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Literature Review - Peer Collaboration: Building an Infrastructure for Enhancing Technical Support

A successful organization is characterized by workers who feel empowered and take ownership and pride in the things they do; a collaborative climate where employees, at all levels, help one another to meet the organization's mission. In a research project conducted at the University of Saskatchewan, a prototype system called PHelpS was developed to create large databases of peer-to-peer support for use within distributed organizations. This “informal peer-help network” consisted of a worker's colleagues and acquaintances that were consulted for just-in-time help and advice on work-related matters. The researchers proposed that, “On the job performance support through a good on-line help system or task checklists can assist workers to overcome many simple impasses” (Greer, McCalla, Collins, Kumar, Meagher, & Vassileva, 1998).

Unfortunately, PHelpS is far too complex a system for what I envision for my informal peer-helper network. The model has four elements in its construct, but it is only the fourth component that I am interested in—the human peer. With the PHelpS system, peer helpers are automatically selected based on a volunteer’s willingness, ability and availability to help. These are the same fundamental elements that I would like to establish in a peer-support group at WestEd. PHelpS requires too much work, money and time to institute and to do the training. I am searching for an existing system that is much more simplified, less costly and more user friendly.

The authors put forth a major problem regarding the motivation of workers’ willingness to support each other. Greer et al. suggest corporate recognition as a way to motivate potential peer helpers. I share the same concern as the authors. I considered asking high-level managers, within my organization, to provide incentives in order to help motivate and recruit potential peer-support group members.

In a similar study at Southern Cross University in Australia (Fisher, Bennett-Levy, & Irwin, 2003), Group for Accountability and Support (GAS), a peer-support group was constructed within an action research framework. The researchers provided intellectual, practical and emotional support for their research, as well as offering accountability and multiple opportunities to reflect on the process. Even though this article focused on peer support in promoting student learning, the authors structured their support group based on the attributes of an action research model: planning, action, monitoring, evaluation and reflection. What was attractive to the founders of GAS was the foundation of practice and action with an emphasis on self-reflection and improvement.

The authors candidly expressed concerns about the costs, dangers and potential pitfalls of their support group. I share similar concerns as well: time commitment, risk of personal exposure, threat of challenging relationships of power, support group becoming a substitute for supervision, and accountability. I am apprehensive about asking participants to give up valuable time out of their busy schedules. Hopefully, they will be amicable to helping others even though some may find it challenging to balance work and the necessary ongoing participation. Also, will participants be reluctant to render their strengths and weaknesses to a community of their peers?

Some of the basic elements of the success of GAS were dependent on a number of factors that may benefit my action research project. The support group was based on the following values:

• Basis in friendship and shared values - mutual respect, shared passion, understanding and commitment, and a mutual belief in the importance of self-reflection in the process of personal and professional development.

• Openness to feedback - prepared to be open with each other and to give and receive constructive feedback.

• Commitment of time - willing to commit the time required to enable the team to prepare, meet, document and reflect.

• Process structure - was most important as it enabled the team to be focused on tasks and to provide personal support and quality attention to each other.

This philosophy aligns with my own values, and with that of authors McNiff and Whitehead (2006), that action research is a purposeful and morally committed practice.

Peer-to-Peer Adaptive Awareness (Ye, Boies, Huang, Tsotsos, 2001) did not have much to offer in the way of specifics with regard to my proposed action research project, but did offer a wealth of relevant terminology and valuable conceptual information. For instance, learning the difference between synchronous mode (activities occur at the same time and in the same place); distributed synchronous mode (activities occur at the same time but in different places); asynchronous mode (activities occur at different times in the same place); and, distributed asynchronous mode (activities occur at different times and places) was extremely useful.

Putting a name, distributed synchronous mode, to my project was an important step in the process. This article enabled me to identify and define which method, or combination of methods, would help guide my proposed peer-support virtual environment. Additional terms, such as multi-agent technologies, instant awareness, real-time communication, distributed cooperative environment, and peer-to-peer computing, are all words and phrases that I plan to incorporate in the design of my final presentation. Larger concepts presented in this article will also be of assistance: adjust distances among co-workers (smart distance technologies can shorten this distance); knowledge pool and adaptive awareness among co-workers (collective power inhabits dynamic collaborative environments); and performance of the individual members and the team as a whole is maximized (awareness network). The authors offered a unique way of emphasizing the social aspects of collaboration through a multi-user, multi-agent environment; a concept that was advantageous when proposing this plan to my advisory panel.

A peer-reviewed article entitled The Kindness of Strangers: The Usefulness of Electronic Weak Ties for Technical Advice (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996) offered important, useful information from a study conducted at Tandem Computers in Silicon Valley. The authors explored the process of giving and receiving technical advice over Tandem’s existing computer network. Eighty-four company employees from diverse backgrounds, locations, and varying skill sets agreed to participate in the study. The researchers examined the practice of distant employees (strangers) exchanging technical advice through a large organizational computer network. The strength of this research suggests that strangers offer an advantage over friends and colleagues in obtaining useful information (Granovetter, 1973, 1982). I have been searching for this missing piece of evidence in order to support my action research project.

