Change Laboratory Method

What is Change Laboratory?

Change Laboratory is a method for developing work practices by the practitioners. Basing on the theoretical conceptions of the dual (double) stimulation (L. Vygotsky) and expansive learning (Y. Engeström) it facilitates both intensive, deep transformations and continuous incremental improvement. The method is developed and registered by theCenter of Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research, Universityof Helsinki.  The idea is to arrange on the shopfloor a space in which there is a rich set of instruments for analyzing disturbances and for constructing new models for the work practice. Change Laboratory is used by a team or work unit or by collaborating partners across the organizational boundaries, initially with the help of an interventionist-researcher. In the KP-Lab, the potential of the digital tools and spaces in the Change Laboratory context are explored, designed and experimented.

The Change Laboratory brings work redesign closer to the daily shopfloor practice while still keeping it analytical. This brings forth a new dialectic of close embeddedness in and reflective distance from work. It brings together practice-driven redesign processes and idea-driven construction of visions for the future, which means a new dialectic of specified improvements and comprehensive visions. It brings together multiple parallel rhythms of development in work – a new dialectic of long, medium and short cycles of innovation and change. Also, it brings together the tools of daily work and the tools of analysis and design – a new dialectic of instrumentalities.

The central tool is the 3x3 set of surfaces for representing the work activity: In the time dimension of the past, present and future, there are 1) mirror surface that shows the work practices and challenging examples of problems and disturbances at work; 2) a model surface displaying the entire activity system that is used to make sense of the built-in contradictions generating the troubles and disturbances depicted in the mirror, and to construct a vision of the past and the future of the activity system; 3) ideas  and tools surface in the middle of the mirror and models for the potential capabilities and emerging formations for reorganizing the activity. Workers face the surfaces aided by a scribe appointed from among them, by video equipment and additional tools such as databases and a reference library.

The structure setup of the change laboratory

The central tool of the Change Laboratory is a 3x3 set of surfaces for representing the work activity. Workers participating in the Change Laboratory process are facing the surfaces, aided by a scribe appointed from among them as well as by video equipment and available additional tools such as relevant databases and a reference library (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Prototypical layout of the Change Laboratory 

The horizontal dimension of the surfaces represents different levels of abstraction and theoretical generalization. At one end, the mirror surface is used to represent and examine experiences from work practice, particularly problem situations and disturbances, but also novel innovative solutions. Videotaped work episodes as well as stories, interviews, customer feedback and regular performance statistics are used in the mirror. 
At the other end, the model/vision surface is reserved for theoretical tools and conceptual analysis. The complex triangular model shown in Figure 1 (for theoretical elaboration, see Engeström, 1987) is used to analyze the systemic quality and interconnections of work activity. Systemic roots of specific but recurring problems and disturbances are traced and conceptualized as inner contradictions of the activity system. In addition, a general model of the steps of an expansive learning cycle is used on this surface, to enable the workers to analyze the current and projected next stage of the evolution of their activity.
The third surface in the middle is reserved for ideas and tools. In analysis of problem situations and in the design of a new model for the work activity, intermediate cognitive tools (Norman, 1993) such as schedules and flowcharts of processes, layout pictures and diagrams of organizational structures, categorizations of interview responses, formulas for calculating costs, or techniques for idea generation and problem solving, including simulations and role playing, are often needed. As the participants move between the experiential mirror and the theoretical model/vision, they also produce intermediate ideas and partial solutions, to be tested and experimented with. These, too, are represented on the middle surface. 

The vertical dimension of the surfaces represents movement in time, between the past, the present, and the future. Work in the Change Laboratory typically starts with the mirror of present problems. It then moves to trace the roots of current trouble by mirroring experiences from the past and by modeling the past activity system. The work then proceeds to model the current activity and its inner contradictions, which enables the participants to focus their transformation efforts on essential sources of trouble. The next step is the envisioning of the future model of the activity, including its concretization by means of identifying 'next-step' partial solutions and tools. Subsequently, the stepwise implementation of the new vision is planned and monitored in the Change Laboratory. Such a cycle of expansive learning induced in the Change Laboratory typically takes three to six months. One cycle leads to the next one, and within the cycles there are smaller cycles of problem solving and learning (see Engeström, 1996; Kärkkäinen, 1996).

Text from: Engeström, Y., Virkkunen, J., Helle, M., Pihlaja, J. & Poikela, R. (1996).The Change laboratory as a tool for transforming work. Lifelong Learning in Europe, 1(2), 10-17.

Other references

Agricultural context

Mukute, M. (2009) Cultural Historical Activity Theory, Expansive Learning and Agency in Permaculture Workplaces. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. 26

Mukute, M. (2010) Exploring and expanding learning processes in sustainable agriculture workplace contexts. Doctoral dissertation, University of  Rhodes.

Hill, R., Capper, P., & Wilson, K. (2007). Workplace learning in the New Zealand apple industry network: A new co-design method for government “peace making.” Journal of Workplace Learning, 19, 359–376.

Educational context

Teräs, M. (2007) Intercultural Learning and Hybridity in the Culture Laboratory. Doctoral dissertation. University of Helsinki, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, Department of Education.

Media context

Helle, Merja,Töyry, Maija (2009). Media Concept as a Tool for Analyzing Change in Media. In  P. Oittinen ja H. Saarelma: Print Media. Principles, Processes and Quality. Helsinki: Paper Engineers' Association/Paperi ja Puu Oy, 497-530

Helle, Merja, Töyry, Maija (2009) . Changing Journalistic Work Practices. In P. Oittinen ja H.
Saarelma: Print Media - Principles, Processes and Quality. Helsinki: Paper Engineers' Association/Paperi ja Puu Oy, 13-39.

Helle, Merja (2009) Toimitustyön muuutos ja sen etnografinen tutkimus. Teoksessa Esa Väliverronen (toim.) Journalismi murroksessa, Helsinki: Gaudeamus, 91-111.

Helle, Merja&Töyry Maija (2008) Mallilukija journalismin kehittämisen välineenä. Tiedotustutkimuksen vuosikirja. Tampere: Tampereen yliopisto.

Health care context

Kerosuo, Kajamaa and Engeström "Promoting innovation and learning through Change Laboratory: An example from Finnish Health care" in Central European Journal of Public Policy, Special Issue on Knowledge Governance (Vol 4, No 1, 2010) is available on-line. You can download individual articles or complete issue at

Support learning among networks

H Toiviainen, H Kerosuo, T (2009) “Development Radar”: the co-configuration of a tool in a learning network

Other relevant studies

Ahonen, H. (2008) Reciprocal development of the object and subject of learning The renewal of the learning practices of front-line communities in a telecommunications company as part of the techno-economical paradigm change

Bodrožic, Z. (2008) Post-industrial Intervention: An Activity-Theoretical Expedition Tracing the Proximal Development of Forms of Conducting Interventions

Pihlaja, J. (2005) LEARNING IN AND FOR PRODUCTION An Activity-Theoretical Study of the Historical Development of Distributed Systems of Generalizing

Seppänen, L. (2004) Learnign Challenges in Organic Farming: An Activity Theoretical Study of On-farm Practices.

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