Benefits of sharing research-in-progress

I hesitated at first to share my research proposal.  I wondered about the possibility of introducing potential participant bias by making the research methodology transparent. But due to the nature of the research (exploratory, descriptive) I decided this risk was minimal. (It might have been a different matter if I were intending to do blind experimental study though….)

Besides, the benefits of sharing – even research-in-progress – has outweighed any initial reservations I had. As my friend Toni observed:

Sharing my proposal (and a few other research related writings-in-progress: here and here), has generated lots of really helpful feedback, support and conversations via my own PLN, which has in turn developed my ideas and evolved my thinking. For example:

Support from Nick Leffler, Tania Sheko & Toni Rose Pinero

Commenting on my post, Nick Leffler @technkl shared  his experiences and struggles during his own MA research, and also linked me to his research project (which was the first I’d learnt he’d done a research Masters too). Doing research for the first time is no easy task, and talking to someone who’s been through it before and can empathise with the trials and tribulations can really help.

Tania Sheko (@taniatorikova) shared her experiences (challenges & frustrations) of not having informal learning and professional development from her PLN recognised at the school she works at – helping me realise that schools and organisations are probably more similar than they are different.

And…ever since I met her (through #rhizo14) Toni Rose Pinero (@moocresearch) and I have had ongoing conversations about our respective research Masters projects. Posting my proposal helped reignite the conversation and we’ve been checking in with each other more regularly this year to provide mutual support.

This type of support I see as building the  “structural embeddedness” (who knows what) and “relational embeddedness” (social climate of trust and reciprocity) – two of the three components that Van Den Hooff et al 2010 identified as necessary for a network to make a positive contribution to (workplace) performance.

Feedback and resources from Ryan Tracey

I got some great constructive feedback from Ryan Tracey (@ryantracey) including suggestions for refining the research design and proposal. Ryan also sent me an extremely relevant article “Secret Power Brokers – The ties that bind our workplace” – a study on how several large Australian organisations are using social network maps to identify hitherto  hidden ‘power brokers’: extremely well connected employees who hold a lot of influence within the organisation through their (informal) role as trusted advisors, key opinion makers and change agents. Often these critical people are unknown to management, as their influence resides in the informal employee networks that develop through the flow of work rather than the the formal structures represented on the org chart. It reminded me very much of the study by Whelan et al (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation, which forms a critical base for my own research, and had similar findings to the article Ryan sent me.

Conversations & evolving thinking with Con Sotidis & Helen Blunden

A thought provoking twitter conversation with Con Sotidis (@LearnKotch), following on from a comment on Helen Blunden’s (@ActivateLearn) blog helped developed my thinking on the tension between personal vs organisational values relating to PLNs (a hot topic in #xplrpln). In particular, I was intrigued by this suggestion by Con on developing an ROI model for a PLN:

Whilst I wasn’t entirely convinced of the concept, it definitely got me thinking about how such a thing might or might not work – and why. The twitter conversation got us both thinking.  The next day, Con wrote a LinkedIn post on the value of PLNs, where we continued to exchange thoughts on this – how one determines the ‘value’ of their PLN – who to connect with, who to filter out, how and what we share with our PLNs. Thinking out loud in the comments on Con’s post helped me develop my thinking on this…as did Helen’s blog post on ‘exploring innovations in networked work & learning’ (the open ‘course’ / section of msloc430 that Jeff Merrell is running at the moment).

Part of what I wrote in response to Helen’s post was this:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot more since and think it might come down to alignment in values – between the individual and the organisation. I don’t think an organisation will ever be able to ask an individual to ‘utilise’ their PLN purely for organisational benefit: this will only happen IF the individual wants to. An individual will only ever WANT to build and leverage their PLN to support organisational goals if they are inherently engaged in what they do, and want to improve what they do at work (i.e. if they’re intrinsically motivated). And they will only ever WANT to do this, if their personal values are aligned with the organisation’s.

Through these conversations, I’m coming to the conclusion that the key to an individual leveraging the expertise of their PLN to meet organisational goals will result not from a ‘top down’ implementation / demand from leaders or the organisation that they do so (or even good role modelling of the behaviour from said leaders)…but from an alignment of values between the individual and the organisation. This could be a thread worth exploring further…a thread I may not have realised had it not been for sharing and connecting with my PLN on my research proposal.

Refs

Durkin, P (2014, July) Secret Power Brokers: the ties that bind our workplace. AFR BOSS, 28-31

Retrieved from: http://www.optimice.com.au/documents/secretpowerbrokers.pdf

Van Den Hooff, B; Van Weenen, F; Soekijad, M; Huysman, M (2010) The value of online networks of practice: the role of embeddedness and media use. Journal of Information Technology, suppl. Special Issue on Social Networking 25.2 (Jun 2010): 205-215

Whelan, E; Parise, S; de Valk, J; & Aalbers, R (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review 53 (1) 37-44

Retrieved from: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/creating-employee-networks-that-deliver-open-innovation

 

How does a learning professional’s PLN support innovations in their professional practice?

MA research proposal

This is my current proposal for research I’m doing as part of the Master of Learning Sciences and Technology. I’ve been quite fascinated by Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) for a while now, and as a learning practitioner, I’m interested in how we leverage our PLN relationships to support improvements or innovations in our professional practice. This is what my proposed research aims to explore. This proposal will be refined, and possibly change in some parts…so it’s always good to be able to look back and see how it evolves.

Introduction

Increasing competition, globalisation, and rapid pace of change are putting organisations and individuals under pressure to continuously innovate (improve processes, products, practices) (Whelan, 2007, Baker-Doyle 2008). Knowledge is often recognised as an organisation’s greatest asset (Whelan, 2007); and in this “knowledge economy” the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively across contexts is vital to survive and thrive (Castells, 2000, cited by Baker-Doyle, 2008). Quantitative research using Social Network Analysis (SNA) has shown that knowledge flows for organisational innovation happen through informal social networks both within and outside the organisation (Cross et al, 2002; Phelps, Heidl, & Wadhwa, 2012; Swan & Scarbrough, 2005; Bessant, 2012; Whelan, Parise, de Valk, & Aalbers, 2011; de Laat & Schreurs, 2013; Van Den Hooff, Van Weenen, Soekijad, & Huysman, 2010; Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006; Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012; Mackey & Evans, 2011).

Whilst this research has defined some of the structural characteristics of networks that support innovative practice (e.g. Burt 2004, Ebadi & Utterback 1984, Morrison 2002; Perry-Smith 2006; Morgan & Soerensen 1999 – cited byPhelps et al, 2012; Fleming, Mingo & Chen 2007; Obtsfeld 2005), less is known about the processes that link these networks to innovation (Swan & Scarbrough 2005; Phelps et al 2012), what people actually do within networks, how they maintain relationships (deLaat & Schreurs 2013), and the social rules and practices they use to negotiate meaning (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008).

