Proxies for Work-as-Done: 1. Work-as-Imagined

In any attempt to understand or intervene in the design and conduct of work, we can consider several kinds of ‘work’. In practically all attempts at understanding and intervention, however, we are not considering actual purposeful activity – work-as-done. Rather, we use proxies for work-as-done as the basis for understanding and intervention. There are several reasons for this. One is that work itself is so variable, in the short and long term. The same sort of work can often be done in many different ways, in terms of the actual activity performed and its sequence, timing, coordination, and so on. And the way that people work changes over time. Another reason is that much of what we consider ‘work’ is unknowable; it takes place in the head and is not available for observation or even introspection. Even when work is observable by others, or describable by those who do the work, what is observed or described is likely to be partial and even biased – deliberately or not.

In this series of short posts, I outline briefly some of these proxies. The proxies are not necessarily ‘new’ and some have been proposed before (e.g., in The Varieties of Human Work and elsewhere by others, in the same or different terms). Other terms could be used and other proxies may be proposed; they are just constructs to aid reflection and discussion. The proxies serve as a reminder that we don’t fully understand work-as-done, and probably never will. So it pays to accept uncertainty and to remain humble in our attempts at understanding and intervention. The proxies I will explore over the coming posts are as follows.

Proxies for Work-as-Done | Steven Shorrock | CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
  1. Work-as-Imagined (this post)
  2. Work-as-Prescribed
  3. Work-as-Disclosed
  4. Work-as-Analysed
  5. Work-as-Observed
  6. Work-as-Simulated
  7. Work-as-Instructed
  8. Work-as-Measured
  9. Work-as-Judged


Work-as-imagined is, at a basic level, the work that we imagine takes place. Often, the term is used to describe imagination of the work that others do (now or in the past or future). It may also, however, refer to the work that we imagine that we do (or did, or will do).

Function and Purpose: Work-as-imagined is a basis for all understanding and intervention. It is a basis for work-as-done, and for all of the other proxies for work-as-done, and is influenced by these proxies. It is neither inherently positive (e.g., idealised) nor negative (e.g., demonised). It simply reflects the tendency, capacity or need to use imagination, often for a particular purpose. That purpose may be any aspect of understanding (e.g., safety investigation, research, job assessment) or intervention (e.g., work design, incentivisation, reward, punishment).

Form: Work-as-imagined, as I use the term here, is in the head, and so comprises propositions, images, mental models, and so on. (Others sometimes use the term to reflect any of the other proxies, since it is the basis for them.)

Agency: Work-as-imagined is in the heads of everyone. Everyone has an imagination about their own work, and of the work of many others. Just as a senior manager imagines the work of an operator, an operator imagines the work of a senior manager. Each will have different purposes for their imaginations, if only to try to make sense of another’s decisions and actions.

Variety: Work-as-imagined is potentially infinite in its variety, since everyone’s imagination of work (e.g., the work of an anaesthetist, firefighter, air traffic controller, cleaner, or CEO) will differ depending on their experience.

Stability: Work-as-imagined may change greatly or little over time, largely depending on thoughts and feedback about work-as-done via other proxies.

Fidelity: The correspondence between work-as-imagined and work-as-done will be highly variable. It might seem reasonable to suggest that the closer one is to work-as-done, the closer the correspondence, and vice versa. Broadly speaking, this is probably true, but we may also be surprised at how little we know about how we work, how others experience how we work, and how others work differently (in the head, if not in the world; for instance others’ evaluations of risk), and biased (reflecting the partiality, purpose and attitude of the imaginer, and so on)

Completeness: Work-as-imagined will be more or less partial (reflecting only part of the work, or work performed by certain people, for example).

Granularity: Work-as-imagined may be highly detailed, especially for those who do the work and those who study it in depth. Alternatively, it may be very coarse – just general impressions – especially for those who have no contact with work-as-done. High granularity is no guarantee of fidelity, since one could be wrong in essentially all the details, but right in terms of a general impression.

Work-as-Imagined and Work-as-Done | Steven Shorrock | CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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