Introduction & Cycle 1
Success in the work place hinges on access to the right resources. During the industrial age, the most valuable assets were the tools of the trade. Today, there is an emphasis on knowledge management—what people know and can do with their resources. More recently, this emphasis has led to increased value being placed on social capital. It is no longer enough to have skilled employees. Instead, they need to be able to access social capital—the human resources that are embedded in the organization’s social network. A good way to build social capital is by nurturing communities of practice.
The purpose of my action research was to investigate my work environment and instigate activities that build social capital through the development of a community of practice. My long-term goal is to either facilitate the activities common to a community of practice, or at least contribute in such a manner that our team increases its capacity to collaborate effectively. Ideally, the end-result of this collaboration will be enhanced team production.
Understanding My Work Context
I work on a team tasked with the development and delivery of online training. My team consists of two instructional designers, three multimedia developers, one database programmer, and an assortment of contract employees. Based on feedback, our customers are pleased with the work we do for them. However, there is frustration in that we do little more than “click and read” information. Most of the modules we deliver should be classified as e-information rather than e-learning. The modules we develop really do not reflect sound learning theory, nor do they incorporate a consideration of this in their design. In fact, the way people learn is rarely a consideration in any of the programs we are commissioned to develop. I see the problem as twofold. First, our team does not know how to design effective learning-based modules; and second, our customers are not able to distinguish the difference.
t this point, I have little control over the client. My initial thought was to focus on my team and learning design. However, upon further reflection, I felt that a place for real improvement was in how we functioned. Currently, we do not function as a team. Instead, we are peers who outsource our work to each other. I believed there was a lot of opportunity for increased and more effective collaboration. If we committed to earning social capital, the end result could be higher quality e-learning modules that combine the fiscal advantages of online delivery with consideration of how people learn.
What is Action Research?
Action research is a way to take action and understand its impact. It is an iterative process that happens in cycles. The goal is to cycle through action, critical reflection, modification, and begin a new cycle. The process is continually refined as our understanding develops. The value in action research is that it hinges on my active involvement and reflection. In addition, it anticipates more than just a report. Instead, it demands that my reflections produce another cycle of action, always with the goal of successive interventions.
The ultimate outcome of my research project is to help my team function better and produce a product more consistent with sound learning theory. Our social connections are weak and I believe this contributes to the way we interact with each other. We are not in a position to leverage much social capital. In addition, Lesser and Stork (2001) have claimed that this has a negative impact on our performance. Based on the preceding investigation of social learning theory, I endeavored to instigate some activities to see if I could affect our social cohesion and construct a better practice.
Cycle 1: GENERATE INTEREST IN COLLABORATION
My experience with my colleagues, coupled with my reflections from the literature review, left me under no illusion that we are anything more than a team. However, I asked, “Can any activities be instigated to create the foundation for a community of practice or (at a minimum) practice-like characteristics?”
From the literature review, these three community of practice identifiers emerged: regular contact, talk with others to share problems, and share learning from projects. This is the essence of what many organizations consider to be collaboration.
Our organization continually stresses the need to collaborate. One element of our Roadmap for Success is the ability to “efficiently use resources” and “take decisive action.” Much of what I have read about the organization suggests that it supports the investment in better team collaboration and practice-like activities.
During the course of this cycle, I quietly observed the team to understand where we are like a community of practice and where we are not. In addition, I tried to build informal support for increased activities through conversations. One concern was that any additional activities might be seen as extra work and leads to lack of commitment.
In King Arthur’s Round Table, Perkins (2003) describes memawashi as an informal process of “building and testing consensus through a number of small meetings.” Later he talks of “debugging an idea and building support.” I had a number of informal conversations to generate “buzz” around the goals of my research project. I kept the focus on conversations around collaboration and social connection, and specifically avoided a focus on my project. These conversations were a good way to determine where the team was both collectively and on an individual basis. My goal was to gain a sense of where the team was starting and how they would support moving forward with this project of becoming more like a community of practice.
From my perspective, our team is not very social in its orientation. Our team events are very awkward, as it seems many are more inclined towards an introverted nature. I am not sure if this is because we are not doing enough to be connected or if our personalities are such that we are by nature independent and thus do not feel the need to connect. My guess is that it is a little of both. I was hoping that the team would buy into the project ideas and discussion on social capital and collaboration.
How Did I Evaluate the Cycle
To evaluate this cycle, I compared our activities to community of practice descriptions, and I documented and reflected on my informal conversations. Since this was a simple cycle activity, I accepted informal positive affirmation as a green light to move forward, expecting collaboration and initiative from my peers and teammates. Instead of taking a reactive approach where the team went along with the project I presented, my hope was that some of the team (or all) would catch the vision from our conversations and take proactive action in wanting to partner with me.
