A feature of clerical work that has been noted recurrently is its invisibility. In the 1990s, however, attempts were made to document, and thus recognise formally, the everyday activities that constitute clerical work. As a result, since 1993 a set of competency standards has been available to serve as benchmarks (1) in legitimising the knowledge and skills that administrative workers demonstrate and (2) in training workers and students to become competent administration employees.
While the use of competency standards is pervasive within the vocational education and training (VET) environment, a number of authors has questioned a competency-based standards approach to the provision and assessment of vocational knowledge and skills. For example, both Stephenson (1994) and Jackson (1993, 1994) have been vehement in their criticism of competency-based VET approaches per se. Others, such as Billett (1993, 1996), Gott (1991, 1992) and Soucek (1993) have criticised the specific ways that knowledge and skills have been conceptualised in the approach that has been adopted in Australia. What is largely missing from this literature, though, is evidence of examinations of the actual practices of workers. The study on which this thesis is founded addresses this gap.
In this study I use an ethnomethodological approach to analyse how everyday activities that are integral to the work of three administration trainees employed in shire and city councils, namely (1) developing service requests, (2) receipting rate payments and (3) managing the elicitation, provision and recording of specific information relating to a vacant position, are accomplished in interaction with members of the public. Because ethnomethodological research designs eschew the use of theoretical frames prior to the analyses of empirical data, I used transcripts of audio-recordings of talk in interaction and, to a lesser extent, video-recordings of this talk to examine the ways that work was accomplished by the participants in each activity and to develop patterns that matched and deviated from previously documented analyses of these activities.
The analyses of the data in my thesis show that the Administration standards that operated at the time when the data were collected failed to reflect in an adequate way the actual practices that constitute the work of administration trainees. A similar claim is made about the Business Services standards that replaced the Administration standards in 2001. This finding supports Suchman's (1983, 1988, 1993) conclusion from her research within office environments that assumptions about office work are not necessarily realised in practice. In her much-cited 1988 study she showed convincingly how the assumption that the users of photocopier machines would employ a logic similar to that of the developers of the machines was misplaced.
A second aspect of my study was to show how oral and written texts are used to inform each other. For example, in the course of telephone service requesting the components of the council request form can be heard to be used in the talk of the council trainee to topicalise the interaction. Conversely, the formulations of the nature of the claims for the services that are being made can be seen to be translated by the trainee into written forms, with only minor variations, firstly, onto the notes made during the call and, subsequently, onto the service request documents.
While the findings from this study extend those that have already been reported within the ethnomethodological literature, they have particular implications for VET. Firstly, there is evidence in this thesis to show how an ethnomethodological approach to the development of understandings of work practices is a viable research method within the VET field in Australia. The range and extent of research within this field is limited, relative to educational research generally, and this study is the first that has been undertaken within VET that uses an ethnomethodological/conversation analytical approach. I believe that, if such a research approach became common, a more thorough appreciation of the actual knowledges and skills that are required and used by employees in their daily work than is captured in the current competency standards would result. Secondly, the findings from this and other studies based on a similar approach would serve as useful benchmarks in moderation work whereby the full range of actual practices undertaken within the scope of the three activities that are the focus of this thesis would be understood more fully.