65.2, May 2018

Project Management, Contradictions, and Textualized Activity: Supporting Reflection in Project Based Organizations

Doug Divine and Mark Zachry


Purpose: Fluid team dynamics, pressures for shortening temporal cycles, and ever shifting configurations of work pose fundamental challenges for workers in project based organizations (PBOs). Since project work is episodic, project professionals rarely have opportunity to reflect across projects to identify potential organizational, social, or tool-based contradictions affecting their work. Given these challenges, an opportunity exists for technical communicators to leverage skills in communication analysis and modeling to aid project professionals with reflective exercises.

Method: We propose an Activity Theory framework to analyze and model email communications generated during a project lifecycle to help technical communicators identify emerging contradictions and provide reflective feedback loops for project workers. Using the Enron corpus, we offer a case study detailing the construction of a reflective activity-centric model for project workers.

Results: Our case study provides empirical evidence that activity-centric models can be constructed using email and attachments when organized by the five process groups outlined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Sample modeling and questions derived from the work offers examples for reflective engagement with project professionals.

Conclusion: Activity-centric models derived from email records offer technical communicators an approach to identifying contradictions within and across projects. Resulting models and reflective exercises can support project professionals with feedback loops aimed at improving how they understand their work and the collective culture in which it is produced.

Keywords: project-based organizations, Activity Theory, reflection, contradictions, email

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • This manuscript lays out an agenda to explore and expose how work email with associated attachments can be analyzed to offer reflective, activity-centric models for project workers within project-based organizations (PBOs).
  • This work suggests a new role for technical communicators that directly embeds their skills within the project lifecycle, helping to improve project documents and the very work they facilitate.


Natasha works as a technical communication specialist in a large aerospace manufacturing company. She supports a group that works on process improvements across the company, focusing on projects meant to ensure the company maintains its reputation for innovative solutions in a highly competitive industry. The many projects her group is involved with at any given time inevitably compete for the time and attention of the team. For Natasha, the sheer volume of project-related email messages transmitting plans, reports, spreadsheets, and many other types of attachments represents a constant challenge to project work. As a team, they have a strong record of meeting their objectives despite the intense volume of information they must process on a given day. She often wonders if there might be an opportunity to assist in their project work if she could find ways to help them think differently about the patterns of activity this nearly ceaseless flow of messages and information embodies. Might she help improve the very documents that make up the project’s DNA by helping project professionals reflect on the mediating roles these documents play throughout the project lifecycle? Might she help illuminate the ways each project professional is networked and affecting the larger organizational community through their work?

Project based organizations (PBOs), where most or all business activities are undertaken in the form of projects, are now prevalent in industries like Natasha’s and others as diverse as software engineering, advertising, construction, and film (Bartsch, Ebers, & Maurer, 2013). PBOs are suited to diverse industries engaged in the development of complex products and systems, relying on cross-functional business endeavors (Hobday, 2000). In such organizational contexts, work becomes projectified, as management must interpret and address ever-changing team dynamics, shifting configurations of work, and pressures for shortening temporal cycles (Midler, 1995). Although project work in PBOs is made up of temporary initiatives with a beginning, middle, and end, the organization itself functions as a persistent socio-cultural environment that relies on routine and predictable systems of work. This unique combination of temporary work routines embedded in a persistent organization of social practice presents a challenging environment for workers to adapt their individual working styles. The workers who inhabit these organizations are susceptible to conflicting conditions and even a fragmented understanding of the value they bring to the PBO.

To help address these challenges, we contend technical communicators like Natasha could assist individual project workers through structured reflective exercises. Ideally, these exercises would support the development of a common model for communication and learning that would not only highlight a project worker’s understanding of his or her role and contributions to a given project but would also equip him or her with a deeper understanding of his or her larger organizational community. The field of Technical and Professional Communication (TPC), which has historically prioritized a deep understanding of the relationship between humans and how the world is represented to them, offers resources for addressing such a need. Specifically, we propose a communication-centric approach to understanding project work as it is embodied in textualized exchanges that could be represented in ways that support reflection.

In this approach, we leverage an Activity Theory framework (Engeström, 1987) to empirically assess the possibilities of creating models of project work as activity systems. Our modeling approach acknowledges that, in most organizations, people execute multiple projects concurrently and sometimes in overlapping configurations. Consequently, our use of the Activity Theory framework relies on a source of information that cuts across the boundaries of organizations, projects, and time. Email, a nearly ubiquitous information source in workplace communication, is a first order element in our activity system model. Email offers empirical “residue” of project activity that remains available in an accessible semi-permanent fashion for analysis. Structurally, email carries rich contextual information across work boundaries by way of metadata, body text, and associated attachments—all of which makes it an excellent repository of project work communication.

