Audience Analysis Through Relationship Modeling

In this episode, Clay Spinuzzi explains how we can better understand audiences using qualitative data strategies and relationship modeling.

Airdate: October 13, 2021

Season 2 Episode 8 | 46 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.730] – Liz Fraley

Greetings everyone. Welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp. She’s our interviewer. And welcome to Dr. Clay Spinuzzi, today’s guest in Room 42.

[00:00:24.690] – Clay Spinuzzi

Clay Spinuzzi is a of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. His studies help people organize, communicate, collaborate, and innovate at work. He’s conducted multiple workplace studies resulting in several articles and four books. “Tracing Genres through Organizations” from MIT Press in 2003, “Network” from Cambridge University Press in 2008, “Topsight 2.0” from Urso Press in 2018, and “All Edge” from University of Chicago Press in 2015.

[00:00:56.100] – Liz Fraley

He blogs at Today, Clay is here to help us start answering the question, “How do we use qualitative data studies and relationship modeling to better understand our audiences?” Welcome.

[00:01:09.580] – Clay Spinuzzi

Thank you very much.

[00:01:11.480] – Janice Summers

We are very excited to have you here and very interested to talk to you about topsight. What it is and how you get there, and talk about your book. Now I’ve been going through your book and I’ve been reading through it, and it is rich. I feel like I’ve been on a journey inside your book.

[00:01:32.980] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, good.

[00:01:34.450] – Janice Summers

I like your approach because it takes us out of the typical… How do I say, researcher kind of mode and into an investigator. So what inspired you to take that approach? Because I found that very refreshing, and I like the Scooby-Doo reference.

[00:01:59.010] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah, well, of course. Where do I start? Okay, let me talk to you about when my life changed, which was in 1997. I was a PhD student at Iowa State University, and I really wanted to get more research experience, and that’s partially because I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick with this gig. I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea to go be a professor. I wanted to keep my options open.

[00:02:28.790] – Clay Spinuzzi

So I got this internship at Schlumberger Well Services here in Austin, Texas. Great place. They had an Austin Research Center, and what they wanted was for somebody, me, to go interview software developers and get a sense of how they were using their code base and basically why they weren’t reusing other people’s codes. Like they would just keep reinventing the wheel instead of looking in this code library to pull in somebody else’s solution.

[00:03:04.740] – Clay Spinuzzi

What I discovered is working is not that interesting. Watching other people work is just fascinating because they are always solving problems. They’re always trying to figure out how to make the system work better for them, not necessarily for everybody else, but for them. They have all of these hacks and workarounds that sometimes they learn them from watching other people, sometimes they taught themselves, and I started realizing that in an environment like this, it’s just suffused with texts. They have all of these texts doing all of these different things.

[00:03:44.340] – Clay Spinuzzi

So I left Austin at the end of that summer with a couple of things. A deep love for Austin—I thought it was amazing. I was like, “Man, I’ve got to get back there someday,” which happened—and a deep love for qualitative research. Just sitting with people, looking at what they did, talking with them about it, and then doing it over and over again and trying to see patterns.

[00:04:07.750] – Clay Spinuzzi

It’s that kind of joy that I wanted to get across in “Topsight,” that joy… I don’t want to say it gets bleached away when you’re writing a research paper, but there’s boundaries to it. I wanted people to be able to see this is fascinating, this is interesting work. I’ve spent so much time explaining the stuff to undergraduates and getting them excited about it, too, that I wanted that to come out in the book.

[00:04:41.860] – Janice Summers

I think it does. To me, it did. I’m no stranger to research, but I really liked the approach to it. I liked how you broke down qualitative research, and it’s very human-to-human research. Far more interesting to me than just data research. So you talk about the interaction with people. Now, how does that change how they do things? Are you affecting change when you’re interacting and just the fact you’re asking questions of them?

[00:05:21.240] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, yeah, absolutely, and there’s a well-documented effect which just went right out of my head, the name of it. But there’s a name for it-

[00:05:31.210] – Janice Summers

I know and it just went out of my head and I know the one you’re talking about.

[00:05:34.270] – Clay Spinuzzi

It’s all right. It’s in the book. You’re going to have to buy the book to find out. But the idea is that when you’re watching people do stuff, they change what they do. That’s the negative. I’ve seen sometimes, especially when people are clearly performing for me, where they’ll turn to me and explain what they’re doing and I’m like, you don’t have to do that. At some point that sort of wears off, and usually, it wears off sometime during the observation.

