Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Standardization of graphical content... it's tough!

I recently stumbled across an interesting paper:

Chandar, Collier, and Miranti (2011). Graph Standardization and management accounting at AT&T during the 1920s. Accounting History, 17(1), 35-62.

The authors tell an interesting story about the growth of telecom and the need to organize a large, diverse, and sprawling enterprise. During the 1910s and 1920s AT&T needed a way of controlling its various operating units and it turned to standardization of communication, particularly through the use of graphical representations of data. They note:

"The high degree of common language absorption, thus, facilitates the smooth transition of information and knowledge through complex organizational settings."

AT&T pursued the goal by creating standards for the presentation of time trend charts, frequency charts, and bar charts. It also created extensive guidelines on how to actually create these things.

A few things struck me as I read the paper and reviewed some of the referenced articles from the time period in question (e.g., Bateman's 1922 "A method of graphical analysis"). The first is that the figures are remarkably modern. They could have been generated by a recent release of Excel (without the chart junk). The graphs certainly represent a sign post to the future. The second thing that struck me is the amount of effort required to generate these documents. AT&T's graphical standards departments included over 100 staff and the production guidelines are incredibly detailed. Standardization is never easy!

The paper is an interesting historical journey into the birth of graphical presentation. It is not, however, critical or overly analytical. I wish the authors had taken the paper in a different direction. In particulary, I wanted more guidance on "how" this standardization occurred, not just what was standardized.

We know that standardization is tough. Bowker and Star (among many others) tell us this much. And we know that not every stakeholder within AT&T would be amenable to the changes. An analysis using some sort of SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) or Actor-Network framework would give us some insight into the groups that had to use these graphs and, perhaps, the resistance that they demonstrated. Furthermore, it would give us some perspective on how AT&T overcame this resistance (I'm assuming it did). Of course, these issues are tough to address. The source material may not be sufficiently rich to get to them but the analysis would certainly be interesting... to me at least.

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