Using qualitative case study research, this project aims to provide a rich description of how personal learning networks may support workplace learning and improvements in professional practice for Learning & Development (L&D) professionals working in an organisational context. In the modern, knowledge-based organisation, L&D professionals will be expected to help build employees’ “network performance” capabilities (Martin & Handcock, 2014). To do this, L&D professionals first need to understand how to build these skills themselves, to improve their own professional practice. This research will help them do this.

Literature review

Innovation is “typically understood as the successful introduction of something new and useful” (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). Radical innovation results in extreme change to existing processes, practices, products while Incremental innovation leads to gradual, or step by step improvement (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). In an organisational context, this may be understood as daily learning and emergent adaptation of work practices, through informal, spontaneous information gathering, iterative experimentation, and observation (Brown & Duguid, 1991). It is a “type of conduct” embedded in the social networks of individuals (Obtsfeld, 2005).

Literature on learning and knowledge networks consistently draws links between networks and innovation, innovative practice, or improvements in professional practice (e.g. Phelps, Heidl, & Wadhwa, 2012; Swan & Scarbrough, 2005; Bessant, 2012; Whelan, Parise, de Valk, & Aalbers, 2011; de Laat & Schreurs, 2013; Van Den Hooff, Van Weenen, Soekijad, & Huysman, 2010; Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006; Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012; Mackey & Evans, 2011). Social networks research has shown that an extended network is crucial for personal and professional development (Haythornwaite & de Laat, 2013), including the implementation of innovations and improved practices (Baker-Doyle, 2008; Haythornwaite & de Laat, 2013). Informal, interpersonal relationships that employees build with others both inside and outside the organisations are key (Whelan et al 2011; Tagliaventi and Mattarelli, 2006). Weak ties, with acquaintances (often outside the organisation) help bring in new ideas that inspire and challenge existing practice; strong ties with people within the organisation who you are close to, and have a shared practice with, help individuals to interpret, adapt and implement new ideas into the local context (Haythornwaite & de Laat, 2013; Kijkuit and Van den Ende 2007;  Hemphala & Magnusson 2012). In particular, co-location / shared physical space, combined with common values seem to be critical for supporting exchange of knowledge about new practices, and adoption and diffusion of new practices amongst practitioners (Tagliaventi and Mattarelli, 2006; Baker-Doyle, 2008; Hotho, Becker-Ritterspach, and Saka-Helmhout 2013).

The development of shared professional practice amongst practitioners is grounded in socio-cultural theories such as situated learning theory, which views engagement in activities and with others as participation in social practices (Greeno & Gresalfi, 2008; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Packer & Goicoechea, 2000; Wenger, 1998 – cited by Bonderup Dohn, 2014). Engagement is intrinsically related to belonging; and participation is a negotiation of one’s status and identity within the community (Bonderup Dohn, 2014). Learning and knowledge cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs, and is usually embedded in social interactions with others (Bell, Maeng, and Binns, 2013).

One particular type of informal relationship is a Personal Learning Network (PLN). A PLN is “the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs” (Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa, 2012). An individual’s PLN may contain a broad range of connections, including weak and strong ties, within and outside the boundary of their professional practice. Whilst there has been relatively little academic research on PLNs, there is increasing anecdotal interest in PLNs amongst learning and education practitioners documented in blog postings or conference presentations (Couros, 2010), and industry publications – e.g. a search on the Association for Talent Development’s ‘TD’ magazine http://www.astd.org/Publications/Magazines/TD yielded 495 results.

Studies suggest that practitioners are motivated to develop PLNs to support innovations in their professional practice, by including ‘innovative’ people in their PLN (Rajagopal et al 2012).Practitioners connect with these people to draw on their knowledge and experience in order to improve their own professional practice, or to get support from others facing similar workplace challenges (Lalonde, 2011).

Effective use of PLNs as learning resources depends on the networking skills of individuals – – the ability to engage in conversations, communicate ideas and opinions, and to continuously build, maintain and activate relationships (Rajagopal et al 2012). PLN relationships are often developed and sustained via Information and communication or social networking technologies (Rajagopal et al 2012, Lalonde 2010).Whelan et al (2011) found that employees who brought innovative ideas into their organisation via their external networks (“idea scouts”) had a high level of comfort and skill in navigating and utilising web 2.0 technologies (social bookmarking/tagging, social media platforms, blogs, wikis), were  about 3 times more likely to learn of new developments and trends this way compared to face-to-face channels.

Much of the research on networks and innovation describe what networks offer in general terms (deLaat & Schreuers 2013), assume networks play a positive role (Swan & Scarbrough, 2005), and don’t always represent the complexity of the relationships and ties between people (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008). More longitudinal, process-oriented, case-based qualitative research (Phelps et al, 2012), ethnographic studies, and/or grounded empirical approaches (de Laat & Schreurs, 2013), describing networked learning behaviour is needed, the processes linking networks to innovative practice (Swan & Scarbrough 2005; Phelps et al 2012), what people actually do within networks, how they maintain relationships (deLaat & Schreurs 2013), and the social rules and practices they use to negotiate meaning (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008).

Methodology

Research strategy

Although there are many anecdotal and industry articles stating the benefits of developing and sustaining a Personal Learning Network (PLN) for learning professionals to improve and support their professional practice, there is an absence of academic research for this target population. This study seeks to explore and describe how relationships in a learning professional’s PLN might support them in their professional practice. The primary research question is:

In what ways do relationships in a learning professional’s Personal Learning Network support them to introduce improvements or innovations in their professional practice?

Secondary research questions include:

  • How do strong/weak connections external to the learning professional’s organisation support this?
  • How do strong/weak connections internal to the learning professional’s organisation support this?
  • What role does the learning professionals’ skill, experience and comfort with social media technologies play in facilitating this?

A retrospective case study research strategy will be employed to enable an in-depth exploration, helping to contribute to theory (Neuman, 2003), of “how and why” (Fridlund, 1997) a learning professional’s PLN might contribute to improvements in their professional practice.

Operationalisation of key concepts

The learning professional’s “Personal Learning Network” will be operationalised as people they interact with for the purposes relating to work or their professional practice.

“Improvements in professional practice” will be operationalised using the dimensions of “absorptive capacity” used by Hotho et al (2012) in their comparative case study of two subsidiaries. “Absorptive capacity” is defined as “the ability and motivation to recognise, assimilate and apply new knowledge” (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Minbaeva et al., 2003 – cited by Hotho et al 2012), and is frequently highlighted as a key determinate of knowledge transfer, innovativeness and profitability of organisations (Hotho et al, 2012). Adapting Hotho et al’s (2012) operationalisations, this study will look for evidence of:

  • Acquisition of ideas or information relating to professional practice from members of their Personal Learning Network
  • Transformation in thinking about their professional practice resulting from an interaction with their Personal Learning Network
  • Application of this knowledge through the adoption of new practices or changes to existing practice.

Figure 1. depicts the design for the case studies. Sampling, data collection, ethics and analysis will be described in more detail in the following sections.