[00:06:11.130] – Clay Spinuzzi

One of my studies, the one that I based the book “Network” on where I’m going through the telecommunications company, I was really blessed there because they trained people by just having them sit at their elbow and watching them. So they were used to somebody being there and they had no shame.

[00:06:34.990] – Clay Spinuzzi

I remember doing this observation where one guy took a personal phone call and it was with his wife, they’d just gotten married when he started calling her “honey boo” or something like that. I was like, you know what? I’m going to take a walk. It just got really uncomfortable for me.

[00:06:52.890] – Janice Summers

He’s a little too comfortable; too personal.

[00:06:57.020] – Clay Spinuzzi

So the bottom line is you just have to feel people out. You have to realize that they know that you’re there and also that they’re human beings with their own agendas. So when you interview them and they give you answers, they’re going to be talking about it from their point of view and with their own interest in mind.

[00:07:22.710] – Clay Spinuzzi

The way to deal with that is number one, to realize that that’s the case, but number two, to interview all the people around them too and to triangulate those interviews with each other; compare them with each other; compare them with the observations; compare them with a text you’ve picked up, and you’ll always find divergences but you’ll also find convergences. Both of those are important. Being able to curate those to build that larger picture is important.

[00:07:50.210] – Janice Summers

One of the things that you mentioned just a minute ago, and I want to back up and ask you a question about it because it triggered my mind. So in one company, you had talked about they were quite comfortable, but they had gone through their onboarding and their training practice which was one of a journeyman to apprentice. So they were used to that one-on-one connection and that high dialogue.

[00:08:21.450] – Janice Summers

Whereas with other companies, it might be the situation where you walk into the company and it’s like, yeah, I expect you to know what you’re doing. You’re going to go have to sink or swim on your own. You’re on your own. So that is an interesting study, I think.

[00:08:37.530] – Clay Spinuzzi


[00:08:38.570] – Janice Summers

You’ve been doing this for 25 years. So did that factor in? Did you look at how the social dynamic of the company was too, and how that interplayed?

[00:08:48.190] – Clay Spinuzzi

I spent a lot of time trying to map that out based on the stuff that I could see. Obviously, in that particular instance, I had some discussions with higher-end executives in order to get permission to do this research. That’s usually not the case. I usually am in small organizations so you have one decision-maker who says, sure, you can do this and they typically are not that concerned about it. But that telecommunications company; they definitely were.

[00:09:23.250] – Clay Spinuzzi

Part of what they were telling me is, well, we’re really interested in training because we want to go to a new training model, so why don’t you investigate training? So that’s part of what I did, but it wasn’t all of it. And I definitely found that the view from the C-suite was definitely not the view from down in the soup. There’s some really interesting differences.

[00:09:50.550] – Janice Summers

Again, it’s not like they were trying to lie to me. It’s just they were telling me what they saw and traveling up and down that organization, traveling through the layers of the hierarchy, you’re going to see a lot of really weird stuff. Does that answer your question?

[00:10:07.750] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, yeah. Let me just pull back and say, when you really get into an organization, you realize that people don’t always see their goals in the same way. They don’t think they have the same goals and that sort of deforms their behavior as well. That’s one of the most fascinating things, seeing them pull across these different goals or objectives that they have.

[00:10:37.330] – Janice Summers

Now, you’re collecting all that as part of your data points. That’s the thing, you want to get topsight but you get right down into the soup of it, right? There’s a lot of gathering of information that you do when you’re doing qualitative. The main objective is to look for what? Information, how it flows through the company? 

[00:11:06.170] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah. That’s right and it’s sometimes inflected differently in different studies, but that’s a basic thing. How are people communicating? How are they coordinating? How are they collaborating? And those are three really different things. Communicating being: I talk to you, you talk to me, we exchange some sort of information. Coordinating; we’ve got different efforts and they have to mesh together at some point.

[00:11:31.220] – Clay Spinuzzi

So if you’re thinking about, let’s say, I’m at a four-way stop with someone else and communicating might be like, (waving) “Go on.” Coordinating; we might try to figure out who was here first, and then collaborating… Actually, collaborating doesn’t work for this illustration. Collaborating is where you both have the same objective and you’re both contributing to it but it’s the objective that you’re trying to get to together.

