Action Research

Building Thriving Communities of Practice with Social Learning Technologies


Daniel J. Wood

Pepperdine University

June 2009

Water droplette photo by Burning Image

Water droplet photo by Burning Image

Water is essential for all life. Where water flows naturally, or is strategically collected and distributed, life will flourish. Water is to life as knowledge is to an organization. When knowledge flows efficiently, the organization can function in an effective way, but when knowledge is withheld or restricted, it impacts productivity and limits the success of individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole.

In many corporate environments today individual and team working processes limit interaction among community members and peripheral communities. Issues of redundancy, low visibility of the development process for projects, and inefficiencies related to non-collaborative and time-consuming design processes greatly impact the sharing of reusable knowledge. Critical knowledge used by employees to complete their work is developed and delivered as individual documents attached to emails, or posted to intranet-based document repositories in locked formats. Interactivity on the web through social learning technologies, also referred to as web 2.0 tools, can play a central role in the the development of a Community of Practice within a multi-national, highly-diversified corporation. These tools mediate interaction between individuals and teams spread across distances, providing transparency and promoting social knowledge building for increased efficiencies and reduced duplication of effort.

Communities of Practice hold the key to maintaining quality and efficiency across teams, business units, organizations, and industries. The formation and nurturing of these communities requires thoughtful planning, supportive structures and tools, and a light-handed approach to management. While not easy to accomplish, building a thriving Community of Practice is essential to competitive viability in today’s fast-paced corporate environment.  In effect these Communities of Practice lay the pathways for knowledge to flow efficiently throughout creating a learning organization.

Knowledge Building In My Workplace

My field of action is a multi-national software corporation with approximately 8000 employees. My role is that of an instructional designer on a learning and development team that supports multiple business units within the corporation. In this role I have noted a lack of transparent, social, collaborative methods to build and share knowledge in the process of developing employee learning curricula.

While knowledge building and sharing processes overlap broad organizational boundaries and involve dispersed teams, my research is focused on my direct team which consists of 14 individuals including myself. The following demographics describe this team: Equally comprised of men and women. Age range between 30 and 65, with a median age of roughly 45 years. The team is comprised of nine instructional designers, two media specialists, one content developer, an administrative support professional, and a manager. Within the instructional design role there are individuals that also specialize in particular areas, such as reporting, or facilitation.

The members of my team interact with one another in the creation of employee learning and development materials in support of business goals. This constitutes formal and informal project assignments that may involve anywhere from one to five or one team members. Knowledge building and sharing in support of meeting project requirements currently involves a variety of disparate tools and methods. The primary design tool for Instructor-lead Training (ILT) materials is Microsoft Word documents that are created by an individual, shared via email to team members, and/or Subject-Matter Experts (SMEs) for their editing, then returned to the original designer for final revisions and formatting. From there the documents are distilled into Portable Document Format (PDF) files, which are subsequently loaded into an online database. These PDFs are then accessed by anyone needing to apply the content. Design processes for web-based learning are similar, with multiple emails for feedback and input being exchanged between the designer and SMEs prior to moving the content to a web-based content development tool.

These silo-like approaches to building knowledge content create bottlenecks and inefficiencies while designers wait for responses and attempt to piece together feedback provided by various reviewers who are not aware of the feedback of each other. This introduces redundancy and unnecessary work on the part of the designer and reviewers. Other issues related to this approach include limited access to source material and questions of content integrity based on multiple existing versions. Moving to community development processes supported by social learning technologies will assist in addressing many of the issues.

Research Question:

The over-arching action research question which I am pursuing is:

If I encourage collaboration through the use of social learning technologies, will it contribute to the development of a thriving, sustainable community of practice?

Research Method:

The method of research applied to understand this problem was Action Research. This type of research uses an action-reflection cycle in which the researcher studies and plans, selects an action to take to address the problem, collects evidence from the action outcomes, reflects on the evidence in order to gain a deep understanding of the impact of the action, and then chooses and applies a subsequent action to continue to address the problem. This process is iterative in nature as the researcher may apply any number of cycles to the problem. The goal of Action Research is to better align the values within the field of action to those of the researcher. In this way Action Research, unlike other forms of research, is a participative process that results in both a change within the individual doing the research and outside the researcher within the field of practice.

To support my Action Research process I maintained research notes that were updated on a bi-weekly basis in an electronic log or “blog.” These notes included detailed descriptions of observable evidence within my field of action, a reflection on the events, and a subsequent conceptualization of the reflection to further gain perspective of the event.

Image from Center for Collaborative Action Research

Image from Center for Collaborative Action Research

Three action-reflection cycles were completed for this research:

  • cycle one involved the introduction and advocacy of the use of a wiki as a tool to mediate social knowledge building for employee learning content;
  • cycle two focused on team dialogue and learning regarding the concept of a Community of Practice, and the use of a specific social learning technology, the SharePoint; and,
  • cycle three included individual interviews with each member of my team to understand current and future planned use of the SharePoint, gauge comfort level and understanding of the concept of Communities of Practice, and investigate future measures of success for both the SharePoint and the forming community.

To learn more about Action Research, please visit the Center for Collaborative Action Research Website.

Please use the menu below, or at the top of the page, to continue learning about Daniel Wood’s Action Research project.

Action Research Home | Literature Review | Cycle One | Cycle Two | Cycle Three | Final Reflection | References |
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