Our case study focuses on project-based work messages in the Enron email corpus (Klimt & Yang, 2004). Although Enron is a notorious example of a failed PBO (McLean & Elkind, 2003), our analysis here is not focused on their devastating failing and downfall. Instead, we use this corpus because it is a rich example of workplace email communication in the research community but one that has been largely neglected by researchers in our field. Through an analysis of an Enron project workers’ email folders we attempt to demonstrate how communication content (messages and associated artifacts) can be used with contextualizing metadata (temporal markers and distribution lists) to support the development of Activity System models capable of enabling reflection on collaborative project work. The modeling approach offered through this case study could be leveraged by professionals like Natasha, providing technical communicators a more formal role in the project management process by identifying areas where they could help project workers improve communication across project documents and the work systems that sustain them. In turn, the reflective assistance provided by technical communicators could help project workers identify and confront the socio-cultural contradictions that may be at play between the work activities experienced within a project and those that may be desired or supported by the larger employing PBO.

Expanding The Role of the TC Professional In Project Work

Technical communicators can play a significant role in helping facilitate both research and action-based results in the PBO domain. The role of technical communicators in project-based work has been a concern for the field for many years, ranging from studies of how to manage teams of communicators (Bosley, 1991) to integrating technical communication skills into new forms of ad hoc project teams (Spinuzzi, 2014). Reflecting the changing nature of work today, leaders in our field (e.g., Fisher & Bennion, 2005) have called for greater integration of technical communication specialists in project-based work. They have called for technical communication specialists to invent and enact appropriate means of assessing how they can become more effective in reflecting on and assessing work practices to support informed collaborative environments.

To prepare emerging technical communicators for the projectification of the workplace, pedagogically focused researchers have developed curricular approaches that highlight the synergies of project management and technical communication. One suggested curriculum outlines a communication approach to project management that focuses on genres of project documentation and the situated nature of those documents in the project management process (Kampf, 2006). Teaching technical communication students project management processes and structures better prepares them to understand rhetorical situations in the workplace and participate more effectively in project work with an awareness of the situated role of project documents. Building on this notion, Lauren and Schreiber (2017) propose a curriculum that promotes a systems approach to project management pedagogy. The authors posit that a systems approach helps those engaged in PM activities understand how project work connects people across organizations. One focus of this approach relies on feedback loops:

Feedback loops are markers or measurements used to determine if a system is functioning well. For example, if a team begins to bypass a newly implemented information communication technology meant to support project work in lieu of the previously used system, the team is clearly signaling some sort of problem. Looking to feedback loops can help project managers understand how well the system is working, and if it isn’t working, make changes. (Lauren & Schreiber, 2017, p. 3).

Across both proposed curriculums, it is clear that project management practices would benefit from students skilled in rhetorical analysis, the situated impact of project management documents, and an understanding of the networked nuances of collaborative projects. Our work supports such curriculums and proposes both a role and a recommended approach for technical communicators to engage in industry-based project work systems. We propose that technical communicators can aid in the development and use of reflective models based in Activity Theory to uncover the empirical evidence needed to support both the communication and systems approaches to project management. Activity Theory highlights areas of contradictions within an activity system, allowing reflective and educational opportunities (feedback loops). It also emphasizes the role of mediating tools or communication genres (project documents) within the situated context of project activities. Most importantly, it helps illuminate the socio-cultural environment through which the activity is being mediated by calling out certain rules and divisions of labor unique to the context of the activity.

Activity Theory for Project Work in PBOs

Activity Theory, developed by Lev Vygotsky and expanded by his student Alexi Leont’ev (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2009), offers a theoretical lens to study human activity. Researchers in technical communication have found Activity Theory a productive framework for structuring studies over the last 20 years (McNely et al., 2015). For example, AT has been proposed (Swarts, 2013) as part of a conceptual framework for understanding how digital tools like email mediate the work of technical communication, shaping and organizing the very nature of that work. In addition to the many academic studies of technical communication employing AT, members of the practitioner community have acknowledged the utility of AT for analyzing and changing work practices. In the STC-sponsored Body of Knowledge (n.d.), AT is introduced as a “useful theory” that has application to understanding the work of technical communication in a contextualized manner. Our work seeks to capitalize on this familiar framework in the technical communication space through an approach that orients its utility within PBOs and the project worker community.