[00:12:08.800] – Clay Spinuzzi

In all companies, people communicate. Most of them, they coordinate or otherwise, they’re sort of a mess. And most of them, they collaborate, they have some objective that they’re trying to reach together. That’s become more complicated over the last 50 years because we’ve gone from department-organized work to cross-functional work, where we’re trying to get people in from different specialties to work together.

[00:12:41.580] – Clay Spinuzzi

They really often see that objective differently and probing how they see it, what they think is supposed to happen, what their view is from their particular field or discipline; that’s where you get the really interesting stuff and where you really have to compare those interviews to figure out what do they think they’re doing? It’s often not the same thing.

[00:13:06.120] – Janice Summers

Especially when you’ve got cross-collaboration because sometimes they’re cross-purposes and the disciplines are different.

[00:13:18.000] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah, and you’ve got this… Okay. This is where we get into “All Edge” territory, my 2015 book, because you start seeing these real differences as we head into the ’90s, where communication got a lot cheaper. So it became easier to cross-wire the organization, but it also became really easier to take stuff that wasn’t core to the organization and outsource it. So now you have to work with the contractors to whom you’ve outsourced work and that means that they haven’t really soaked in what the organization is trying to do, that they haven’t soaked in all of that tacit knowledge.

[00:14:09.900] – Clay Spinuzzi

I’ll give you a really quick example. In the early ’90s, I interned for a computer manufacturer in Dallas, so I was writing software manuals. We had an in-house graphic designer who would design the covers, and so I was like, “Well, what do you think of work here?” She says, “You know? It’s kind of lonely. I’m the only graphic designer here. So I don’t really have any other graphic designers to talk to.”

[00:14:38.000] – Clay Spinuzzi

I can guarantee you that if that company is still in business, she’s not on staff there anymore. They’ve outsourced that out to a graphic design firm. It’s just easier for them. Graphic designers get to stay there, stay with each other. The company gets to pull on their expertise only when they need it, but that means that there’s not necessarily as much continuity, there’s not much tacit understanding of what this organization is trying to convey. They have to find ways to make it explicit.

[00:15:12.020] – Liz Fraley

Well, you lose—just because I’m thinking about it, there’s a danger of institutional knowledge loss as well, because that’s rarely documented.

[00:15:23.920] – Clay Spinuzzi

100 percent, and sometimes it’s not documentable. What we see in organizations is that a lot of the stuff just runs on the tacit understanding and once you start trying to make it explicit, it becomes too brittle. I’m going to go off on a tangent here just because I’m so excited about it. But okay, so pull it back. Right after I did my dissertation research, I cracked open a book that I had received and just hadn’t gotten to take a look at. It was a book called “Contextual Design” by (Hugh) Beyer and (Karen) Holtzblatt.

[00:16:08.780] – Clay Spinuzzi

As I started reading it, I was like, “Son of a bitch. They did exactly what my dissertation was trying to do.” They talked about going into organizations, modeling how people work, examining it in different ways. I mean, it sounds a lot like topsight, honestly. But there was a big difference, and it took me a while to process it and figure out what that difference was.

[00:16:34.540] – Clay Spinuzzi

And the difference was that their idea was to do these requirements gathering to go through the organization, looking at people’s idiosyncratic ways of solving problems, compile them together, put them into one single interface, and then the idea was, well, we’ve got those problems solved. You don’t have to have your sticky notes anymore, or your list or the other things that you do to make your business work. That idea, that business processing reengineering idea from the ’90s didn’t work that well in that sort of pure implementation simply because the company is not static.

[00:17:18.840] – Clay Spinuzzi

New people coming in; they have new understandings, they have new tools, they’re working in a business environment that’s constantly changing, new technologies coming up. So people continue to improvise, and they continue to bring in these hacks that they get from somewhere else. And I think—

[00:17:38.220] – Janice Summers

Sorry. One of the things I really liked from out of the gate in your book, is that you’re comparing an organization to an organism. It is a full living system. So just taking that shift and thinking of it as something that has life and breath, and it changes just like living organisms do.

[00:18:04.210] – Clay Spinuzzi

It absolutely does. It has the same—I don’t want to take the metaphor too far, but it has these sort of environmental pressures, too. There’s stuff changing all around whatever that organism is. Sometimes we think of these organisms like beach balls floating in the surf. They’re just not touched by anything else, but they really interpenetrate each other, and because of that, you get all of this traffic.

