Master of Arts in Educational Technology - Pepperdine University  
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Cycle Two - Peer Collaboration: Building an Infrastructure for Enhancing Technical Support

In cycle one, the action I took was to form a group of advisors, present my project, a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Support Group, for approval and feedback. The purpose of actions taken in all three cycles was designed to help resolve an on-going problem, generate new knowledge and deepen my understanding of WestEd’s infrastructure.

The action for cycle two was to bring together willing participants, design and implement a pre survey questionnaire and map the results (see Figure 3). While the actions I took in cycle two generated new ideas and valuable reflections, the objective and prominent question of my research project remained unchanged. It is important to realize that the ultimate goal of any action research project is not to have a fixed outcome that can be applied everywhere, but to produce a personal theory and invite others to learn along with the researcher (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006). One of the primary purposes of my project was to turn a predicament into a problem, and then solve it (Lave & Wenger, 1991). And we are faced with just such a predicament at WestEd—an already overburdened help desk that is facing the roll out of a new email system called Zimbra.

Framing the issue (predicament) was not as much a “complex task” as depicted by authors Coghlan and Brannick (2005) in their book, Doing Action Research in your Own Organization. Most employees were fully aware that WestEd would soon be converting to a new email system and were apprehensive about the transition and how it would personally affect them, their work and their clients. WestEd’s help desk personnel already had a recurring problem with response time and solvability issues. Management and employees both feared that this new web-based email system would only intensify the existing problem. The real challenge for me was establishing the criteria for selection and evaluation of who should be Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Support Group members.

Forming the P2P was a somewhat arduous process. Only after having received permission from my advisory panel and from Richard Wenn, Director of Information Services, did I solicit volunteers within the Mathematics, Science and Technology program. McNiff, Lomax & Whitehead (2003) highly recommend in their book, You and Your Action Research Project, that participants be provided a forehand written communication including an ethics statement and an assurance of confidentiality. I constructed and distributed a letter of introduction, guidelines and consent form and a one-page summary of the action research project to each member of the P2P. The key purpose of my letter was to promote a spirit of co-operation and collaboration, which I feel is vital to the action research model.

I received an immediate, overwhelming response from WestEd MST employees and was able to select twelve participants from a pool of interested staff. Richard asked that if it was feasible, in addition to my own study, could we beta test Zimbra Chat for his department—Information Services.

Fortunately, I learned early on that using Zimbra Chat, which had been previously selected as our main source of communication, would not be possible. Zimbra Chat itself is in beta testing and there is no current method of texting or chatting with more than one other person at a time. It is important to my research to be able to use group chat because it is a fast and effective means of communication for a group of our size. Since I am already very familiar with Skype, I chose it instead as our principal method of communication.

Additionally, participants were asked to complete a simple, five-question pre survey using SurveyMonkey. Within two days, all members had established their Skype account, taken the survey, read the guidelines for participation and signed the consent form. Although very impressed (and pleased) with the quick response, I was not totally surprised at the reaction to the request for participation. While researching for the literature review, I learned that “people who have a strong organizational orientation are likely to be sensitive to the needs of help seekers and to adjust their advice to the requirements of those asking for help” (Constant, Sproull & Kiesler, Mar/Apr96, p. 121).

The results of the survey proved interesting and vital to understanding the individual profiles of the P2P membership. The survey indicated that 73% call the help desk at least once a month and that 18% call at least once a week. The reasons for calling the help desk varied. The group responded with multiple answers that included software questions (55%), server and connectivity issues (72%), and other technical problems (64%). Most employees stated that, before calling the help desk, they first tried to figure the problem out by themselves. Many said that they would ask a fellow employee, but a large number, 18% percent, indicated that they would call the help desk first. (See Figure 3 below).

Figure 3. Peer-to-Peer Pre Survey Results

The pre survey was an excellent indicator for plausible reasons why the help desk is so overwhelmed with calls and help tickets. If 18% of the P2P group (who are considered by their peers to be fairly technically savvy) call the help desk as a first line of defense, and 18% call at least once a week, 9% ever other week and 73% at least once a month, then WestEd with a population of approximately 600 plus employees, generate about 50 calls a day to the help desk. Considering the sheer number of calls that the IS department field on any given day, they do a respectable job keeping up with the demand.

Another interesting element uncovered by the survey, is that the majority (67%) of respondents were more satisfied with the response time and answers they received from their peers than from the help desk (30% satisfied). This suggests that a type of peer-to-peer support system, already to some degree in use within WestEd, is preferred over utilizing the services of help desk. Learning theorists, Lave and Wenger (1991), would call this a community of practice—groups of people who share a passion for something and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. However, even though employees favor asking each other for assistance (as the numbers in Figure 3 indicate), they still call the help desk far too often.