Although the researchers offered five solid theories, they brought attention to some obvious weaknesses in their hypothesis, some of which I have already anticipated and addressed in the force field analysis. I define these weaknesses below and offer reasonable solutions:

• The person asking the question has no direct way of knowing if the information is reliable.

I have thought of ways to overcome this potential problem. With the type of help requests that I presume will be asked, the seeker would know whether or not the information is reliable (almost instantly) because it will solve (or not solve) the immediate problem/question to their satisfaction.

• Similar to the concerns of the Greer et al. study, the motivation of strangers to help may be poor.

The authors posed a very poignant question, “Why would someone respond to a request for help from a stranger when the likelihood of direct personal benefit is low” (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996, p. 121)? They added that computer networks do not provide “a very rich medium for proffering esteem and gratitude” (p. 121). Along with identifying particular weaknesses, the authors put forth reasons that people might participate willingly. Technical expertise might be one of the information provider’s strengths and helping someone else might give them self-identity; increased self-esteem; personal identification with the organization; self-respect; and, respect from others and feelings of commitment. Organizational citizenship, with its norms of generalized reciprocity, is as important as direct personal benefits.

• It would prove too costly for a company to allow their employees online help from their peers.

Participants, however, reported in a post survey that the support they received was very valuable. Companies, such as my own, that place a high value on this type of reciprocity of information sharing, are willing to incur the cost of kindness as a social institution.

• The open opportunity for abuse for personal use or political gains is not worth the benefits.

The study itself disproved this concern. Most participants focused on just the task at hand and not on abusing the system. “Technical information is relatively more likely to be exchanged in a computer network weak-tie environment than are other kinds of information such as strategic, political, or personal information” (p. 131). Weak [social] ties are interpersonal ties that are information-carrying connections between casual acquaintances.

• Employees cannot always get useful, local advice. Immediate answers are not always available locally and finding out who has that expertise might be difficult.

The authors originally thought that it might be difficult to induce those who do have answers or solutions to share their knowledge. The results of the study indicated something different. People were willing to address the needs of others largely due to the desire to be “a good company citizen,” putting the benefits to the organization first and foremost (p. 126).

The researchers provided ways in which the exchange of questions and answers might be effective. The in-depth study looked at a system that has been working successfully for six years. This information provides guidance for the successful process of a peer supported system. Although Tandem Computers uses a different method than the one I propose, it is very similar in nature. One of the major differences in their peer support system is the exclusive use of a second-class email (bulk mail-out) that is broadcast to the entire company. I will not utilize WestEd’s email structure as a platform for peer-to-peer networking. My preference is to use more innovative, web2.0 tools that I am investigating in Pepperdine’s Online Master of Arts degree in Educational Technology (OMET) program.

The outcomes of the study were very encouraging. Despite the lack of a personal connection with the information seekers, the results indicated that information providers gave useful advice and were able to solve the problems asked of them. As a side benefit, there is a greater opportunity for collaborative exchanges (peer support) via computers than in face-to-face interactions.

After reading this article, A Relational View of Information Seeking and Learning in Social Networks (Borgatti & Cross, 2003), I quickly recognized that the authors’ study was a near perfect match for my action research. Borgatti and Cross proposed a formal model of seeking information (from another person) as a function of: 1) knowing what that person knows, 2) valuing what that person knows, 3) being able to gain timely access to that person’s thinking, and 4) it would not be too costly a procedure (p. 440). The idea of “collectively solving complex tasks” implies “having the ability to leverage the expertise of others in an accurate and timely fashion” (Borgatti & Cross, 2003, p. 433). These three functions have been addressed by some of the previously mentioned articles, and validate that I am on the right path. Knowing what someone knows will hopefully be made known over time or will be a measurement of my screening process for potential members (p. 443).

The authors indicated that accessibility is a major factor in peer support groups. Someone can be an expert in a specific area, but if they are consistently unavailable to be of assistance—they are useless. The authors bring up a very valid concern; the ability of the “actor” (person who needs help) doesn’t know how to frame the question in order to ask for help. Another major concern of mine is that of building trust. For someone to openly admit that they don’t know something, in the first place, and then having to ask for help, or they are called on for assistance and cannot provide an appropriate answer, can be extremely uncomfortable and have the potential to lower self-esteem.

Some of these issues will be resolved over time as participants become more comfortable and trusting of each other. The concept of norms of reciprocity will hopefully provide for an even exchange of sharing knowledge. A suggested “skill-profiling system” will provide a knowledge base of “who knows what” that will aid in understanding to which person a question should be directed.

The dependent variable, in the Borgatti and Cross study was “information seeking,” while the independent variables were: “knowing,” “valuing,” “access” and “cost.” I was not clear at this point if the variables in my action research project would correspond with those in this study (p. 436).