[00:18:38.280] – Clay Spinuzzi

I mentioned that people come up with their own hacks and solutions. They often bring them in from elsewhere. But they start piling them up, and every once in a while, you get to the point where that stack of solutions just falls apart, just like any stack of things that you put together. So it’s usually at those points that they really start wanting to find some way to revolutionize their work.

[00:19:04.940] – Clay Spinuzzi

And I think at a point like that, maybe a BPR, Business Process Reengineering solution, is a good idea, but it has to keep that flexibility built in. I think that’s what we found in the early 2000s. We moved towards a toolbelt approach instead of a single-system approach. That’s where we are now. We use software from all different places and figure out how to cobble it together.

[00:19:39.750] – Janice Summers

I don’t want to cut to the end of it, but I think the purpose of this—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that we want to do this deep dive and this analysis to look at these things that all these people are doing, all of these people within this organization, to communicate and how that flows and all their different hacks that they’ve created because not everybody is the same so that we can then come up with the topsight. We’re going deep into the weeds so that we can compile, right?

[00:20:22.890] – Janice Summers

Right. We pull back, we get to see the entire system, and we get to see these persistent stress points, these contradictions where parts of the organization just are not figuring it out. Once we can do that, we can really start figuring out, well, where do we intervene? Where would it be best to intervene? I got all passionate here because that’s an exciting moment when you realize that all of this stuff stacks up and you can put a name to the problem.

[00:20:57.840] – Clay Spinuzzi

Once you can put a name to the problem, you can start thinking about how to solve it. The last section of the book, which is in “Topsight 2.0,” it’s not in the original “Topsight,” which I wrote in 2013. I revised it in 2018. That last section is really about how do you take your idea for a solution and turn it into something that’s actually going to work? How do you road test it and how do you get people’s feedback on it?

[00:21:24.940] – Clay Spinuzzi

Because even though you’ve reached what you think is topsight, it’s really easy to say, “Okay, I’ve got the solution. We’re going to implement it tomorrow and everything will be great.” There’s plenty of stuff that you don’t necessarily know about and just implementing a solution unilaterally could break processes that run through that. So being able to test it using participatory design techniques (testing that involves all stakeholders) and lever your way up to more organic solution that people are on board with, that’s a huge deal.

[00:21:59.590] – Clay Spinuzzi

I’m going to tell you another story. This is from the telecommunications company. They had one of those centralized solutions where all of their customers were in a database. Their infrastructure was in that database, and if you needed anything on anybody or anything, you just look at the database.

[00:22:20.580] – Clay Spinuzzi

When I went to one unit, Local Provisioning, what I realized is that when they were ready to build out the network to meet the needs of one specific customer, they would print out stuff from that database. They would stick it in a manila folder and then they would move it from desk to desk as they were processing. At the end of the process, they would key it back into the database.

[00:22:50.210] – Clay Spinuzzi

They basically were like, we’re opting out of this. This omnibus solution doesn’t work for us; here’s what we’re going to do instead. I think that’s what you get when you design a solution and you don’t get that sort of input or that buy-in from the people who are working with it. So that’s what topsight is there to avoid.

[00:23:18.970] – Liz Fraley

Did you see that too with the… We were talking earlier about how you would observe software developers. Why are you writing your own code? Was it similar? “We’re going to do it for ourselves” kind of thing?

[00:23:30.030] – Clay Spinuzzi

That was so fascinating. It was more that they just didn’t know it was there and they didn’t have a good way to search the codebase to figure out what solutions people had done. That codebase was global. It had more lines than Microsoft Windows did at that time, so it was a huge used codebase and without being able to search it, they couldn’t figure out what was there.

[00:23:58.340] – Clay Spinuzzi

But also you would find sometimes that when an individual was dealing with a problem, they would conceptualize it differently from the other individuals. And when you conceptualize it you write it into code, somebody else has to figure out your concept, and sometimes they just feel like, “I’m not going to do that. That doesn’t work for what I’m trying to do.” And so you have this weird proliferation.

[00:24:23.450] – Liz Fraley

Interesting. All right, go ahead, Janice. I didn’t mean to diverge too far.

[00:24:28.760] – Clay Spinuzzi

Your curiosity got the better of you.

[00:24:31.620] – Liz Fraley

It did. I can’t help it.

[00:24:36.060] – Janice Summers

It’s the same thing with the communication channels and how we communicate. People have their own adaptive style, right?

