One of my favorite examples of participant observation comes from Jack Whalen and colleagues at Xerox PARC. They were studying a call centre for photocopier repair, so these were people who field questions for technicians, and, over the telephone, help them work through troubleshooting broken photocopiers. Doing this over the phone can be extremely difficult. What Whalen and colleagues found was that, as you might expect, the most proficient person in this copier repair centre was the person who’d been there the longest. It was the skill that they’d built up over a period of time. What’s interesting is that the second most effective person at this repair centre was not the person who’d been there the second longest, but rather the person who’d sat next to the person who had been there the longest. What they realized was that, by sitting next to an expert, these repair technicians were able to pick up all of the informal skills of doing repair work that aren’t written down in manuals anywhere. And it’s this apprenticeship model that helped somebody really excel in their job.
Human-Computer Interaction at Stanford University