New Perspectives on Plans: Studying Planning as an Instance of Instructed Action


The aim of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of the concrete ways in which planning is done in and through a set of material artifacts, demonstrating that the artifacts themselves, and the information they contain, constitute a set of ongoing instructions, in Garfinkel’s (2002) sense, which enable the artful reproduction of planfuness. Through the use of an empirical case, the paper shows how the material objects that are deployed in a ground control tower, the different forms of information that are available and the way in which this information is updated and re-deployed, can be seen as constituting a set of instructions which are reflexively available to skilled operators. Thus the paper re-focuses attention to the dynamic quality of information flows, to show how plans are not simply something that pre-dates action, cognitively or otherwise, but are something that are reflexively engaged with in and through the monitoring and use of information. The paper wants to provide for a different emphasis, one which focuses attention not only on the skillful work done by operators, but as much on the information they use and the artifacts where that information is to be found.

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  1. 1.

    It is worth noting that the concept of situated action, by highlighting the relevance of the contingent nature of action, has significantly impacted on workflow research, for example on research on the organizational elements and dynamics that impact on the use and acceptability of technology that standardizes work (see Harper, 1992; Orlikowski, 1992; Bowers, 1994), but also on research on workflow as accounting devices (Suchman, 1994), that is, as devices used to make the work accountable through formal models (see Bowers et al., 1995; Dourish, 2001).

  2. 2.

    Suchman has clearly stated: “Sharrock and Button (2003) suggest that the discussion in P&SA does not concern ‘plans’ as we might use them in ordinary affairs, but only as the construct is deployed in cognitive science. My aim was to take both senses of ‘plan’” (Suchman, 2003).

  3. 3.

    This does not mean that Suchman presumes the existence of a “stable body of shared meaning that somehow stands behind action and gives it its sense (Suchman, 2003, p. 303).

  4. 4.

    The transcripts analyzed here are translated from Italian. The following fragments represent routine talk within the RCT.


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We thank Kjeld Schmidt for his valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper and Dave Randall for stimulating discussions and feedback on early thought.

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Correspondence to Ilaria Redaelli.

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Redaelli, I., Carassa, A. New Perspectives on Plans: Studying Planning as an Instance of Instructed Action. Comput Supported Coop Work 27, 107–148 (2018).

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  • Cooperative Work
  • Instructed Action
  • Instructions
  • Normative Devices
  • Plans
  • Planning