[00:24:46.880] – Clay Spinuzzi

They do, and I think that one thing— okay, sorry, I’m going to get a little professor-y. I’m a of rhetoric in writing. So when we think about writing, it’s the most flexible tool that we have. But we tend to think of it as one thing, like, “I know how to write,” and when it’s really a stack of skills. It’s a stack of skills that we start learning as soon as we’re born. Like when your parents read to you, you start getting used to this bizarre idea that you can take something temporal, like speaking, and turn it into something spatial, marks on a page.

[00:25:30.790] – Clay Spinuzzi

So as we go through school, we build these different skills. Those skills don’t stop once we’re done with high school. We learn them in college and afterwards. There’s a lot of studies now on lifelong learning and what you have is this huge stack of skills that are all interrelated. None of us are a master of every skill there. There’s certain points where we didn’t quite get it and we cross-wire around it. But that’s a lot of information, and so we use writing in lots and lots of different ways.

[00:26:09.750] – Clay Spinuzzi

My father, when he was alive, would call me about once a year and he would say something like this. “Well, Clay, you’re a of writing. Have you found that your students are worse writers than before because they’ve just been texting? Do you see text speak?” And I’m like, “No, dad. They are writing in more modes than ever before, and they are switching from mode to mode, and they’re mastering more media.” And he was like “Huh,” and then I could almost hear him forgetting the conversation immediately because it didn’t really fit his preconceptions. And we’ll have the same conversation again next time.

[00:26:50.390] – Clay Spinuzzi

I think that’s the thing. We’re being asked to write and read in a lot more modes now. Communication has gotten cheaper, so people are on Slack, they’re on Teams, they’re writing emails of various lengths, and they’re just not mastering all of those different modes. It’s really hard. I think a big part of it is that when… I’m going to talk about pre versus post-COVID now, okay.

[00:27:27.200] – Clay Spinuzzi

Pre-COVID, when you’re working on something creative where you have to pull people on short notice, you could work in an open plan environment, and then you could just ask somebody. It would drive people crazy because you would interrupt them but you have what they call “mutual adjustment.” That mutual adjustment is harder to do when everybody’s on Zoom because you’re not on a Zoom call all the time. And I think that’s why we’ve pushed towards Slack, Teams, Discord, and other instant messaging, but it does break people’s flow.

[00:28:05.020] – Clay Spinuzzi

So that time management piece or productivity piece where you erect boundaries around your time and figure out how to protect that while still engaging in mutual adjustment; I think that’s one of our major challenges. I can see you feel this deeply. I do too. I actually turned off Slack and Discord before we started this conversation because I was like I can’t have somebody bothering me right now.

[00:28:47.480] – Janice Summers

For me, I’ve worked remote for so long, but it’s very different when somebody’s in the home with me and that interruption—it’s a very different energy.

[00:29:01.120] – Clay Spinuzzi

It is. I’m not a psychologist, but psychologists tell me that it actually takes energy to refocus. It takes time. So putting yourself in a position—one thing that I suggest to people is that they spend some time watching how they work and figuring out a heat map for here’s when I do my deep concentration. Here’s when I’m more distractible; here’s when I’m tired, and then figuring out how do you block those out so that you can do your deep productive tasks at a certain point and then do your mop-up tasks the rest of the day.

[00:29:46.080] – Clay Spinuzzi

I think something like that is really crucial, but it doesn’t always work well with everybody else in the organization. If your boss calls a meeting at 8:00 AM, you can’t say, “I’m sorry, that’s my deep work time I’ll see you at 2.” I think meetings can be… Yeah, I shouldn’t rant about that. Meetings have their uses, but I think we over-meet and we over-message each other, and we send out too many emails. It being more intentional and figuring out what boundaries we can set up, I think it’s extremely important.

[00:30:33.380] – Clay Spinuzzi

And I think that’s something that I see when I’m going into these organizations, is that they haven’t really deeply thought about that kind of stuff. So it’s all like throwing spaghetti at the wall. You have these systems that start to endure and become more official, but they’re not always designed, if that makes sense.

[00:31:04.470] – Janice Summers

Right. Well, the over-meeting thing.

[00:31:07.160] – Clay Spinuzzi


[00:31:08.070] – Janice Summers

And everybody complains “We have too many meetings, too many meetings.” Yet they have more meetings, and then they meet to talk about their meetings.

[00:31:14.880] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, God. Are you in my department? 

[00:31:21.290] – Janice Summers

I think those organizations probably could do with somebody coming in and doing some research. Getting some topsight?