MACaseStudyDesign

Figure 1: case study design

Participants / Sample

Participants will be Learning & Development professionals working within an organisational context. They will be working within an organisation’s ‘Learning & Development’ (L&D) or ‘Organisational Development’ (OD) unit, typically in roles such as instructional designer, Learning & Development Consultant, L&D / OD Business Partner, trainer / facilitator, training manager or other learning specialist.

This research will adopt the non-probability sampling strategy used by LaLonde (2011), in his exploratory study on the role of Twitter in developing and maintaining connections in educators’ Personal Learning Networks (PLNs).

Sampling method

Non-probability, purposive sampling will be used to select relevant participants. Criterion that potential participants need to meet for this study:

  • Currently working as a learning professional in an organisational context
  • Actively engaged in self-directed learning goals related to their professional practice
  • Contactable
  • Committed to participating in a week long activity diarising their learning activity and follow-up interview/s

Participants may be selected from membership lists of professional networking groups for learning practitioners, or possibly from the L&D or OD department of a single organisation using the sampling criteria defined above. So that different perspectives can be considered, and cross-case comparisons made, learning professionals employed in different roles (e.g. instructional designer, training manager, eLearning developer, trainer / facilitator) and with different levels of usage / confidence in social networking technologies will be selected for each case study.

Sampling size

As with most qualitative research, data collection and analysis will occur progressively with no predefined sample size (Neuman, 2003). Rather, sampling and data collection will continue until ‘saturation point’ or no further new information is forthcoming (Tuckett, 2004; LaLonde, 2011). LaLonde (2011), studying a similar topic, found 7 participants to be sufficient. Since this study will go into more depth with each case, it is anticipated that 2 or 3 cases will likely be covered.

Strengths and weaknesses

Purposive sampling enables participants from different learning practitioner roles to be selected for the purposes of cross-case comparison. Whilst purposive sampling is appropriate for this type of exploratory research (Neuman, 2003), the sample will not represent the ‘typical’ learning professional, and the research cannot claim generalisability. It is also likely to suffer from non-response and self-selection bias – diarising learning activity for a week plus a participation in an interview requires substantial commitment, so it is likely those who participate will already be professionally engaged. There is also likely cultural bias in the sampling frame, towards English-speaking Australians highly literate with social networking technologies.

Data collection

Three types of qualitative data collection methods will be used:

  1. Survey – A short survey will capture demographic information from participants, such as gender, age range, ethnicity, education level, role / job title, location, organisation in which they work, and level of usage and confidence with social networking technologies. This will enable cross-case comparison. This survey should take no longer than 5 minutes to complete and may be done online via Survey Monkey.
  2. Diary log – participants will complete a structured diary for 1 week logging specific details of any instance where they interacted with someone in their Personal Learning Network (PLN) for purposes relating to their professional practice. People are often unconscious of their own learning processes in the workplace (Eraut 2004; Ellström 2011 cited by Rausch, 2013), including the contacts they connect with for learning (Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa 2012). Diary methods collect self-report data closer to real time. This helps to overcome the bias of retrospective questionnaires or interviews commonly used in workplace learning research (Rausch, 2013) and social network analysis (Baker-Doyle, 2008; Feld & Carter, 2002), and captures data in a natural context, without the direct intrusion of the researcher.   Aside from providing upfront guidance and instruction on the process of data collection, and check-ins to encourage consistent diarising, the researcher will be a ‘non-participant’ in the data collection.

Data will be collected by participants on interactions with their Personal Learning Network through the structured diary log. Each time they interact with a member of their PLN for purposes related to their professional practice they will record the following details:

  • Who they interacted with
  • How they interacted (e.g. the specific tool/technology used, face to face, phone etc)
  • The purpose of the interaction
  • Whether the connection was internal or external to the participant’s workplace

The diary may be modelled on Colbert’s (2000) ‘Rendevous Diary’ described by Lallemand (2012), a simple, and similar event-contingent diary suitable for this study. It may be created as an interactive Word or PDF form which participants may complete electronically or print.

  1. Semi-structured interview – follow up interview with participants via phone or Skype will be conducted (and recorded) about a week after the completion of the diary log. Interviews will be approximately 60 minutes. The purpose of these interviews is to clarify diary entries and further probe the nature of PLN relationships and interactions relating to improvements in their professional practice identified in the diary.

Questions in the SNA survey tool from Baker-Doyle’s (2008) case study of teacher networks will be used to identify relevant details about the nature and history of the learning professional’s relationship with key contacts. This will include: degree of closeness, frequency of interaction, and types of discussions typically conducted about their professional practice, regularity of these conversations, degree of influence the contact has had in inspiring changes to professional learning philosophy and practice, degree to which they share or offer advice to each contact.

Any diary interactions relating to improvements in professional practice will be probed to identify what changes were made as a result of the PLN interaction, and any challenges faced by the learning professional in implementing the changes.

An additional follow up interview may be employed to capture data on the evolution of changes made to professional practice (e.g. whether they were implemented and/or sustained).

The research site for the diary activity will occur in-situ – where-ever participants interact with their PLN. This may be at their workplace, home, or any other number of locations. The follow up interview will likely be via ‘Skype’ or telephone.

Ethical issues

This research will be conducted only with the informed consent of participants, and in compliance with National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. Approval will be obtained from the University of Sydney HREC body.

The small sample sizes increase the likelihood that participants may be identifiable. To mitigate this, pseudonyms will be used and the organisations participants work for will not be named.

Analysis

Manifest content analysis of diary log data will be conducted to identify any PLN interactions that may relate to improving the participant’s professional practice.

Participant validation of this analysis will be done through the follow up interview with participants. This participant verification of a researcher’s account is good practice (Eraut 2000), and contributes to reliability of data (Hotho et al. 2012). Following transcription of the interviews, manifest and latent coding of the transcripts will be conducted to identify themes relating to key concepts.

Responses on diary log and interviews will be cross checked, providing “checks and balances” for each data type (Baker-Doyle, 2008).

Cases will be compared for common themes or differences, narratives will be constructed for each case to create rich descriptions, with the aim of developing a grounded theory on the PLN interactions and relationships that contribute to improvements in professional practice.

Timetable

It is anticipated that collecting, transcribing and analysing data, and the writing of the final report will take about 9-12 months.

December 2014 – January 2015 Literature review
January, 2015 Seek ethics approval
February – March 2015 Case 1 data collection, transcription, analysis
April – May, 2015 Case 2 data collection, transcription, analysis
June – July, 2015 Case 3 data collection, transcription, analysis
August – October, 2015 Writing up findings

Dissemination

The results of the study will be disseminated to the participants. A thesis will be written up and offered for presentation at relevant conferences and/or submitted to journals such as Australian Vocational Education Review.

References

Baker-Doyle, K (2008) Circles of support: New urban teachers’ social support networks. University of Pennsylvania, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2008

Bell, R. L., Maeng, J. L. and Binns, I. C. (2013), Learning in context: Technology integration in a teacher preparation program informed by situated learning theory. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 50: 348–379.

