Activity Theory

This description of Activity Theory follows Bardram. [1] Note that Bardram's work is based on medical practice in a hospital, which can be described as a Professional Bureaucracy.

Activity Theory was developed in the former Soviet Union as a psychological model of work activities.

[Activity] theory is a philosophical framework for studying different forms of human praxis, with both the individual and social level interlinked. [1]

Praxis - 1. Practice, as distinguished from theory; application or use, as of knowledge or skills. [2]

Human activity is described in the theory in terms of Activities, Actions and Operations.

In Activity Theory, Activities are not the same as activities as understood in Computer Science or Requirement Engineering. An Activity may be "diagnose a patient", which may be achieved through many different ways — trusting a previous diagnosis, blood test, X-ray or other Action or series of Actions. Operations are the un-thinking building blocks of Actions. For example filling out a blood test request form or carrying out the X-ray.

Activities have Motives. Actions are controlled by the subject's Goals, which are the anticipated future Results. This compares to the actual Results after the Action.

Actions are realised through a series of operations, each accomodating the physical conditions. This should be compared to the pre-conditions etc. of traditional AI planning.


Figure 1. Activity Theory [3]

Activities, Actions and Operations are all guided by anticipation. Anticipatory Reflection (planning) is based on the anticipation of future events which are to be created by implementing Activities, Actions and Operations, based on the operators Memory (accumulated experience). Planning is based on previous experience, but is implemeted through operations which are adjusted to the material conditions of the situation. Again, it would be useful to consider the role of free variables of traditional AI planning. However, unlike traditional AI planning, not all plans need to be complete before implementation.

A key concept of Activity Theory is the role of artifacts. Plans are used to mediate (co-ordinate) between Actions. Human activity is both planned (i.e. anticipated) and situated (i.e. contextual).

[C]ognitive plans and their material counterparts are mere reflections of each other because they are both resources for, and products of, human activity.

There is a distinction between a plan and the instantiation of the plan i.e. the actual performance based on the plan. Buidling on prior experience, plans become resources, which might be carried out. However, the plans are considered and are useful even if not carried out due to additional information, changed circumstances, or even different judgement at the time.

Learning occurs as a feedback in the difference between the anticipated and actual results. Learning is an integral part of the "doing", not a seperate excercise.

An activity is a form of doing directed to an object and activities are distinguished from each other according to their objects. Transforming the object into an outcome motivates the existence of an activity. [3]


Figure 2. Structure of Activity [3]

[K]nowledge is socially constructed through collaborative efforts toward shared objectives within cultural surroundings, and that information is processed among individuals and the tools and artifacts provided by culture. [4]


From the Service Science viewpoint, the Motive (desired Outcome) is the Service, and the Value Context (Customer Asset) [5] is the Object. In Activity Theory, an Activity is abstract - for example diagnosing a patient. This could be done by accepting the referring doctor's opinion, ordering a blood test, or sending the patient for an X-ray. In a Service Science framework, diagnosing the patient would be a Service, and so for this analysis, we will use this term. Rather than an "Activity" - which focuses on doing things, calling this a "Service" focuses on the result.

Note that the ""transformation process" could include storing, protecting and monitoring services, which do NOT transform the Object.

When authors provide guidelines for determining which "doing things" are Activities, Actions or Operations, they sometimes duck the question and claim it is context specific [3]. However, when examples are given, the Activities look like services (or could be well expressed as services), and the Actions look like traditional activities within a process (Fig. 3).


Figure 3. Examples of Activity, Actions and Operations [3]

Alternatively, the difference is that the Subject is emotionally engaged with Activities (through their Motives), but not with their Actions. For example, a builder may be emotionally committed to building the house, but not with transporting the bricks. For the builder, the transportation of the bricks is a means, not an ends.

Processes are a means, not an end. Services are the ends.

The Activity vs. Action parallels the similar position with Service vs. Activity, in that it is stakeholder (consumer vs. supplier) context sensitive. For example, Transporting the bricks by truck would be an Action (Activity in service speak) for the builder, but a Activity (Service in service speak) for the truck driver.

In Co-ordination Theory, co-ordination is defined as the management of interactions between activities. In terms of the Activity Theory termonology, this would be interactions between both actions. Contention for resources and working together on goals has more meaning at the action level.

Figure 2 shows the influence of goods dominant logic in the term "transformation process". In Service dominant logic, the line between Object and outcome could be labelled "Service". Services may or may not be transformational.

Learning as the consideration of the difference between anticipated and actual results is an important concept.

Also useful is Activity Theory's role for Artifacts, such as Plans, as mediators (co-ordinators) and also as crystalisation of work, particularly learning.

Distinguishing between Motivations (in relation to Activities) and Goals (in relation to Actions) works well. People care about Activities (because of the link to Motivation), but care less about Actions. Means and Ends - which then imply something about Activities havoing a Service nature, except Services are for other people's benefit, while Activities could be for Actor's own (autopoetic?) needs and/or co-ordination.

The problem I have with applying this model is distinguishing between Actions and Goals as seen by the same Actor.

I have fixing the roof as an action- but what is the goal? It is not to build a house - that's seen as the Activity.

Another way is to start from the goal - to provide a roof for the house. This can be achieved by either a tile roof or a metal roof. The metal roof can be red or blue. The action is the instanciation - actually putting the roof on. So the Action is fitting yhe roof (metal, blue), but the goal is to fit the roof. (Fit vs. Fix may just be language use).

In clasical AI planning (translating terms), an action can become a further goal for further planning. Similarly, if the Action fitting the roof (metal, blue) becomes a goal, this could be achieved by further Actions and Operations. However, how is this dynamic classification (Action at one time, Goal at another) be represented?

This problem also applies to i* / GRL representations.

Related Material

Wikipedia — Activity theory, Scandinavian activity theory
Nardi, B.A. 1995, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction, MIT Press.

1. Bardram, J.E. 1997, 'Plans as Situated Action: An Activity Theory Approach to Workflow Systems', paper presented to the European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Lancaster UK.
3. Kuutti, K. 1995, 'Activity Theory as a potential framework for humancomputer interaction research', in B.A. Nardi (ed.), Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human-computer interaction, MIT Press.
4. Salomon, G. 1996, 'Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations', Cambridge University Press.
5. Bon, v. 2008, ITIL v3 - A Management Guide, Van Haren.
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