[00:31:29.250] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah. Absolutely. Give them my number.

[00:31:32.340] – Janice Summers

Because they can look at the flow of communication because you need to have that balance of alone time and together time. It’s a tricky thing to balance those.

[00:31:41.760] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah. You have to have clear goals. You have to have some intentionality and you have to scaffold their way to get there. This is a big deal. I spend a lot of time—and it’s not just because I’m a writing professor, but I spend a lot of time talking about the texts that people are moving around the organization. Sometimes we think about information as, oh, it’s just some intention that flies through the ether.

[00:32:08.070] – Clay Spinuzzi

But whenever we talk about information, we’re talking about some communication in some sort of medium. Usually, it’s in text. Sometimes it’s spoken, but it’s still a thing and still physical—

[00:32:24.850] – Janice Summers

It’s words strung together or words in pictures, right?

[00:32:29.100] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah, diagrams or whatever; you’re communicating something and being able to track how those physical things move around the organization is huge. Once you start thinking about that, you can start thinking about the composition of those particular things. I gave you the example a while back of them printing out the database, sticking it in the manila folder, and then moving that around, which is a costly way of doing things.

[00:33:00.640] – Clay Spinuzzi

We often find that people have not bundled these texts together that well, so you have texts flying around everywhere. I’m just describing everybody’s email inbox, right? Somebody thinks of something, they email it, then they think of something else, and they email that out too. And I think really Slack or Discord is even worse because it just gets more atomized. Being able to kind of figure out patterns and how to put those patterns together is critical.

[00:33:33.400] – Clay Spinuzzi

Can I give you a slightly long-winded story?

[00:33:36.470] – Janice Summers

I love your stories.

[00:33:38.150] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, okay. Good.

[00:33:41.070] – Janice Summers

Honestly. Well, because I believe in teaching with fables. So it’s a great way of teaching. One of the most effective teaching techniques is the storytelling.

[00:33:52.720] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. Well, this story is not for me. It’s from a guy named Charles Bazerman, and he wrote a book in 1988 called “Shaping Written Knowledge”. Part of what he did was to go into the archives of the Royal Society of England. This is where “The Genre of the Experimental Article” came from. So if you’ve ever had to write a lab report, it’s the same. It’s IMRAD format. Introduction, methods, results, analysis, discussion.

[00:34:23.710] – Clay Spinuzzi

And you may have been like, well, this makes a lot of sense. Of course, you want to separate these things. That was not clear at the beginning. At the beginning in the Royal Society, it was mostly noble aristocrats; men always, unfortunately. Guys who had their country manners and who had a lot of money and a lot of time on their hands.

[00:34:47.180] – Clay Spinuzzi

So they would be like, “Oh, I want to be a scientist.” So they would hear about something, let’s say the vacuum pump. They’d be like, “Well, that sounds dope. I’m going to order me a vacuum pump,” and then they’re like, “What am I going to do with it? I’ll put this mouse in it and then I’ll pump out all the air and see what happens.” So this is like the level of bored teens putting gerbils in a microwave. It’s like that kind of science.

[00:35:12.690] – Clay Spinuzzi

So they would see this; their mouse died. So they would write it up and they’d send it to the Royal Journal. So another nobleman would read this letter and go, “Oh, I’m going to do this, too.” He tries it; his mouse doesn’t die. So he’d get furious about it and write this angry letter. “My mouse didn’t die.” So they had to start doing things like giving detailed instructions. “Okay. Here’s how I did this.” There’s your method section.

[00:35:40.930] – Clay Spinuzzi

They had to separate out the results, “Here’s what happened,” and then the interpretation, the analysis, “Here’s what I think it means.” And then they had to start talking about previous literature. So these parts that we’re familiar with, those came out really over a very long period of time as these people were just trying to settle disputes about fact.

[00:36:06.890] – Clay Spinuzzi

Now, the thing about it is that now that we have the genre of the experimental article, it’s easy to teach and if you just follow the moves, you find that you’re able to do science. It’s like a paint by numbers. You just do science by making sure you’re filling out these sections correctly.

[00:36:34.260] – Clay Spinuzzi

That idea of a genre, the experimental article being sort of a cultural heritage that people pick up, and then they enact; that’s really powerful. I’ve seen this most recently in startup pitch presentations which I studied like the first half of this decade. First half of last decade, well—

[00:36:56.580] – Janice Summers

Some decade.

