Hutchins’ (1995) definition of distributed cognition, simply put, is the notion that cognition is not confined by what is inside one person’s brain. Instead, it is distributed across many things, such as other people, artifacts and the environment. Meaning, we don’t just learn in our heads, we talk to others, experience things in our environment, and use tools such as a paper and pencil to write out a math problem. A great example of distributed cognition, as described by Hutchins (1995), is the navigation of a large ship–many people and systems come together to navigate collectively. Not one person alone could navigate the ship–you really need the collective.

In any organization, it is the collective driving it forward. Even though there may be individual contributors, no one person alone can help a company, for example, meet its revenue goals. Again, it has to be the collective. It is the “informal communication channels that make work proceed smoothly, synchronized among a group of workers without the need for direct verbal communication” (Norman, 1993, p. 153). In Norman’s (1993) examples this non-verbal communication is observed in person. However, with today’s knowledge workforce being distributed across many locations, observation takes on different forms, like reading Yammer posts. In addition, in many cases, the work doesn’t have to be as closely synchronized as employees would need to be to operate a ship. Yet, at the end of the day, the work product is still that of the collective.

Microblogs offer just this capability: the possibility of “observing” each other’s actions without actually being there, without working closely together. In fact answering the question: “What are you working on?” produces work activity update posts in real time during the day. “…knowing and context are irreducibly co-constituted, and learning is fundamentally connected with and constitutive of the contextual particulars through which it occurs (S. A. Barab & Kirshner, 2001; Cobb & Yackel, 1996)” (Sasha A Barab & Plucker, 2002).

Distributed cognition provides a framework, or lens through which to analyze cognition that focuses (unit of analysis) on the system, rather than the individual (Hutchins, 1995). Cognition is not just distributed within (Minsky, 1986) but also between learners and the objects they use to solve problems (Schwartz, 2008). Therefore, when researching microblogs, focus will be placed on the interaction between individuals and the tool as well as between individuals and other individuals.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

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