Activity Theory is uniquely suited to provide insights into project activity, because it is holistic in its approach to work systems. The work of Yrjö Engeström (1987) propelled the use of Activity Theory in work-related research by incorporating its underlying concepts into a model representing the mediating aspect of activity, as seen in Figure 1. As we explore later, a specialized version of this basic conceptual model offers technical communicators a means through which they can expose and facilitate reflective exercises with project professionals.

Figure 1. Engeström’s Model of the Activity System

The model represents the human subject, focused on a specific object of activity, mediated by any number of tool(s) used to achieve a desired outcome. As tools mediate the relationship between the individual subject and the object of an activity, Engeström posits that rules mediate the relationship between the individual subject and his or her associated community. To complete the concept of the collective, Engeström posits that a division of labor mediates the relationship between the community and the object of the activity. When completely envisioned, Engeström referred to this collective view of activity as an “activity system,” the most complete unit of analysis needed to understand activity from a cultural and historical perspective. If Natasha were to use this model as a reflective tool for her aerospace co-workers, she might ask the questions outlined in Figure 2 to begin identifying the necessary components of the activity system.

Figure 2. Questions supporting the modeling of an Activity System

The activity system model has shown tremendous value in studying work on many levels (Russell, 1997), including largely complex and persistent activity systems like those found in health care (Engeström, 2001). Spinuzzi (2013) offers an accessible guide to practicing this modeling technique at various levels (micro, meso, and macro) of knowledge work activity in organizations. Our study addresses the unique challenge of using an activity system model to understand work at such levels in project-based organizations. Traditionally, researchers engaged in developmental work research (e.g., Engeström, 2000) have collected artifacts, observed work practices, and interviewed workers to understand systematic networks of routine activities that persist over time. PBOs, by contrast, are defined by fleeting processes and temporary work configurations in which project workers are frequently associated with multiple, irregular project configurations of varying temporal durations. The challenge, then, is, How can one observe and begin to understand a PBO using traditional methods if the information collected represents only the set of projects currently in play? What material is sustained across the PBO that can serve as a consistent and stable source for analytic inquiry? A well-reasoned approach to studying project-based work at a scale that transcends individual episodes of work would need a rich source of data, ideally one that was pervasive, contained current and historical communication among workers, contained distinct mediating artifacts with historical context, and afforded access to motivated members of the organization.

Email as a Reflective Source for Project Work Analysis

Despite the many collaborative tools emerging since the proliferation of Internet access, email remains a consistent standard for workplace communication and provides an obvious source of historical information for researching project-based activity and communication genres. For example, Østerlund, Sawyer, and Kazianus (2010) demonstrate that email usage patterns are highly correlated to meeting activities, providing an index of broader patterns of externalized work activities. Other studies provide evidence that email is connected to coordination and project work (Mason & Leek, 2012), a conduit for artifacts used across Agile project methods (Kuhrmann et al., 2013), and a potential resource to understand activity systems of work-based networks (Millen et al., 2004).

As we illustrate through our case study below, a principled, theory-driven approach to analyzing the artifacts found in email exchanges can productively expose activity-centric structures that support project work and provide a source of reflection for project workers. Our approach extends Engeström’s familiar activity system model to the distinct nature of work in PBOs. However, this approach requires a principled way of defining and constraining the object in project-based work, which is not inherent in the model we are adopting. As has been noted recently (Spinuzzi, 2011), most research in our field has used a lax notion of the object, allowing the analysis to drift when applied to activity systems at different scales. The approach we advance here, consequently, draws on a resource often overlooked by project management researchers to address this problem—the Project Management Body of Knowledge (Rose, 2013). Specifically, our approach advances the notion that for analytical purposes, project management activities must be understood in terms of the discrete process groups outlined in the PMBOK.

The PMBOK offers a set of field-recognized practices to project management that structures project work regardless of size, industry, or methodology. This systemic structure outlines five distinct process groups that include (1) initiating processes, (2) planning processes, (3) executing processes, (4) monitoring & controlling processes, and (5) closing processes. By constraining the object of focus for project-based activities to one of the five PMBOK process groups, the socially recognized structure of the PMBOK provides a way for project professionals (assisted by technical communication experts as we describe later) to select the attachments that pertain to each process group. Only emails pertaining to the identified attachments are included in the analytic frame, thus limiting the empirical data to a particular project, project community, and set of mediating tools used to complete the project processes at hand.