Bessant, J; Alexander, A; Tsekouras, G; Rush, H and Lamming, R (2012) Developing innovation capability through learning networks. Journal of Economic Geography Volume 12, Issue 5 Pp. 1087-1112

Bonderup Dohn, N (2014) A practice-grounded approach to ‘engagement’ and ‘motivation’ in networked learning. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning 2014, Edited by: Bayne S, Jones C, de Laat M, Ryberg T & Sinclair C.

Brown J.S and Duguid P (1991) Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation. Organization Science 1991 2(1): 40-57 http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~duguid/SLOFI/Organizational_Learning.htm

Burt, R.S (2000) Structural Holes versus Network Closure as Social Capital. Preprint for a chapter in Social Capital: Theory and Research. Edited by Nan Lin, Karen S. Cook, and R. S. Burt. Aldine de Gruyter, 2001. Retrieved from http://snap.stanford.edu/class/cs224w-readings/burt00capital.pdf

Dasgupta, M and Gupta, R.K (2009) Innovation in Organizations: A Review of the Role of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management. Global Business Review, 10:2, 203–224

de Laat, M and Schreurs, B (2013) Visualising informal professional development networks: building a case for learning analytics in the workplace. American Behavioral Scientist 57 (10) 1421 – 1428

De Laat, M; Lally, V; Lipponen, L Simons, RJ (2006) Analysing student engagement with learning and tutoring activities in networked learning communities: A multi-method approach. International Journal of Web Based Communities 2 (4), 394-412

Eraut (2000) Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work. British Journal of Educational Psychology 70, 113-136

Fleming, L; Mingo, S & Chen, D (2007) Collaborative brokerage, generative creativity, and creative success. Administrative Science Quarterly, September 2007 vol 52 (3), 443-475

Fridlund, B (1997) The case study as a research strategy. Scandinavian journal of caring sciences, 1997, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp. 3 – 4

Haythornthwaite, C & De Laat, M (2010) Social Networks and Learning Networks: Using social network perspectives to understand social learning. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning 2010, Edited by: Dirckinck-Holmfeld L, Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat M, McConnell D & Ryberg T

Hemphala, J and Magnusson, M (2012) Networks for Innovation – But What Networks and What Innovation? Creativity and Innovation Management Vol 21 (1) November 2013 http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/902/

Hotho, J. J., Becker-Ritterspach, F. and Saka-Helmhout, A. (2012), Enriching Absorptive Capacity through Social Interaction. British Journal of Management, 23: 383–401

Kijkuit, B and van den Ende, J (2007) The Organizational Life of an Idea: Integrating Social Network, Creativity and Decision-Making Perspectives. Journal of Management Studies 44 (6)

Lallemand, C. (2012). Dear Diary: Using Diaries to Study User Experience. User Experience Magazine, 11(3). Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/dear-diary-using-diaries-to-study-user-experience/

LaLonde C (2011) The Twitter experience: the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of Personal Learning Networks. Retrieved from http://thesis.clintlalonde.net/

Mackey, J & Evans, T (2011) Interconnecting Networks of Practice for Professional Learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning Vol 23, no. 3http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/873/1682 retrieved 10th November 2013

Martin, J & Handcock, T (2014) New Roles Emerge for Learning and Development. TD Magazine http://www.astd.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2014/10/Webex-New-Roles-Emerge-for-Learning-and-Development

Neuman, W.L. (2003) Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Fifth edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Obstfeld, D (2005) Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly

Phelps, C; Heidl, R and Wadhwa, A (2012) Knowledge Networks: A Review and Research Agenda. Journal of Management, July 2012; vol. 38, 4: pp. 1115 – 1166

Rajagopal K., Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

Rajagopal K, Verjans S, Sloep P.B, Costa C (2012) People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools . Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning 2012, Edited by: Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat Retrieved from: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2012/abstracts/pdf/rajagopal.pdf

Rausch, A (2013) Task Characteristics and Learning Potentials—Empirical Results of Three Diary Studies on Workplace Learning. Vocations and Learning (2013) 6:55–79

Ryberg, T & Larsen, M.C (2008) Networked identities: understanding relationships between strong and weak ties in networked environments. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24, 103–115

Swan, J & Scarbrough, H (2005) The politics of networked innovation. Human Relations; Vol 58 (7), 913-943.

Tagliaventi, M.R; Mattarelli, E (2006). The role of networks of practice, value sharing, and operational proximity in knowledge flows between professional groups. Human Relations 9.3 (Mar 2006): 291-319.

Tuckett, A. (2004). Qualitative research sampling-the very real complexities. Nurse Researcher. 12(1): 47-61. Accessed 14 September 2012 http://digilib.library.uq.edu.au/eserv/UQ:114279/UQ_AV_114279.pdf

Van Den Hooff, B; Van Weenen, F; Soekijad, M; Huysman, M (2010) The value of online networks of practice: the role of embeddedness and media use. Journal of Information Technology, suppl. Special Issue on Social Networking 25.2 (Jun 2010): 205-215

Whelan, E (2007) ‘Exploring knowledge exchange in electronic networks of practice”, Journal of Information Technology’. Journal Of Information Technology, 22 :5-13

Whelan, E; Parise, S; de Valk, J; & Aalbers, R (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review 53 (1) 37-44 http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/creating-employee-networks-that-deliver-open-innovation

Personal learning networks as sources of innovation in organisations: Literature review

This is a literature review I completed as part of my Masters research. I still to work on refining my research questions and methodology at the end; I’ll be working on this in the new year.

***

Defining Personal Learning Networks

“(A) Personal Learning Network refers to the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs.”
Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012)

Interest in the concept of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) to support personal learning is increasing (Rajagopal et al., 2012). However, there has been relatively little academic research on PLNs; much of the knowledge on PLNs is anecdotal, documented in blog postings or conference presentations (Couros, 2010). Couros (2010) notes that a clear definition of what a PLN is, does not even readily exist.

However, there seems to be consensus that a PLN consists of the people that a person connects with for the specific purpose of supporting, or managing their own learning (Rajagopoal et al., 2012; Tobin, 1998; Couros, 2010; Lalonde, 2011). Definitions vary as to whether connections with resources (as well as people) are included in a PLN (e.g. Rajagopal et al., 2012), and whether reciprocity or mutual learning is required in a PLN relationship (e.g. Digenti 1999, cited by Lalonde, 2011).

But, since the “tools, artefacts, processes, and physical connections that allow learners to control and manage their learning” (Couros, 2010) are typically defined as a person’s Personal Learning Environment (PLE), this paper will consider ‘resources’ as part of a person’s PLE, restricting the definition of PLN to the people that a person connects with to support their learning. And, because the requirement for reciprocity in a PLN relationship is as yet unclear in the literature, this paper will also assume the broadest definition of a PLN, and regard reciprocity as being a potential, but not a required feature of a PLN relationship. That is, a person may connect with someone (e.g. via a social media platform), learn from them, and consider that person part of their PLN, without the other person necessarily doing the same.

