Elihu Gerson on Varieties of Rationalization

In the view of Schmidt and Simone, the function of a coordinating mechanism is to reduce the complexity of metawork and articulation work– to simplify the ways in which the parts of a system interact. An effective mechanism thus helps to rationalize the interaction of the coordinated tasks. I use the term rationalization here in the economist’s sense of doing more with the same resources, or the same work with less resources. This seemingly simple idea turns out to be fairly complex, because there are three kinds of rationalization, and sometimes they trade off against one another.

One kind of rationalization is segregating rationalization. This makes things independent of one another, removing the connections or contingencies among them wherever possible. Complex tasks are broken into multiple independent tasks. Similar things are grouped, and dissimilar things are segregated. Things are treated as unrelated members of a set, rather than as parts of a whole. Finally, relationships among things are treated as unary properties of their constituent units.

The second kind of rationalization is standardizing rationalization. This makes the connections and relationships among things uniform. Standardization substitutes repetitive similarities for unique or diverse activities, materials, tools, and situations. In doing so, it makes dealing with them cheaper, more convenient, and more reliable.

The third kind of rationalization is coordinating rationalization. This works by fine- tuning and refining relationships so that they are particularly well-suited to their situation. Within a given activity, tasks are made more responsive to one another by removing everything that does not contribute directly to smooth functioning, and by strengthening everything that does. Frequently (but not necessarily) it means taking advantage of specialized local circumstances or knowledge in order to create specialized local short-cuts.

All three ways of rationalizing work by simplifying relationships: by removing them, homogenizing them, or refining and specializing them. All three ways of rationalizing make activities more efficient; more gets done with the same resources, or it takes fewer resources to accomplish a given task.

Elihu Gerson, Reach, Bracket, and the Limit of Rationalized Coordination: Some Challenges for CSCW (2004)