Figure 3. Levels of Activity Analysis (Spinuzzi 2013) Adapted for Project-based Organizations

In addition to the socio-cultural structure offered through the utilization of the PMBOK process groups, we further limit our analysis to an individual subject or project worker. Email is contained in folders organized by individuals and, when analyzed in this way, it offers a specific configuration of communication artifacts unique to the individual. Although we concern ourselves with providing an approach to assist individual project workers with reflective opportunities, our focus on the individual should not be interpreted as commentary on the longstanding struggle of modeling collective motivations in collaborative work. Although the attempt is not covered in our case study, we encourage combining individual activity models for the same object or PMBOK process group, or even across the complete set of PMBOK process groups, so that a greater understanding of the macro-level activity system can be assessed.

The Enron Corpus, a collection of Enron employee emails made public by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the investigation of the Houston-based company’s collapse between 2001 and 2002 has quickly become the golden standard in research related to email. This corpus contains over 500,000 emails from 151 users, distributed across 3,500 different folders. Klimt and Yang (2004) introduced the corpus in their study on text learning and automatic folder classification, followed shortly by Shetty and Adibi’s (2004) research on link, network, and textual analysis. This early work was not interested in actual attachments contained in email and, due to size constraints, the attachments were excluded from their analytical databases. A consortium called EDRM, however, has made a version of the Enron Corpus available in .PST file format that contains original attachments (Cassidy & Westwood-Hill, 2010). Using this version of the corpus, we introduce a historical case study of an individual project worker’s email and use it to assemble a meso-level activity system model of project work.

Case Study

We focus our historical case study on the Enron email folders of a single individual known as Stokley. As the Enron corpus is a publicly available dataset, we do not attempt to hide the identity of the subject, nor is our interpretation of the data meant to make any personal claims about the individuals represented. Our case study attempts to answer the following questions. What components of an individual’s email can be used to inform and develop activity system models allowing reflective capability for project work? What components of the activity system are left underdeveloped through an analysis of email alone? What types of questions develop during the modeling exercise that would assist in the reflection process? Finally, what skills would be required on behalf of the analyst conducting this work to develop the reflective models? By answering these questions throughout the case study of a publicly available email source, we hope to demonstrate how a technical communicator like Natasha might approach the development of a reflective activity system model for any project worker in the workplace. The modeling of an activity system is typically conducted with the person or subject of the activity. Since we were unable to conduct our analysis with Stokley, the owner of the email folders, we pose, but leave unanswered the questions a technical communicator might highlight, were Stokley available to reflect on his work enshrined within the corpus.

Preparing Stokley’s Email for Analysis

Although email possesses defined components such as the body, the subject line, distribution requirements, and time stamping, it remains extremely unstructured for data analytics, especially when attempting to include attachments in the analysis. To help facilitate our investigation, Stokley’s email folders were rendered in Microsoft Outlook and .PST files for each folder were converted to Microsoft Excel. Each email was downloaded as a row of data with each of its components detailed in columns. Each email attachment was saved into an ordered folder structure on a server and linked directly with its message contained in the MS Excel file. Each attachment was opened, reviewed, and coded as belonging to one of the five PMBOK process groups. This coding was based on adherence to communication genres that address the goals outlined for each PMBOK process group. The assessment and selection of project artifacts is the most important part of determining which emails should be included in the analytic frame. Although the owner of the email would be able to provide definitive answers on what artifacts should be included, the selection process offers a unique space for technical communicators like Natasha to facilitate review of communication genres in project work and develop questions related to their importance, structure, and role within the overall activity system. Notes were taken to describe the function of each attachment and to indicate any information that may identify its association to a particular project. The Stokley data set represents messages between the dates of March 30, 2001 and October 25, 2001, and contains 21 folders, including 1,340 emails with 633 unique attachments, as detailed in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Stokley Email and Attachment Counts by Folder

In Stokley’s absence, we looked for empirical clues within the corpus to help focus our investigation to a specific project. Again, this highlights the need for skills possessed by technical communicators. Although a subject may select certain artifacts to be included in the analysis, a review of the project communication genres by a technical communicator can offer the subject greater insights into the structure and role of their artifacts in ways that may be lost to the subject due to familiarity and routine. The use of these artifacts can reside at a subconscious level of operation, and not until questioned will the subject be encouraged to reflect on the artifact to determine if it is in fact facilitating the work that they would expect it to. A single MS Excel document named “EES Activity Listing 071201.xls” provided a high-level monitoring document that outlined a comprehensive task list by project. This document revealed that the Enron Energy Services (EES) organization had five distinct projects running in parallel during the period represented by Stokley’s email. These projects included Phoenix, Gas Solutions, Ranger, Genysis, and Power Solution. Given the prevalence of the attachments available, we narrowed our investigative focus to 73 unique emails associated with 19 distinct attachments coded as belonging to the planning process group of the “Ranger” project. This project governed the development of a data warehousing initiative and involved project coordination across the Enron entity and external partners CSC and KPMG.

