emerge. This leaves us wondering if, in a relatively short
period of time, infrastructural competence will move from being a desired and
differentiating characteristic of workers to being an expected and basic skill de-
manded from workers.
Beyond the open questions of specifics, methods, and expectations, we contrib-
ute here a new construct to the digital STS community as well as those in the bur-
geoning area of infrastructure studies. Our work progresses and deepens the
discourse on seams within sociotechnical systems, and further contributes to our
understanding of the skills and competencies that may be coming to define 21st-
century work.
Note
1. “Knowledge work” and “knowledge workers” are contested terms, and we use them fully aware of
this debate, as we discuss later in the chapter.
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