Plans as resources for action (Suchman, 1988)

Two ways of thinking about practice put (i) “plans as determinants of action”, and (ii) “plans as resources for action”. The latter has become a convention, particularly through research into Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW).

While the more durable explanation appears the Suchman (1987) book (specifically section “8.2 Plans as resources for action”, pp. 185-189), a source more readily at hand may be found in a Suchman (1988) article.

4. Plans as resources for action

Taken as the determinants of what people do, plans provide both a device by which practice can be represented in cognitive science and a solution to the problem of purposeful action. If we apply an ethnomethodological inversion to the cognitive science view, however, plans take on a different status. Rather than describing the mechanism by which action is generated and a solution to the analysts’ problem, plans are common sense constructs produced and used by actors engaged in everyday practice. As such, they are not the solution to the problem of practice but part of the subject matter. While plans provide useful ways of talking and reasoning about action, their relation to the action’s production is an open question. [….] [p. 314]

The planning model takes off from our common sense preoccupation with the anticipation of action and the review of its outcomes and attempts to systematize that reasoning as a model for situated practice itself. These examples, however, suggest an alternative view of the relationship between plans, as representations of conditions and actions, and situated practice. Situated practice comprises moment-by-moment interactions with our environment more and less informed by reference to representations of conditions and of actions, and more and less available to representation themselves. The function of planning is not to provide a specification or control structure for such local interactions, but rather to orient us in a way that will allow us, through the local interactions, to respond to some contingencies of our environment and to avoid others. As Agre and Chapman put it “[m] ost of the work of using a plan is in determining its relevance to the successive concrete situations that occur during the activity it helps to organize” (1987a). Plans specify actions just to the level that specification is useful; they are vague with respect to the details of action precisely at the level at which it makes sense to forego specification and rely on the availability of a contingent and necessarily ad hoc response. Plans are not the determinants of action, in sum, but rather are resources to be constructed and consulted by actors before and after the fact. [pp. 314-315]

Suchman (1987)
  • Agre, P., and Chapman, D. (1987a). What are plans for? Paper presented for the panel on Representing Plans and Goals, DARPA Planning Workshop, Santa Cruz, CA., MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Cambridge, MA.
  • Agre, P., and Chapman, D. (1987b). Pengi: An implementation of a theory of activity. Proceedings of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, Seattle, WA.