A Meso-level Focus on the Planning Process Group of the “Ranger” Project

A review of the 19 identified documents and their 73 associated emails provides the basis for deriving an activity system model for the planning process group of the “Ranger” project. The activity system model, as shown in Figure 5, opens the possibility for reflection. Each component of the model is discussed and questions are posed based on reflections raised. Since we were unable to conduct our analysis with Stokley, we aimed merely to document questions one might highlight were he available to reflect on his work enshrined within the corpus.

Figure 5. Ranger Project –Planning Process Group Activity System
The subject (Stokley)

As stated in our overview of Activity Theory, we hold the human subject of the activity system to a single individual. The effort to model the project-based activity system using an individual’s unique collection of email exposes a project worker to an empirical frame against which he or she can reflect, learn, and grow. Our articulation of the planning processes for project “Ranger” is based on information available only through the email folders owned by Enron’s Stokley. In this way, our historical case study mimics the kind of workplace email analysis that could be facilitated by a technical communicator like Natasha and conducted for any individual project worker in a PBO.

The object (planning process group—Ranger” project)

As previously outlined, our focus on the project activity system begins with the selection of one of the five PMBOK process groups so that we can identify and focus on the mediating attachments at play. By focusing on a specific process group, a project worker can compartmentalize his or her analysis to individual stages of the project lifecycle and identify specific attachments or project work genres of communication that might warrant a deeper level of activity-based analysis. We focused on the planning process group to identify early stage artifacts used across this multi-organization initiative.

The mediating tools (email attachments)

We identified 19 attachments related to the “Ranger” project when focusing on the planning process group. The attachments included two variations on scoping documents, two variations on contact lists, two variations on task lists, ten requirement documents, and three prototype documents. An initial reflection might ask whether this list of documents feels complete for the planning processes of the project. What documents seem to be missing? What planning documents might be shared across other process groups? Why might Stokley not have received certain planning documents through email when he knows that they must exist? What might this say about how the project community at large is informed about the planning of the project? What opportunities might this information provide to improve communication?

A cursory view of the attachments immediately surfaces potential contradictions that might emerge in their use during the planning processes of the “Ranger” project. For example, the two scoping documents provide different levels of details surrounding the same project. One scoping document is a robust MS PowerPoint detailing the project goals, the project membership, the project timeline, and major milestones. This attachment was created by a member of Enron and forwarded to a member of the KPMG team. The KPMG team member then forwarded this artifact to Stokley. Another scoping document, simply designed in MS Word, offered a similar goal and timeline with different project membership and different tasks. This scoping document was shared with Stokley by an Enron employee named Frasier and was contextualized with email content that indicated the scope of the project had been altered significantly since inception. These two scoping documents, although centering expectations around a larger community, had very little overlap in observed distribution channels according to the evidence available in Stokley’s email. In this example, it is possible to begin to see the learning power available in the contradictions that emerge across mediating tools. Was the entire project membership changed abruptly? Were the variations purposeful and meant to communicate different aspects to differing parts of the organization? Do these conflicting documents highlight any realized communication gaps in the communal understanding of the project? Did these variations cause issues in the project? How might one control for this type of communication in future projects? This is the very detail that becomes rich for analysis as project-based attachments are considered in their mediating impacts across a given activity system. Not every attachment involved in an activity system may find its way into the analytical frame. The goal is not to offer definitive documentation of everything that occurred. It is merely to provide an informative view of the possibilities of contradiction that might have been introduced within the activity, leading to a greater understanding of the activity system in general.

The community

Using the collected attachments as a starting point, a researcher can identify the contributing individuals who form the project community. By triangulating the attachments, the subject lines of the email messages carrying the attachments, and the dates of the emails, a group of individuals who have either participated directly or been copied on the email threads can be identified. Using our 19 unique attachments as a starting point, 73 unique emails were identified as pertaining to the conversation surrounding the artifacts. From this email list, 21 unique individuals initiated emails and 7 unique individuals were copied on emails but never directly contributed. In addition to the individuals participating in the exchange of emails related to the planning processes of the “Ranger” project, a review of the obtained attachments surfaces an additional 20 project workers who do not appear in the distribution lists of the analyzed emails. Together, the identified project community appears to consist of 48 unique project workers. Again, this data is likely not a definitive list of the exact membership of the project during this group of processes, but it does surface empirical details for project workers so they can learn by finding contradictions in their mental model of the project community. Who was included in the email community that was unexpected? What might this tell you about the exposure of certain project artifacts? Were any known members of the project community excluded from email communications when important artifacts were circulated? On purpose? On accident? What impacts did these inclusions or exclusions have on the project community? This information could have, for example, broadened Stokley’s understanding of the breadth of the community, highlighted his position within the community, or indicated a need to broaden or condense communication strategies to reach a more targeted community.