The geographic areas in this study are similar to my project in that the researchers included four entirely different regions, and mine was housed in various WestEd offices nationwide. Although this sounds unimportant, it was a significant element of their study—physical proximity. As I learned from similar articles, and reiterate again here, face-to-face interactions (strong ties) are generally important, but alternative methods of sharing information using distributed technologies can foster relationships and strengthen weak ties as well.

Van Rosmalen, P., Sloep, P., Kester, L., Brouns, F., de Croock, M., Pannekeet, K. & Koper, R. (2008) presented in their article, A Learner Support Model Based on Peer Tutor Selection, a prototype that would alleviate the workload of staff tutors (and in my proposal, WestEd’s help desk and intra-office staff). It is too time consuming and far too demanding to expect the company’s overburdened help desk to always be available and consistently have the capacity to answer unanticipated questions at any given time. This is also the case for the few staff, within their local offices, that are constantly being pulled from their busy schedules to assist those who are less technically savvy. I contend that with the vast knowledge, experience and expertise of inter-office peers (staff from several offices across the country), employees should be able to assist each other and avoid the temptation of always calling the help desk first.

One of the most useful ideas for my evolving action research project came from the above article. The authors offered a support mode in which they illustrated in a Venn diagram, A Learning Network for domain D. I began to think about how to frame my peer-to-peer support model in an attempt to better demonstrate my conceptual design—people who have the desire to learn and the willingness to share their knowledge and experience. The support activities documented in the van Rosmalen et al. model is similar to the activities I plan to use:

• Develop a self-organized, distributed system of like-minded peers willing to reciprocate both time and expertise

• Ask questions to the appropriate person/s and subsequently receive relevant answers

• Maintain quality involvement, receive empowerment and valued experience in the peer support network

One of the potential problems, as indicated by this author and other authors previously mentioned in this paper, is that a handful of altruistic users will be the only contributors. I believe that this problem can be diminished by having a clear set of guidelines, the screening of participants resulting in a diverse population with a wide range of skills, and by offering clear incentives for active participation.

Another important factor broached in this article was to determine the optimal number of peer tutors; and in my situation, the entire group were peer tutors and “tutees.” The group, according to the literature review, should be large enough to guarantee an answer quickly, but small enough to avoid multiple duplications of an answer. The authors arrived at the number five which, in my opinion, seems somewhat small. Based on competency, content, availability and eligibility, I proposed a peer-support group of no more than 25 members in order to cover the above criteria. I intended to recruit only four or five participants for pilot testing. It was my desire to learn from this intimate group how to sustain the social cohesion of a larger support group.

Designing Learning: Cognitive Science Principles for the Innovative Organization (Penuel & Roschelle, 1999) article opens with similar observations to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) view on learning—learning takes place within communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991, as cited in Penuel & Roschelle, 1999, p. 13). The authors define a community as “the ways people organize themselves” or the “way in which they form temporary associations” (Penuel & Roschelle, 1999, p. 13). Learning is embedded in routine work activities and can be learned by observing others more skilled than us. Novices learn to become experts through practice, solving a variety of problems. Penuel and Rochelle assert that learners can master a particular domain through “active monitoring.” And active monitoring occurs when “learners have the opportunity to share their knowledge” (p. 3).

The model Penuel and Roschelle propose is “social construction of situated knowledge,” where building understanding in a community-based learning environment is at its heart in the social process (p. 29). A major problem for most organizations is how to help workers improve their practice. For 21st century skills, workers need to be prepared to handle the difficult exceptions and problems that computers can’t handle. Innovative organizations are encouraging excellence by building on an existing culture of learning.

The authors communicate a success story about photocopier repair technicians and how they formed an occupational community (with little management involvement). Information sharing and storytelling was part of their everyday work culture. The repair technicians used hand-held radios to communicate with each other without fear of managers listening in on their conversations. The radio technology allowed for the free flow of information that could be shared on the go and not just typical face-to-face encounters. The technicians could get questions answered and resolve problems rapidly and reported that they enjoyed providing problem-focused and moral support to their peers though radios.

This story was an example of an informal learning environment. One of the goals of my project was to establish this kind of relaxed, friendly atmosphere for my peer-to-peer support group. Learning is typically “more fun in informal learning environments, because the interest and talents of participants are resources for learning with these contexts” (p. 11). The information in this article was helpful in confirming the use of technology for my support network. I have also learned the value of not initially offering high-ranking managers membership in the support network.

Penuel and Roschelle reference Vygotsky’s learning theory views: “Social settings in which experts or more capable peers are present provide strategic support to learners so that they can perform at higher levels than they would be able to achieve unassisted by others” (Wertsch, 1991, as cited in Penuel & Roschelle, 1999, p. 24). Clearly, for each learner, the process must be different, and that difference is part of the unique contribution to his or her various communities; “Speaking, thinking and valuing particular communities of practice, learners come to enhance their identities within those communities” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, as cited in Penuel & Roschelle, 1999, p. 25).

 
  Kathleen L. Lepori - Peer Collaboration: Building an Infrastructure for Enhancing Technical Support ©