Defining ‘innovation’

Innovation is “typically understood as the successful introduction of something new and useful” (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). These may include new methods, practices, techniques, products or services. Radical innovation results in extreme change to existing processes, practices, products etc’ while incremental innovation leads to gradual, or step-by-step improvement (Dasgupta & Gupta, 2009). Brown & Duguid (1991) conceives of innovation as a “continuum of innovating practices” with daily learning and emergent adaptation of work practices (through informal, spontaneous information gathering, iterative experimentation, observation, and adaptation of canonical work practices) at one end, and the radical innovation of research laboratories at the other.

Obstfeld (2005) states that innovation may be perceived as a “type of conduct” that occurs both within and outside of an organisation, and “emerging from the active combination of people, knowledge and resources” (Kogut & Zander, 1992; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Henderson & Clark, 1990; Dougherty, 1992; Hargadon, 2003, as cited by Obstfeld, 2005). Thus innovation is embedded in the social networks between individuals; new social connections can create novel combinations between people, their ideas and the resources they carry (Obstfeld, 2005).

Hemphala & Magnusson (2012) note that there are inconsistencies in the way innovation is operationalised and measured across empirical studies of innovation (e.g. ‘manager’s performance’: Burt 2004; ‘involvement in innovations’: Obstfeld 2005; ‘patents’: Ahuja 2000; ‘ideas’: Bjork et al., 2010; ‘ease of knowledge transfer’: Reagans & McEvily, 2003). Further, there is often no distinction made between incremental and radical innovation. As a result, the literature documents conflicting findings, particularly regarding the types of social network structures that support innovation (Bjork et al., 2010; Obstfeld, 2005, as cited by Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012). Whether or not an innovation is incremental or radical depends on the organisational context in which it is embedded: an incremental innovation in one setting may be considered radical in another (Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012). Hemphala & Magnusson argues that future empirical studies should measure both incremental and radical innovation to enable better comparisons across studies and organisations.

PLNs and innovation

Of the academic literature that specifically focuses on PLNs, most are on the development and maintenance of PLNs. For example, factors that influence an individuals’ choices on building, maintaining and activating PLN connections (Rajagopal, Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep, 2012); the concepts an individual considers to be valuable in a learning contact, and the networking platforms that people associate with these concepts (Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa, 2012); the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of PLNs (Lalonde, 2011); and utilising PLNs to support continuous learning in open access and distance education (Couros, 2010).

Although there has been no specific study on the link between PLNs and innovation in professional practice, the study by Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012) found that the factors which people considered most valuable to daily learning from their PLN were: “different perspectives”, “Values”, “passionate”, “inspirational”, “trust”, “innovative”, “expertise”, “disruption”, “reality check”, “do things differently”, “familiarity”. Many of these relate in some way to innovation, suggesting that people utilise their PLNs in some capacity to support innovation in their practice. Participants in Lalonde’s (2011) phenomenological study of Twitter and PLNs stated that their primary motivations for developing and maintaining a PLN were to gain support from others facing similar workplace challenges, and to draw on others’ knowledge and experience in order to improve their own professional practice. As evidenced by examples documented by Mackey & Evans (2011) and Bell (2011), sharing knowledge and experience in networked learning environments (which share many features of PLNs) can facilitate practitioners to integrate innovations in their own professional practice.

Further, the broader body of literature on learning and knowledge networks, networks of practice, employee networks, and networked learning consistently draws links between networks and innovation, innovative practice, or improvements in professional practice (e.g. Phelps, Heidl, & Wadhwa, 2012; Swan & Scarbrough, 2005; Bessant, 2012; Whelan, Parise, de Valk, & Aalbers, 2011; de Laat & Schreurs, 2013; Van Den Hooff, Van Weenen, Soekijad, & Huysman, 2010; Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006; Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012; Mackey & Evans, 2011).

Given the relatively sparse academic literature on PLNs, this paper will draw from the existing literature on networks and innovation to construct a view on how PLNs might facilitate innovation in professional practice. This will then be used to identify relevant research questions to further explore the link between PLNs and innovative practice.

Networks and innovation

A growing body of research links networks and innovation – both within and between organisations (Alter & Hage 1993; Powell et al 1996; Owen-Smith & Powell, 2004 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005; Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012; Phelps et al., 2012). Much of this research focuses on defining the structural characteristics of networks that might encourage innovation (Powell et al., 1996; Tidd, 1997 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough, 2005; deLaat & Shreuers 2013; Phelps et al, 2012).

The impact of network structure: open vs closed networks

In their review of empirical research on knowledge networks (spanning 40 years and multiple disciplines) Phelps et al (2012) cite studies which have found that networks with structural holes (consisting of weak ‘bridging’ ties connecting diverse groups) result in more diverse information, novel ideas, or creativity (e.g. Burt 2004, Ebadi & Utterback 1984, Morrison 2002; Perry-Smith 2006). The theoretical origins of this research stems from Granovetter’s (1983) “strength of weak ties” theory – which posited that intermittent social interaction with people outside your own close knit social circle (and in particular, with weak ties that ‘bridge’ two otherwise disparate groups) can provide exposure to novel information which can lead to innovation.

However, there is also evidence that network density and network closure – i.e. where many individuals within a network are connected to each other (for example, in close-knit social groups) – plays a role. Network density or network closure has been associated with increases in knowledge transfer amongst contacts, learning (Morgan & Soerensen 1999; Morrison 2002; Reagans & McEvily 2003 – cited by Phelps et al, 2012), and adoption of an innovator’s novel idea (Fleming, Mingo & Chen 2007; Obtsfeld 2005).

Consistent with this, research shows strong interpersonal ties – characterised by frequent communication, long duration, and affective attachment – are more effective than weak ties in promoting knowledge transfer and learning (e.g. Bounty, 2000; Levin & Cross, 2004; Uzzi & Lancaster 2003 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). Strong ties are often associated with increased trust and reciprocity (e.g. Coleman 1998, 1990; cited by Hemphala & Magnusson 2012), leading to greater expectations of cooperation, awareness of each other’s knowledge and willingness to wear the costs required to “transfer, receive and absorb knowledge” (e.g. Appleyard, 1996; Kachra & White 2008; Quigley, Tesluk, Locke & Bartol 2007 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). There are also established behavioural expectations and norms wtihin a closed network, which make it less risky for people to trust each other (Burt, 2000).

But, too many strong ties can also limit access to diverse information, reduce autonomy, and decrease motivation to search for information outside the group, increasing dependence (Hansen, 1999; Uzzi, 1997 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). An extensive network of strong ties also requires more time to maintain, and cognitive effort to make sense of the increased information being shared (Hansen 1999, cited by Phelps et al 2012).

Based on this and similar research (e.g. Handley, 2006; Hansen, 1999; Roberts, 2006; Uzzi, 1999), Kijkuit and Van den Ende 2007 have proposed that a combination of both weak and strong ties are advantageous – just at different stages of the innovation process. More open network structures (diverse, many weak ties) may be best for facilitating idea generation, whilst a smaller, cohesive network of strong ties – including decision makers – are necessary during development and evaluation of the idea, and to adapt it to organisational requirements. Likewise, Reagans, Zuckerman and McEvily 2004 have suggested that an advantageous network combines both openness and density (cited by Hemphala & Magnusson 2012).