The mediating division of labor

Upon analysis of the collected attachments and their associated email distribution lists, it becomes clear that several communities of practice were at play within the planning process of the “Ranger” project. Three primary organizations (Enron, CSC, and KPMG) emerged as distinct entities based on the email distributions alone. That list broadened to include IBM, Avista, and Faser when the actual attachments were reviewed for project membership. Outside of these formal organizational boundaries, attachments also provide insights into a more nuanced organization of labor across the project. One attachment provides a team diagram hierarchy that references lead users and those serving on a steering committee, a planning and architecture team, a development team, and an analytics and verification team. These project divisions included members from CSC and Enron; however, KPMG project workers were not mentioned in this documented structure. Another attachment provides a responsibility structure that calls out a core team, extended team, and management sponsors with associate roles for things like reporting, analytics, IT, invoicing, and information coordination. Once the community is brought into the analytic frame, a project worker can begin dissecting how each individual member of that community mediates the work and tasks, again comparing empirical evidence against assumed mental models. Were members of the project community adhering to their roles? Were they overstepping their bounds and potentially interfering in the work of others? It would not be uncommon for a project worker to find examples of an individual performing tasks outside of the expected division of labor or conversely failing to perform on expected tasks. These examples of contradiction enable a project worker to question, grow, and directly alter the future trajectory of their project engagement.

The mediating rules (power and boundaries)

We showed how the division of labor mediates a community’s effort within an activity, but attention must also be paid to the rules that mediate a project worker’s relationship with their community. Understanding the rules of power, rules of communication, and the limitations or availability afforded individuals throughout the community is important to determine the subject’s ability to affect the desired outcome of the activity. Rules are rarely explicit, especially when using email to derive historical remnants of the activity system. Using a combination of language and tone found in the body of emails, as well as indications derived from the frequency of emails, one can interpret certain social rules or norms mediating the relationship between the subject and the community. Relaxed grammar, use of slang, and informal phrasing might indicate that the subject is more familiar or tightly bonded with the community. More formal, carefully worded emails might indicate the subject is adhering to rules defining positions of power or subordination. Reviewing the content of several emails, patterns of communication suggest that Stokley maintains a subordinate role within the project to an individual named O’Neil. More informal communication interactions with an employee named Herod suggests a peer-like relationship. It remains difficult to ascertain Stokley’s relationship with community members from the CSC organization found in attachments, as no emails were exchanged within the frame of analysis. Email frequency, or the number of emails shared between individuals, can also highlight potential rules that mediate relationships with the community. For example, the large number of emails sent to Stokley from KPMG employees suggests Stokley could be the primary contact for the external company when communicating about planning documents. This is seen most notably through the number of emails sent by a KPMG representative named Galvan. If Stokley were available for reflection, one might consider asking questions about his relationship with the community at large. How do various social rules mediate interactions and communication between companies involved in the project? How is he expected to communicate across company divisions? How are other companies expected to communicate with him? Who is the client and who is the provider? Whom must he keep informed? Whom does he protect? Who protects him? What violations would jeopardize his standing within the multi-company community? How might a violation of these norms and rules affect the progress of the project?

A Micro-level Focus on Specific Attachments

Once a meso-level view of the activity system model is established for a given PMBOK process group, the project worker and technical communicator can dig even further into the specific impacts a single tool or attachment might be having on the project system. This can become especially important for technical communicators intending to improve the impact of a given document across the communication system. By placing a specific email attachment as the object of an activity system, one can use the same modeling techniques described above to uncover potential contradictions in the development of the specific document. In our field, researchers have produced many instructive examples demonstrating how Activity Theory can support this type of micro-level analysis of texts and the work they do (e.g., Winsor, 2007; Bracewell & Witte, 2003; Russell, 1997). Such micro-level analysis of individual texts and the activities they support falls outside our meso-level focus on activity systems in project work but remains a valuable tool nonetheless.