I purposely did not formally invite participation. I wanted to see if mutual conversation and idea generation was enough to get things moving forward. As stated earlier, “learning is a fundamentally social process (Wenger, 1999).” In addition, practice-like activities are those where people share a concern or passion...and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. My goal was to see if I could get buy-in and if others would join me as a result of our conversations without my scheduling a series of activities.
Assessment of Team Interest
How did my team compare to the description of a community of practice? I quietly observed the team and interactions to get a sense of how we interact and if we displayed practice-like tendencies. I used the Hilderth, Kimble, and Wright (2000) framework to observe my team:
- Do we have a sense of common purpose?
- Do we have a strong feeling of identity?
- Do we talk together to solve problems?
- Do we swap anecdotes/experiences with each other?
- Do we learn from discussions with each other?
- Are we developing our own processes?
Do we have a sense of common purpose?
As a team, we have a common objective, which is to create online training modules. However, community of practice-like tendencies would focus less on any one project and more on the process to create the projects. I asked, “How are we learning to do what we do?” From my observations and familiarity with the team, I think that we do not display any common sense of purpose outside of getting our projects completed.
Do we have a strong feeling of identity?
Wenger (1999) says that indentity involves “negotiating the meaning of our experience of membership in social communities.” From this definition, I would say that there is no strong feeling of identity. I do not think that there is enough interaction to suggest community, and thus no identity to associate with it.
Do we talk together to solve problems?
There are occasions where team members have had conversations around ideas not specific to a project. I have worked with one of our Flash developers a number of times to instigate changes or solve problems outside the scope of the immediate project. In addition, we have had to problem-solve and creatively modify a process or technology to get results. While these were project-based, the process enterprise is aligned with practice-like activity because it was a shared learning event, rather than just outcome-based.
Do we swap anecdotes/experiences with each other?
Typically, we have little social contact outside of team or project meetings. After a couple of weeks of observation, I noticed that I am usually the instigator of informal cubicle conversation. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that one of my teammates has come to my cubicle to instigate a conversation not connected to an immediate project need. I also observed that there is almost no informal or non-project related interaction with the other teammates.
We are just not a very social group. We do the obligatory Christmas party, but do not celebrate birthdays or any team-specific events or acknowledge individual achievements. Recently, one of our teammates just completed her Master’s degree with no acknowledgment from the team. I have been with the organization for two years, and have never had lunch with any one of my teammates, and I think the same holds true for the others. In fact, it was not until I started this cycle that I even had my first extra-curricular activity outside of work when I went to drink a beer with one of my teammates.
Do we learn from discussions with each other?
Other teams that I have worked with have had post-project assessments, kind of like a peer review, where we presented what we did and discussed what went well, what did not, and what we could be done better. It created a learning process within the team regardless of the project objective.
Our current team does little to review and provide feedback. In the two years that we have worked together, we have yet to do any type of analysis of any of our projects. Thus, there is no real structure where we share our learning and provide feedback. In addition, when we do interact, it is usually in the context of satisfying a project need.
Are we developing our own processes?
We do have a limited shared history in terms of learning together. We do have some artifacts as a team. We have completed projects, which testify to our ability to work together to produce results. While these artifacts are more representative of team identity than community, they do nonetheless reify the activities of the team. Within those projects are some elements of reified learning and part of our historical record. Each project presented unique challenges that caused us to apply our collective expertise and competence. In this case, our team shows some practice-based community tendencies.
In addition to observing our interactions and reviewing our activities, I made the point to talk to each team member a number of times about collaboration and ideas on social connection. I have been sharing what I am learning in class and using this to instigate conversation about collaboration and some of my ideas regarding the research project and trying to collect theirs.
In my conversations, I have gotten unanimous affirmation regarding enhanced team collaboration. Much of the conversation centered on what we do well and what we could be doing better. On the team, there is some concern about the team being in different locations and telecommuting. Geographic dispersion makes it difficult to have informal conversation and collaboration. Face-to-face meetings and formal team building activities are also a challenge because of the need to travel and the associated cost. Most of our team is in the Seattle area, and two are in Portland. One concern is that the Portland team always has to travel and is always the one on the other end of the phone during our team meetings. In addition, the Portland team came to the organization as the result of a hostile takeover of their organization. Thus, there are some cultural differences and a potential distrust for the “informal” activities in Seattle.