The limitations of structural research on networks

Much of this research on network structures and innovation describe what networks offer in general terms (deLaat & Schreuers 2013), have assumed networks play a positive role (Swan & Scarbrough, 2005), and don’t necessarily represent the complexity of the relationships and ties between people (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008). Fewer consider the potential constraints on innovation posed by network relationships (Barley, 1990 cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005). There is relatively little empirical research describing the processes linking networks to innovation (Swan & Scarbrough 2005; Phelps et al 2012), what people actually do within networks, how they maintain relationships (deLaat & Schreurs 2013), and the social rules and practices they use to negotiate meaning (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008).

Further, Phelps et al 2012 points out that there are very few studies that provide direct evidence that structural holes (or pockets of weak ties) in a network provide timely access to diverse information (Phelps, 2010; Rodan & Galunic 2004 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). The link between network closure (tightly knit strong ties), and increased trust and reciprocity is also inconclusive (Gulati and Sytch, 2008 – cited by Phelps et al 2012).

Similarly, whilst Hemphala & Magnusson 2012 cites empirical evidence that networks are important for innovation at both an individual and organisational level (Bjork & Magnusson 2009; Samarra & Biggiero 2008), they also state there is still very little consensus on the specific interrelationship between network structures and innovation.

This research has been dominated by large, quantitative studies using large samples and statistical analysis (Hardy et al., 2003 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005). As such, it tends to ignore potential variations in individuals’ cognitive capabilities and strategic motives, implicitly assuming that individuals in a network are passive vessels that information and knowledge flow through (Phelps et al., 2012). Thus implicit in these studies is a view of knowledge and learning as static, and something that can be transferred from one individual to another. This is a view which disconnects knowledge from practice (Brown & Duguid 1991), in contrast to socially constructed, practice-based views of learning (e.g. Lave 1998, Lave & Wenger 1990, cited by Brown & Duguid, 1991) which view learning as fluid, dynamic; something that is deeply connected to the conditions in which it is learned. In this view, learning is a process of becoming a practitioner of a community (Brown & Duguid 1991).

Existing structural studies needs to be complemented with an examination of longitudinal, process-oriented, case-based qualitative research (Phelps et al, 2012), ethnographic studies, and/or grounded empirical approaches (deLaat & Schreurs, 2013), which describe networked learning behaviour, explore how knowledge networks operate at all levels (between individuals, organisational teams, across organisations), what motivates individuals to share knowledge through these networks, and which ties individuals consider to be most influential in their network, and why.

Qualitative research: what does networked learning & innovation in organisations ‘look’ like?

It spans boundaries

Innovation is more likely to occur “at the interstices” of collaborating groups and organisations (Powell et al 1996; Carlile 2002 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough; Wenger 2000, cited in Murillo, 2011; Sie, Bitter–Rijpkema & Sloep 2011). Knowledge, too, is increasingly dispersed across across “professions, organisations, and specialised practices” (Swan & Scarbrough, 2005). It is thought that distributed knowledge is brought together at these interstices, with new knowledge being created through “a process of collective sensemaking” (Ring & Van de Ven, 1994; Orlikowski 2002 cited in Swan & Scarbrough 2005), not just ‘transfer’ of existing knowledge (Gulati 1999). The following qualitative studies provide some insight into how the process of boundary-spanning networked innovation might occur.

Scouts + connectors

Whelan, Parise, de Valk & Aalbers (2011), used a combination of Organisational Network Analysis (ONA), interviews, and surveys over a 5 year period with a number of leading companies across a range of industries to understand how opportunities for innovation diffuse throughout interpersonal employee networks. They found that employee networks – both external (spanning organisational boundaries) and internal (spanning organisational teams and workgroups) – are critical for the implementation of innovations in organisations. In particular, they discovered the need for two distinct but complementary “innovation brokers”. “Idea scouts” are well connected outside the organisation, and can introduce innovative ideas into the organisation from their external network. However, Whelan et al (2011) found that these scouts often don’t have the internal connections, political skills, or the internal know-how to identify the key influencers or decision-makers to distribute the idea to in order to get the innovation implemented (e.g. an employee’s organisational title does not often reveal their level of influence in a given situation).Thus, “idea connectors” are also needed to quickly distribute the information or idea to those within the organisation who are best placed to exploit it (not necessarily the scout’s line manager). These “idea connectors” are people who have an extensive internal network inside the organisation, the knowledge on who is doing what, and the social capital and trusted personal connections to quickly coordinate their internal network to mobilise the right people. In addition, idea connectors often also have the capability to see how different concepts might fit together to form a potential innovation. So: they are not only critical in diffusing innovative ideas, they play a key role in selecting appropriate ideas to diffuse.

External networks + internal CoPs

Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006), in their ethnographic study of a radiation oncology unit of an Italian hospital, also found that employees who actively participate in networks of practice (NoPs) outside the organisation play a key role in initiating the diffusion of new, innovative practices in the Communities of Practice (CoPs) they belong to within the organisation. Like Whelan et al (2010), Tagliaventi & Mattarelli found that the most active participants in external networks of practice did not always play the most active role in also diffusing the innovation within the organisation. This was often done via ‘brokers’ who shared day to day activities with those employees who had active external networks, as well as many other staff members. In the work environment that Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) studied, regular contact and co-location with other staff members was critical for exchanging knowledge of new practices. Thus brokers who shared spaces with many other staff members, often played a key role in diffusing innovative practices initially brought in through another employee’s network of practice. They also found that new ways of doing things were more likely to be adopted across the diverse professional groups within their CoP if they shared common values about the role of their organisational unit (e.g. in this case, the common value of patient care was a driver for the adoption of the new practice).

Swan & Scarborough’s (2005) qualitative analysis of three case studies of networked innovation also demonstrated it is critical to coordinate networks at different levels (interpersonal, intra-organisational, and inter-organisational), throughout the innovation process for networked innovation to be successful. In particular, ongoing, coordinated collaboration amongst key groups was key to sustained and purposeful innovation activity.

These studies – particularly Whelan et al’s (2010), and Tagliaventi and Mattarelli’s (2006) – provide support for hypotheses that open, distributed networks of relatively weak ties (such as those characterised by NoPs) facilitate innovation ideation, whereas more closed CoP-style groupings of close-knit ties are needed to implement, adapt and/or diffuse these innovations within the organisation (Kijkuit and Van den Ende 2007; Reagans, Zuckerman and McEvily 2004 – cited by Hemphala & Magnusson 2012).