Our case study demonstrates the underlying potential that email can provide in the development of reflective tools for project workers. It also highlights the emergence of a research role for technical communicators within project work. By focusing specifically on a collection of email attachments that mediate one of the five PMBOK process groups in the project lifecycle, it is possible to use contextual, temporal, and distributive qualities of email to derive an activity system model rich with learning potential. Once established, project workers can compare their derived activity system against personal mental models, established charters, or similar models created by project team members, with the purpose of identifying key contradictions that pave the path to a greater understanding of their work and their community. With the richness of information uncovered at a meso-level of activity, the same modeling methodology can be applied to specific objects or email attachments that contribute to the overall project process group.

Returning to the series of questions we offered at the outset of our study, we now review our findings by modeling our methods for Natasha, the technical communication specialist. Through this review, we also highlight the skills required to conduct the modeling exercise. We end with a discussion of the limitations encountered through our case study and reflections on ethical considerations.

The AT Modeling Method from the Technical Communicator’s Perspective

At the beginning of our study, we introduced Natasha, a technical communication specialist pondering potential opportunities for engaging more effectively in project-based work. Employing the tools and techniques in our study, Natasha would, we believe, be equipped to support project workers in their efforts to reflect and become more efficient in the way they conduct project-related activities. Although our case study utilized an archival set of data in the absence of its owner, the methods outlined and questions surfaced could be used by most project professionals today. By following the suggested guidelines in Figure 6, a technical communication specialist like Natasha could construct reflective activity system models for any project worker, regardless of the type of project work assessed.

Figure 6. Method Matrix for Model Construction

Natasha would simply need to identify a project worker (subject) interested in the reflection exercise. Together they would select a specific project and determine the period during which the project took place. Natasha would then collect emails sent or received by the subject during the identified period using the time stamp afforded each email. From the prepared dataset, Natasha would present a list of attachments and ask the subject to help determine which attachments were associated with each of the five PMBOK process groups. Any attachments of a personal nature or those not pertaining to the project of focus should be dismissed. Natasha may find that certain attachments could logically fit in more than one PMBOK process group. This would require her skills in rhetorical analysis and the evaluation of project communication genres to help the subject reflect and determine the most appropriate process group to be assigned based on the communication context carried with the attachment. With this information, the entire project frame is available for assessment. The next step is to determine the PMBOK process group (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring & controlling, and closing) that the subject would like to focus on and use that as the object to derive the construction of the meso-level activity system model. Once selected, only the attachments coded for that process group and any associated email threads pertaining to those attachments should be isolated for further evaluation. With this dataset, Natasha could assist in the reflective process of deriving the activity system model. Each identified component should be discussed and the results written down inside the conceptual activity model boxes (see Figure 1). The community can be identified by piecing together references to individuals found in the distribution lists of the emails (To, From, CC, BCC) and any references to individuals made within the content of the emails and attachments. Rules that mediate the subject’s relationship with the exposed community can be derived by analyzing frequency of the emails between the subject and other members of the community coupled with examinations of communication formality represented in the body of the emails. The division of labor that mediates the community’s role within the activity can be assessed by evaluating the roles of the individuals emailing attachments (tools) during the defined PMBOK process period. The rules and division of labor components are difficult to model from email directly. These components require some reflection and subject interviews to tease out the final data to be modeled. This should not raise concern, because the whole point of the modeling exercise is to promote reflection and learning. As each component of the activity model is derived, reflective questions should be posed to the subject to determine applicability. Through this feedback loop of model development, the subject will have the opportunity to reflect and increase his or her understanding of the systemic nuances that facilitate the project work. The subject can compare empirical evidence of project work to his or her personal expectations and understanding of the work system and begin identifying specific contradictions to improve for future work. It is very likely that specific documents will surface as holding key influence over certain project processes. Robust distribution lists or multiple versions of an attachment existing throughout the analytical frame are key indicators of the importance a document carries throughout the project. These documents might suggest that Natasha and her subject model a micro-level activity system, where that specific document becomes the object of analysis. Understanding how key project documents are created and used provides specific opportunities for Natasha to help the subject improve project impacts. These activity system models can be used for personal growth or can be leveraged across the project community as evidence for improvements to be shared in retrospectives or project postmortems.

Using this approach, a technical communicator like Natasha would have the means to engage in a rhetorical analysis of the project work in which she is embedded. She would have had the means to understand the situated impact of project management documents (tools) and an understanding of the networked nuances of collaborative projects. She could help specific project workers think more broadly about the true membership of the project community and reflect on the ways that communication flow impacts shared understanding. She could help point out specific social norms and power positions (rules) that might be affecting access to information, and she could help identify specific instances when members of the community seem to be stepping out of bounds and violating expectations of the division of labor. All this empirical information helps provide concrete examples from the project work system that can be modeled, assessed, and improved. Although our case study and examples have centered on a post-project methodology, this type of analysis also provides potential to correct the project work system while in process. After all, it would be better to identify system issues during a project instead of focusing on them once the project is complete. Although post-project analysis offers many opportunities for growth and learning, there is no guarantee that all the lessons learned on one project will specifically apply to future configurations of project work. The modeling effort, however, will likely expose organizational nuances that affect many if not all the projects across the PBO.