Going forward, an important consideration is not to marginalize the team members that are not in the same location. This consideration was addressed by Lesser and Storck (2001) when they studied the impact of face-to-face activities in communities of practice.
uring informal conversations with our leadership team, my team lead and manager both affirmed the research project and the goal of enhanced team collaboration. Although, neither offered any sort of direction or formal support. I am not sure if this is good or bad. I like the autonomy, but I have to believe that part of the team’s focus needs to come from some sort of vision or direction from the leaders.
Cycle 1 Reflection
My action research goal is to see what types of activities I can instigate to increase our social capital. Ultimately, this capital is generated in a dynamic practice. A community of practice emerges as “members share information and insights and discover ideas (O'Donnell et al, 2003).” It is interest driven.
My observations of the team suggest that we are a team of disjointed individuals. We share common goals and expertise, yet there is minimal social interaction and connection. While there is potential for the team, there is nothing today that suggests we are even close to being labeled a community of practice.
In my conversations, I specifically focused it away from the formal aspects of my research project so that the team would not see this as merely project-related activity. Instead, I wanted them to consider the essence of the project, which is strengthening our practice. I positioned this conversation around collaboration, social capital, and our connection as a team.
At its core, the team verbally affirms the interests of a community of practice. However, if that is the true, why doesn’t one exist? At a minimum, why aren’t we better connected socially?
I think that an important focus is to increase social connection through various activities where we can “build some common meaning and enable engagement (Wenger, 1999).” Who knows which specific activity makes an inroad? If I make a blended fruit smoothie with five types of fruit and then taste it, I might be able to taste the essence of all of the ingredients, but what I taste is not a linear progression of flavor. Instead, it is the union of flavors that combine to create its own distinct flavor.
In a similar sense, the development of a practice hinges less on any specific activity and more on the continual blending of activities. Wenger (1999) says, “Learning is a process of social reconfiguration.” I see the development of our team’s practice as an ongoing conversation. My contribution is to instigate the conversation. Each activity in some way builds on our connection to one another. Some activities are intentional and have greater significance, yet all have their place and value.
A while back, my wife and I were waiting in the drive-thru at Starbucks. A woman cut in front of us. This angered my wife who was driving. The offender turned her head and my wife recognized her as someone from a church group. All of a sudden, her countenance changed.
I think this illustrates how familiarity creates a certain level of social grace. When we know someone, we are more apt to be forgiving and bear with each other’s distinct personalities. However, without that familiarity, we are more inclined to focus on each interaction that might be offensive or frustrating.
Where Brown (2000) suggests, “We participate. Therefore we are.” O’Donnell (et al, 2003) says, “We communicate, ergo, we create.” Each conversation, interaction, and inquiry in this process is a brick in the wall of communication, which in the end can only contribute to the continual development of our practice.
As a team, we need to build our familiarity and social grace. We need to be less autonomous fruit, and more fruit smoothie. I contend that each purposed activity and intervention will contribute to our ability to collaborate effectively. One of my goals is to either pull other team members into activities with me or find ways to join them in what they are doing. While the results of my cycle illustrate some challenges in moving forward, I think each step, whether forwards, backwards or sideways, is in fact a step in the right direction because it is a step towards identifying and building our practice. It is the process of building a shared history.
Action for next cycle
In reviewing the past cycle, I was encouraged that we have been conversing about collaboration. I think it is safe to assume that the team desires enhanced collaboration and connection as a team. The challenge was in determining how that might happen. Upon reflection, I think I could have been more assertive in my goals and communication with the team. My concern was that I would be pushing “my agenda.” I want the team to embrace these goals because of our practice. However, in hindsight, I think that it is valid for me to be more assertive since I am a member of the practice. Going back to Lesser and Storck (2001), “authority relationships…emerge through interaction and expertise.” As a team member who has a vested interest that goes beyond this research project, it was appropriate for me to be more assertive. I was concerned that I would taint the direction or focus, yet upon further reflection, part of the action research process is that I am attempting to make positive change in my realm of influence. This was a key learning for me: ensure that I am not overbearing and work to develop a collective and communal interactivity, but at the same time do not diminish my own ability of influence and voice in the community.
The following cycles two and three ran in tandem. In the first cycle, I tried to build consensus and awareness through memawashi, the Japanese process of building consensus (Perkins, 2003). Next, I took a more formal approach with scheduled interviews. Cycle 2 involved interviewing my leadership team. In Cycle 3, I will interview my peers. I believe these interviews served multiple purposes. First, I collected relevant data, which helped determine the next steps. Second, I can continue the collective conversation. While the data is important, I think that the ongoing conversation plays a greater role. It puts the one answering the questions in a position of thoughtful reflection.