It’s informal: driven by the individual rather than the organisation

Formal organisational networks are frequently seen as subject to reinforcement by informal, or interpersonal networks (Conway, 1995; Grandori & Soda 1995; Kreiner & Schultz, 1993; Jones et al, 2001 – cited by Swan & Scarbrough, 2005). For example, Swan & Scarbrough (2005), in longitudinal case studies investigating the interplay between networked innovation, power, and politics, found that employees were persuaded to join multidisciplined project teams largely on the basis of existing informal, interpersonal relationships with the project manager. Hemphala & Magnusson (2012) also point to seminal research by Allen & Cohen (1969) which highlighted the importance of informal relationships and information flows between individuals within and across organisations in R&D settings. The importance of informal, interpersonal relationships in the ‘nascent’ stages of innovation has also been indicated in research by Kreiner & Shultz, 1993 and Oliver & Leibeskind, 1998 (cited by Swan & Scarbrough 2005). Whelan et al (2010) note that the innovation brokers identified in their research emerged informally within their organisations. In fact, many of those identified as idea scouts and connectors were a complete surprise to management – demonstrating that not only are these innovation networks informal, emergent, and driven by individual, not organisationally-mandated action – they are also ‘invisible’ to organisational management.

Conversely, formal, contract-based interorganizational ties are largely ineffective in contributing to organisations’ source external knowledge compared to informal, interpersonal research collaborations that span organisational boundaries (Liebeskind, Oliver, Zucker & Brewer, 1996 – cited by Phelps et al 2012). Bessant’s (2012) longitudinal study of organisationally-convened learning networks highlighted the challenges in motivating members to participate, establish trust, and maintain long term interest, involvement and participation in these types of formally established learning networks. Many were reluctant to share information and knowledge.

This is also seen in educational contexts, where learning communities and connections formed explicitly to meet formal course outcomes often aren’t sustained beyond the end of the course (Downes, 2006). Mackey & Evans (2011) showed that this occurs even where course participants are highly active in the course community. In a case study on how teachers integrated networked learning experiences with their professional practice they described how “Allie”, their most active online participant, explicitly incorporated and experimented with study-inspired innovations within the classroom and community learning centre in which she worked. Despite this, she did not develop sustained connections with other course participants beyond the course. Only two participants did so. These course participants took a number of consecutive courses together and also shared similar backgrounds (suggesting the importance of personal connection in sustaining long term relationships outside of formal settings). Mackey & Evans’ (2011) experience can be contrasted with Couros (2010), whose open access, graduate level, educational technology course was explicitly and intentionally designed to support participants’ development of personal learning networks (as opposed to a community based around the course). As a result, participants did sustain and continue to build on the connections they developed, beyond the course end.

It’s personal

It is likely that the relative success of informal, individually driven networks in facilitating sustainable innovation is due to the fact that these networks are self directed by individuals who are motivated by a deep personal interest in developing, maintaining and sustaining them.

Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) observed that self directed participation in networks of practice plays a key role in staff’s continuous training and updating to keep abreast of innovation in their field. This participation appears to be driven by a passion and dedication to their profession. For example, one nurse describes having a “circle of friends” with whom she shares her interests in medicine, reading books and journals about her profession at home, and how she “loves surfing the net, especially the Board of Nurses’ website”. She adds that others in her unit do the same. This manifestation of passionate, personally driven, self directed professional development echoes the educators described in Lalonde’s (2011) phenomenological study of Twitter in relation to personal learning networks – with one participant even referring to PLNs as “passionate learning networks”.

Additionally, Whelan et al (2010) describe idea scouts as having both the technical expertise and personal interest (my italics) to scout for ideas regularly and effectively; whilst idea connectors have a wide internal network of trusted personal connections (my italics) they can rapidly call on when needed.

Multiple modes of interaction

Whelan et al (2011) found that effective idea scouts generally had a high level of comfort and skill in navigating and utilising web 2.0 technologies (social bookmarking/tagging, social media platforms, blogs, wikis), which they employed to find and follow subject matter experts and practitioners experimenting with new ideas and technologies. Whilst idea scouts also utilised face-to-face channels such as conversations around the communal coffee machine, client meetings, product demos, and conferences, they were about 3 times more likely to learn of relevant emerging technology developments or industry trends through web based channels.

Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) also describe practitioners sharing practices and knowledge through their NoPs via a range of avenues (e.g. conferences, journals, mailing lists, email etc); and participants in Lalonde’s (2011) study connected with their PLN through face to face meetings, blogs, email, social bookmarking, Google docs, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, and other social networking communities. Face to face interaction, particularly in combination with online interaction, was also described by participants as strengthening PLN connections, helping to enhance feelings of connectedness with their PLNs.

Impacts of face to face vs online communication

Consistent with this are the results of a survey study by Van Den Hooff et al (2010) which found that members of NoPs perceived the network as making a valuable contribution to their workplace performance (e.g. efficiency and quality of work) only when they are able to integrate the knowledge exchanged in the network in their daily work (“embeddedness in practice”), feel like they have a good understanding of ‘who knows what’ (“structural embeddedness”), and there is a positive social climate of trust and reciprocity in the network (“relational embeddedness”).

Further, although members engaged in face to face communications less frequently than online, face to face communication was strongly associated with facilitating the social components of helping members gain an understanding of ‘who knows what’ (structural embeddedness), and fostering trust and reciprocity (relational embeddedness) – i.e. supporting the connections between members. Relatively more frequent online communication was perceived as largely providing the knowledge and information relevant to members’ work practices – i.e. the content needed to improve their work practices. This aligns generally with the view that online communication supports task-related information; whereas face to face communication primarily serves relational goals (Kayany et al 1996; Walther 1997; Munzer & Holmer, 2009 – cited by Van Den Hooff, 2010). It is also consistent with Tagliaventi and Mattarelli’s (2006) argument that information technologies, whilst providing timely access to thorough information, may be relatively ‘poor’ in conveying knowledge regarding social ‘know how’ and ‘know who’ compared to face to face contact (Roberts, 2000; Johannassen et al, 2001 – cited by Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006).

This suggests that regularity of online contact or ‘information / knowledge flow’ between network members isn’t the only factor determining the strength of tie (as studies looking only at the structural characteristics of networks might imply). Rather, face to face contact may play a powerful mediating role in determining tie strength between network members.

It is interesting to look at Lalonde’s (2011) PLN study in light of this. In the in-depth interviews he conducted with 7 participants, most indicate that their social connectedness and degree of trust in a PLN contact is determined by the quality and regularity of conversation they have – online or face to face. For these participants, regular online conversation with PLN contacts can and have resulted in the development of real relationships and genuine friendships, and sustained participation over time (in any medium) is generally regarded by participants as key to developing trust in PLN connections. That said, there is consensus that face to face contact is a powerful way to deepen and strengthen these online relationships. It is important to note that all of the participants in Lalonde’s study had high levels of experience and comfort with social networking platforms and online communication tools. Thus an individual’s level of experience and comfort with online communication technologies is likely an important factor in determining the ease with which they are able to develop and maintain distributed networks of strong, trusting connections who may provide both relevant information and social support to facilitate improvements or innovations in their professional practice.

This study

This study aims to explore the potential impact of an individual’s Personal Learning Network (PLN) on their innovation in professional practice.