Limitations to the Modeling Methodology

The data structure of email is itself a limitation, as anyone who has worked with it analytically can attest. The unstructured aspect of the archived material limits the span of analysis, especially when attempting to incorporate attachments. Individual folder structuring techniques, message threading, length of body content, attachment naming conventions, and attachment versioning are just a few of the issues a researcher must conquer when attempting to work with email data analytically. Until a tool exists to help flatten and organize this data in ways that make it more scalable for analytics, using this modeling approach to consider activities across larger project communities will be challenging.

Gaining access to other individual’s email could provide an obvious limitation where privacy is a concern. Although workplace email should be related to business, common practice would suggest that it remains a collage of personal and professional communications. Privacy concerns would need to be addressed within each organization. This could be somewhat mitigated if the technical communicator was seen as a trusted role with special access. This would be similar to many IT and public records professionals working across organizations today. Working alongside the email’s owner and having the owner remove messages and content of a personal nature prior to modeling could help in mitigating privacy concerns.

Ethical Considerations

Our suggested approach for using email to develop activity-centric models for project reflection is not without concerns. First, we want to be mindful of the socio-technical aspects of this type of work. Although it is not our intention, we are fully aware that as email data becomes increasingly mined for project-based insights, project worker use of this workplace resource could evolve for better or worse. Second, we understand that email provides only one source for residual artifacts and communications created across the project lifecycle. Additional sources should be leveraged in addition to email with the intent of deriving a more complex understanding of the project activity landscape. We suggest email as a tool for initiating the analysis because of its empirical archival nature and for its ability to carry content and artifacts across the rather complex and often invisible boundaries of project work. There is nothing wrong with expanding the analysis beyond email once the empirical frame has been established.

Supporting reflection among project workers may also facilitate thinking about ethics in practice. For example, seeing contradictions in work certainly opens speculation about why things are and how they should be. Beyond this, the model forces consideration of subjects and their object orientations as well as their means of acting. These considerations are the basis for thinking about ethics of individuals and the ways they choose to act. Given the questionable and even illegal actions associated with Enron before it dissolved, more informed views of project work might have facilitated broader awareness of how project activities were aggregating contradictions that deserved greater scrutiny.


Technical communicators like Natasha have a vital and important role to play in both the successful derivation and deployment of the reflective modeling we propose for project workers. The technical communication community could help solve the technical and analytical challenges posed by robust communication engines like email. They would also provide much needed guidance and expertise as project workers tackle their activity-based contradictions and learn how to effectively incorporate their newfound knowledge back into the project lifecycle and the socio-cultural fabric of their PBO.

Given the known complexities involved with working through an activity-centric analysis, especially in areas of collective motivations and distributed work, we hope that this work will renew conversations and engagement with activity theory in pedagogical curriculums, especially those related to project management. Activity Theory’s ability to highlight the role of mediating tools or communication genres (project documents) within the situated context of project activities offers educators a tangible tool to demonstrate the power a single communication artifact can carry across an entire work system. With its focus on human development and learning, it highlights personal and social contexts that can constrain and support project work. It helps provide a common language to discuss emerging insights into project work and reinforces social awareness of work systems in general.

With the increasing projectification of work in today’s economy, we contend that it is important for organizations to broaden the feedback loops in such work beyond traditional post-mortems and retrospectives. Technical communicators, trained to engage in holistic analysis of project work and able to surface related elements of cultural context as recommended above, will be better equipped to meet this challenge.


We thank Ben Lauren, Joanna Schreiber, and our reviewers for all their thoughtful guidance during the development of this manuscript.


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About the Authors

Doug Divine is a PhD candidate in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. His research focuses on technology assisted reflection and workplace communications. He has held multiple positions in project and product management and is currently Director of Enterprise Services at the UW. He is available at rddivine@uw.edu.

Mark Zachry is Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington where he directs the Communicative Practices in Virtual Workspaces laboratory. His research areas include intelligent interfaces to support virtual interactions and social behavior in computational systems. He is an STC Associate Fellow and recipient of the Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication (2011). He is available at zachry@uw.edu.

Manuscript received 16 December 2017; revised 30 January 2018; accepted 14 February 2018.