In the last decade, the difference between work as imagined and work as (actually) done has been important in the literature on safety and resilience. The salience and analytical power of this seemingly trivial distinction lies in the fact that it challenges organizational epistemes, dominant discourses of work within organizational and management literature, by underscoring that there is more to work than our descriptions of it. Work as done in practice can never be fully described or prescribed. There is always more to work in context that can be captured in formal descriptions. Though the perfect description of work as done is a futile aspiration rather than an achievable goal, we have found it useful in our own research to address situated work in its own right and to challenge the distanced, stereotyping descriptions of it that are generated from a distance, by researchers, by management systems and by managers (Suchman, 1995). Understanding work as is performed in real life contexts is particularly important for understanding the variability of normal work that we associate with resilience.
We argue that it is necessary to follow the call of Barley and Kunda (2001) to “bring work back in” to organizational theory, to base our theories on empirical studies that seek to understand work as it is performed in real life situations with their material, social and temporal particularities. In doing this, we are inspired by strands of research outside the realm of safety science, in the social sciences more generally. It is important to reflect critically on the discourses of work in organizations, not only whether or not they are good and true representations, but also how their pragmatics influence on work and decision processes in organizations. For example, representations make some types of work and aspects of work organizational visible while obscuring or even suppressing others. Also, as argued by Suchman (1987), it is necessary to understand the role representations of actions (procedures, plans) have as resources for situated action.
In this chapter, we will address changes in the dominating discourses of work and their consequences for safety. First and foremost, we argue that there is an increasing tendency towards an ever more detailed standardization. Timmermans and Epstein, drawing on Bowker & Star (2000), define standardization as a "process of constructing uniformities across time and space, through the generation of agreed-upon rules" (Timmermans and Epstein 2010: 71). While we concur with this general definition, we see a need for adding an aspect to this: When standardization meets specialization across organizational boundaries, it introduces a logic where work processes are increasingly seen as discrete operations, as consisting of atomistic products to be delivered, and less as a dynamic flow of actions. This is accompanied with regimes of accountability, of ever more detailed reporting and control, also based on standards.
Digitalization is a critical catalyst for the increased ubiquity and increased level of detail of standardization. Digitalization here means making use of digital technology to support the execution and control of work processes. Information infrastructures facilitate more detailed control through descriptions of work as consisting of atomistic standardized entities (see Hanseth and Monteiro, 1998; Bowker and Star, 2000; Almklov et al, 2014a). Moreover, the digital systems have a performativity of their own. They put constraints on action, exercise power in ways that a procedure on paper cannot do, thus changing the dynamics between work as imagined and work as done.
In the following, we will discuss the trends towards increasing standardization in organizations, as an element of the dominating discourses of management, and a general development in modern life. We will discuss how this meets the particularities of situated action. Thereafter we will discuss the role of digital technologies, both as enablers of detailed control, carriers of a standardizing discourse, and the possibilities they present for new forms of situated action. On the surface, standards seem neutral and technical, but they have politics. They constrain the leverage for work as actually done. The developments we discuss affect these politics, both in the sense that they increase the level of detail in which this is done. Also, we will argue, the way standardized descriptions of work are parts of transactional coordination of work (e.g. in organizations relying on outsourcing of operational work) and the way they are inscribed in digital systems through which work is performed, skews these power balances in ways that need attention for researchers interested in reliability, safety and resilience.