[00:36:57.600] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah. Some decade.

[00:36:59.800] – Janice Summers

 It was back in the back.

[00:37:01.860] – Clay Spinuzzi

These people were like engineers or inventors. They didn’t know the first thing about entrepreneurship, but they’d have to put together these pitch decks, and then they were suddenly like, “Oh, I have to articulate a problem and a market for whom it’s a problem?” They’re just being led through seeing things like an entrepreneur just because they had to put a pitch deck together.

[00:37:27.520] – Janice Summers

And that was the birth of the pitch deck?

[00:37:31.930] – Clay Spinuzzi

No, that was them learning the pitch deck. The birth of the pitch deck really came from a business plan and that was in the early 2000s. But once it was there, people found it to be really easy to learn. And as they’re learning the genre, they’re learning how to be the entrepreneur. I think that’s really the key thing.

[00:37:53.340] – Clay Spinuzzi

So when we think about redesigning texts or information flow in an organization, it’s a good idea to start thinking in terms of, well, how do we design this experience so that people don’t have to know everything in order to dive in? How can we lead them in so that they can do the sorts of communication that they need to?

[00:38:18.320] – Janice Summers

It’s like, how can we lead them in like the journeyman to apprentice so that they can get that intimate relationship more expediently so the communication flows more effectively? My mind is just blown when I talk with you.

[00:38:41.960] – Clay Spinuzzi

This is why I wrote “Topsight 2.0.” It’s so exciting to be able to think through this stuff and to pull it back and see it from a different perspective. One thing I want to add: we talked a little bit about the beginning of the process where you gather all of this information, and the end of the process where you have a solution. The middle part of the process is really important because you have all of this information and if you just try to intuit from that information what’s happening, you’re going to have a lot of biases.

[00:39:18.510] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Oh, sorry. Go ahead. Keep talking. I’m like, yeah, I want to talk to you about biases. Go ahead.

[00:39:23.620] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh, for sure. So what I have people do in the middle part of topsight is to take all of these data and start looking at them from different angles and filling out different models, and there’s nothing magical about those models. They’re like that experimental article or that pitch deck. They focus you on one particular type of phenomenon, like where are people handing stuff off? Or what all information do people gather together in order to make something happen?

[00:39:56.220] – Clay Spinuzzi

Once you run things through these different models, you can see them through all these different lenses, and then you can reintegrate them. It’s so important to be able to do that rather than to just follow people around and then sort of intuit what’s happening?

[00:40:11.100] – Janice Summers

Yeah. I must confess, we don’t have very much time. I have the most recent version, and I met “Coding Artifacts.” I didn’t finish the book all the way because it’s really interesting. I really highly recommend it if anyone wants to do data analysis of any kind, from any discipline. Like if you’ve got to do it where you’re observing people, I think your book is phenomenal because you have a lot of the safety things that you need to think about and the considerations that you need to think about.

[00:40:46.020] – Janice Summers

If you’re going in and you’re interacting with people in this day and age, you have to consider your own personal safety. But there’s a lot in the book and you really have a lot of anecdotes, which I love. A lot of stories and a lot of ways of looking at things a little differently. And I was fascinated when you were talking about artifacts, and I’m like artifacts? Okay, so you’re really talking about literally everything that’s on their desk, what’s in their bookshop, all the things that surround them, and you’re making notes of all of this.

[00:41:19.090] – Janice Summers

So I got to the coding part of it. I can’t wait to get to… Because I know all of this; you go deep down in, and then you need to pull up from that, but how you pull up from that? You can’t just intuit things.

[00:41:34.590] – Clay Spinuzzi

Oh yeah, it’s so important, and this has happened to me multiple, multiple times. I’ll be interviewing a bunch of people and then one person says something that really resonates with me and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s how it works.” Then, later on, I have to do that systematic comparison through the data and I realize, “Oh, no, that’s how this works for this one person.” Just because I’m simpatico with that one person does not that’s how everybody sees it. It’s fascinating. I think coding is—when we talk about coding data, really what we’re talking about is just hanging descriptors on it. I said it, it’s like hashtagging.

[00:42:19.540] – Janice Summers

I love that part. It’s like hashtags.

[00:42:21.670] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah. I was like how do I describe this? And I was scrolling Twitter and I’m like, oh, there it is.

[00:42:29.400] – Janice Summers

And that’s the evolution of communication now. If you said “hashtag” 20 years ago, people would be like, “What?”