Zimbra, a web based email service, was introduced to staff on Monday, April 6th. The IS department spent the entire weekend converting staffs’ email from Thunderbird and Entourage to Zimbra. Employees had not yet been trained on the new email system and came into work Monday flooding the help desk with phone calls and help tickets. On Tuesday, April 7th, the P2P Support Group officially began collaborating as a team, assisting one another with Zimbra questions and answers, using Skype as the primary mode for communication.

Skype worked very well for our purpose. As evidence, I have eighty-one pages of text as part of my quantitative as well as qualitative documentation. Not only were numerous questions asked and answered, members shared valuable insights as to how the newly formed P2P Support Group was working for them. One member typed that he was “off to a [company sponsored] Zimbra training” which triggered an instant reply from another P2P member who had just taken the exact same training the day before, “Good luck with training! I think we're much more advanced as a group.” What a compliment to our membership. As a whole, we were providing more in-depth help and training than was being offered by our company.

Admittedly, not all members were able to be online and actively participate every minute of every day. I anticipated that this would be the case, however, I didn’t foresee the following text from a P2P member, “I wasn't on yesterday so am trying to catch up on reading the chat messages. Looking forward to this week's Q&A!” I had no idea that it would be seen as having this much value. By the end of the study, participants were starting to understand the purpose of our support group as one member affirmed, “I have a question regarding accessing the server remotely. Is there special software or something I can set up (without bugging IS) to be able to upload to the server?” She had gotten it! She understood the big picture—don’t bug the help desk unnecessarily—ask the P2P Support Group first.

Critical conversations about the research should take place at all stages of the process (McNiff, Lomax, Whitehead, 2003). During one such exchange, my advisors thought it might be interesting to find out why the twelve employees accepted the invitation to participate in the P2P Support Group. They brought forward the following questions: Was there any bias because they knew me personally, or was it because the members were all within the MST program and they had some sense of loyalty?; Did they have some expertise already with Zimbra?; Did they enlist because they thought it would further their career at WestEd?; Did they participate because they wanted to be the first and only employees using the chat feature in Zimbra?; or, Were they legitimately interested in helping each other in a collaborative, supportive environment? Rather than ask these very personal and revealing questions on an online survey, I reserved them for the individual interviews in cycle three.

Knowing when and where to look for data is essential. Seeing and recording how learning enters into action and not merely looking at the action itself is central to good data collection (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006). I asked each participant to keep a record of the number of times they helped one of their peers (outside of the P2P Support Group) with Zimbra issues. I designed a self-reporting form on which each participant kept a log of:

▬ What question/s were asked?

▬ What action was taken?

▬ Was the problem resolved to the requestor’s satisfaction?

▬ How much time did it take?

▬ What form of communication was used (email, chat, IM, telephone, etc.)?

The advisory panel thought it would be advantageous to pose the same question to the help desk as was asked in the P2P Support Group to see how the answers and response time from the help desk staff compared with that of the groups. I thought this was an excellent suggestion, but realistically, it would defeat the purpose of my action research project, which was to reduce the number of calls to the help desk.

We decided, at the last advisory panel meeting, that 30 days would be an adequate amount of time for the length of the study. After the study’s completion, it was suggested that I conduct one-on-one interviews with each of the P2P members in order too provide additional qualitative data to my final report. Using a standard, open-ended interview format helped me gain a better understanding of each participant’s perspective on the pros and cons of being part of a supportive, collaborative environment.

In part, I have been able to maintain the focus of my action research project by defining “a desired future state” (Coghlan & Brannick, 2005, p. 95). I define that future state as being a thriving community of collaboration and continual peer support within WestEd. Greer et al. (1998), reports that a successful organization is one in which its workers feel empowered and take pride in the things they do helping one another meet the organization's mission.

As I reflect on the cycle two process, I am grateful for the opportunity to have experienced personal growth and learning from knowledgeable peers; increasing my profile within the WestEd organization; and, experimenting with newly acquired knowledge (Coghlan & Brannick, 2005). Situated learning is an excellent model of learning in a Community of Practice (CoP). The improvement in my personal practice has already begun to develop throughout the spiral of both action research cycles and, in addition, has increased the capacity for self and group reflection (Fisher, Bennett-Levy, & Irwin, 2003). My action research attempts to do just that—the learning is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular environment.

Halfway through my cycle-three action in which the quasi-experimental study has ended and the data collection begins, participants have received a post survey, submitted their logs and will soon be interviewed. The data that the help desk collected during the study will soon be received.

Forward to Cycle Three