[00:42:34.620] – Clay Spinuzzi

Yeah. Hashtags were not in the first edition of this book.

[00:42:37.840] – Janice Summers


[00:42:38.360] – Clay Spinuzzi

In the second edition, I’m like, “There it is.”

[00:42:41.260] – Janice Summers

And that’s how communication has evolved as a society. Then you go into companies and that also feeds into how companies communicate.

[00:42:52.550] – Clay Spinuzzi


[00:42:54.350] – Janice Summers

 And how authors author, how we communicate. As technical writers how we communicate. And the public has changed. They understand hashtags, or they try to.

[00:43:04.940] – Clay Spinuzzi

The public has changed. There’s of course, generational differences. You talk to Gen X versus Millennials, they just have very different—I don’t want to be too broad-brushed, but definitely different priorities. And I think Gen Z is about to hit the workforce, and they’re going to have a completely different take on things. So there’s a lot of stuff that we just took for granted like dress codes in workplaces and hierarchies that are just really destabilized now.

[00:43:43.250] – Clay Spinuzzi

I have a master’s student I talked to this morning who was talking about dress codes and she had to sort of breakthrough. She was like, “Yeah, there’s plenty of things wrong with dress codes,” and a big thing is that the managers will often say, “Well, just use your best judgment and dress appropriately.” She’s like, “That doesn’t tell you anything.” She says especially women bear the brunt of that because historically, they’ve been held to a different standard. Women’s clothing is very different in philosophy than men’s clothing.

[00:44:27.610] – Clay Spinuzzi

She and I talked this morning about how do you put together, not a dress code, but a process for getting a fair equitable dress code. Fascinating. I know I wandered off the point a little bit, but I’m just so excited by what these students are doing.

[00:44:47.980] – Janice Summers

It’s exciting. Gosh, my time is up. I really, really, really highly recommend people get the book because it is really a very good book. It’s one you’ll have with you forever because I think you approach it as a living organism. And I really like that because out of the gate, it shifts your mindset from something that’s so static into a living organism. You have to look at it like that. You have to treat it as if you’re a doctor: looking at things and asking questions to then eventually, once you get all your data, look at it from the top side, right? Topsight down.

[00:45:28.540] – Clay Spinuzzi

That’s right.

[00:45:29.420] – Janice Summers

I really appreciate you being here. It has been such a delight talking with you. I can go down all kinds of little rabbit holes with you.

[00:45:38.140] – Clay Spinuzzi

I know.

[00:45:38.980] – Janice Summers

And it’s fascinating. It’s all very interesting.

[00:45:41.980] – Clay Spinuzzi

It’s so fun. It’s so fun learning from people. Watching people and seeing the things that they don’t quite understand about themselves and talking with them about it. It’s great. Thank you so much for having me on.

[00:45:55.920] – Liz Fraley

Thanks for being here. It was great.

[00:45:57.490] – Janice Summers

Yeah, it has been our pleasure. And thanks, everybody. Until the next time. See ya.

[00:46:03.900] – Liz Fraley


In this episode

Clay Spinuzzi is a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies how people organize, communicate, collaborate, and innovate at work. Spinuzzi has conducted multiple workplace studies, resulting in several articles and four books: Tracing Genres through Organizations (MIT Press, 2003); Network (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Topsight 2.0 (Urso Press, 2018); and All Edge (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He blogs at

How can we best understand how people communicate, coordinate, and collaborate at work? For the last 25 years, Clay Spinuzzi has been conducting qualitative investigations into how people work. Using a qualitative case study approach based in sociocultural theory, Spinuzzi has studied the work of software developers, traffic safety workers, telecommunications workers, freelancers, SEO specialists, and early-stage technology entrepreneurs. 

Spinuzzi has conducted these investigations using an approach called topsight, which involves collecting qualitative data (observations, interviews, documents and other artifacts), then modeling relationships among them. The result is a robust audience analysis in which investigators better understand the people, tools, and objectives of a given organization as well as places where these people, tools, and objectives conflict or just don’t match. This approach is the topic of his book Topsight 2.0, an easy-to-use guide for practitioners and students who want to understand information flow in organizations. In this episode of Room 42, we’ll discuss Spinuzzi’s research approach, drawing examples from his many studies.



Topsight 2.0 (Urso Press, 2018)

All Edge (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Mentioned during the episode

“Contextual Design” by Beyer &Holtzblatt :

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