It will view innovation largely from a ‘practice lens’ (Feldman & Orlikowski, 2010). Practice defines how people act and interact in their daily activities within a social setting (Tagliaventi & Mattarelli, 2006). Simiilarly to the way Tagliaventi & Mattarelli (2006) utilised ‘practice as the unit for understanding knowledge in organisations”, this study will view an individuals’ professional practice as the unit for understanding innovation in organisations.

As outlined in this literature review, existing research indicates a link between networks (networks of practice, employee networks, networked learning, knowledge networks) and innovation. The nature of this link is still unclear, and there remain many areas that warrant further investigation.

It is posited that much of the research on networks and innovation is likely to apply to PLNs, as conceptually, PLNs share many similarities with ‘Networks of Practice’ (NoPs). The key difference is that PLNs, based on an individual’s personal learning interests and motives, aren’t necessarily defined by work-based practice or a specific domain of knowledge as NoPs are. PLNs are also distinct from social networks as they are specifically focused on learning (Lalonde, 2011).

Thus one of the particularly interesting things to explore in this research is what influence (if any) these personal connections might have on an individual’s professional practice, since – as distinct from NoPs – these connections span an individual’s professional practice. This study also aims to leverage and extend on networks research in the context of PLNs and will explore questions such as:

  • Who do individuals define as being part of their PLN? (e.g. Do people consider work colleagues and internal work groups, friends, acquaintances etc as part of their PLN?)
  • Is the nature of an individual’s PLN connection with people internal to their organisation characteristically different to those external to their organisation? In what ways? (e.g. perceived closeness/strength of tie, tone of conversation, regularity and modes of interaction, types of information shared, degree of social connectedness)
  • Is the nature of an individual’s PLN connection with people associated with their professional practice characteristically different to those who aren’t directly associated with their practice? In what ways? (e.g. perceived closeness/strength of tie, tone of conversation, regularity and modes of interaction, types of information shared, degree of social connectedness)
  • Descriptions / examples of improvements or changes made by the individual in their daily work practices or role (incremental innovation). Descriptions / examples of big new and useful changes that the individual has initiated in their work, workplace or role that have entirely changed the way they and others work (for the better) (radical innovation)? Having the individual define incremental and radical innovation within the context of their organisational context and practice (cf. Hemphala & Magnusson, 2012).
  • Explore whether the individual’s PLN played a role in influencing or motivating them to improve or innovate their professional practice? In what ways? Examples?
  • What types of connections in an individual’s PLN have the biggest influence on their innovative practice?
  • Do connections external to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovations in an individual’s professional practice? Do connections internal to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovation in an individual’s professional practice?
  • How important are social media and social platforms in helping people to find relevant and novel ideas from their PLN which they can use to help improve their professional practice? What social media and platforms are most commonly used? What is the nature of these connections – are they largely internal or external to the organisation? Are they reciprocal relationships? Regularity of interaction, and nature of interaction (e.g. informal / casual or more serious?) Percieved strength of tie, and what influences these perceptions on tie strength? Has the relationship evolved over time? In what way/s? What impacts / influences the evolution of the relationship? What factors influence the individual’s decision on adopting or trying to adopt the innovation in their organisation?
  • What other online channels are used? What face to face channels are used? What is the percieved effectiveness between online and face to face channels and ways of connecting to your PLN? What are the differences and similarities in the various channels used by an individual to connect to their PLN? If individuals have the opportunity to either connect online or face to face with a member of their PLN, what factors influence which mode they choose to use?
  • Do individuals who utilise their PLNs extensively to source new and innovative ideas to support improvements in their professional practice display the characteristics of “idea scouts” identified by Whelan et al (2010)?
  • Do individuals who successfully implement innovations within their organisation do so with support of internal connections who might be characterised as “idea connectors” as defined by Whelan et al (2010)? Does the same pattern of idea scouts pairing up with connectors also apply with both incremental and radical innovations?

Methodology

In line with the exploratory nature of this research, and the call for more process-oriented, case-based qualitative networks research (Phelps et al, 2012), this study will use a number of semi-structured interviews (5-7?) to explore the questions outlined above. Similarly to Lalonde’s (2011) MA thesis, this study will likely take a phenomenological approach to understand the ‘lived experiences’ of participants involved (Laverty, 2003 cited by Lalonde, 2011), aiming for rich and complex descriptions of these experiences (Finlay, 2008 cited by Lalonde, 2011).

Participants are likely to be recruited from the researcher’s own PLN, and will aim to recruit participants from a variety of professional practices, as opposed to recruiting primarily from one professional practice as Lalonde’s (2011) study did. Whilst recruiting from one professional practice enables a degree of generalisability to be made within that cohort, it could be argued this effectively makes the phenomena under study a ‘network of practice’.

Note: I will be scoping out the methodology of this study in more detail next semester in the context of EDPK5003 Developing a Research Project.

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Murillo, E (2011) Communities of practice in the business and organization studies literature. Information Research vol. 16 no. 1, Retrieved from: http://www.informationr.net/ir/16-1/paper464.html

Obstfeld, D (2005) Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly

Phelps, C; Heidl, R and Wadhwa, A (2012) Knowledge Networks: A Review and Research Agenda. Journal of Management, July 2012; vol. 38, 4: pp. 1115 – 1166

Rajagopal K., Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

Rajagopal K, Verjans S, Sloep P.B, Costa C (2012) People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools . Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning 2012, Edited by: Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat Retrieved from: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2012/abstracts/pdf/rajagopal.pdf

Ryberg, T & Larsen, M.C (2008) Networked identities: understanding relationships between strong and weak ties in networked environments. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 24, 103–115

Sie, R.L.; Bitter–Rijpkema, M.; and Sloep, P. B (2011) What’s in it for me? Recommendation of peers in networked innovation. Journal of Universal Computer Science, volume 17, number 12, pp. 1.659–1.672.

Swan, J & Scarbrough, H (2005) The politics of networked innovation. Human Relations; Vol 58 (7), 913-943.

Tagliaventi, M.R; Mattarelli, E (2006). The role of networks of practice, value sharing, and operational proximity in knowledge flows between professional groups. Human Relations 59.3 (Mar 2006): 291-319.

Van Den Hooff, B; Van Weenen, F; Soekijad, M; Huysman, M (2010) The value of online networks of practice: the role of embeddedness and media use. Journal of Information Technology, suppl. Special Issue on Social Networking 25.2 (Jun 2010): 205-215

Whelan, E; Parise, S; de Valk, J; & Aalbers, R (2011) Creating employee networks that deliver open innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review 53 (1) 37-44 http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/creating-employee-networks-that-deliver-open-innovation

MA research proposal: PLNs and innovation…the story so far…

A couple of weeks ago, as I emerged from the fog of reading a bunch of research papers to seeing how they might fit together to form a new whole…I saw this in my twitter feed:

@neilhimself

It was one of those moments of trippy serendipity when you feel like fate’s just crying out to be believed in. Not that I think my MA research is going to be anywhere near as riveting as a Neil Gaiman story, but his sentiments DID reflect almost exactly what I was feeling at that moment.

While I definitely don’t have all the pieces yet, I think I now have some idea where it might be going. So, here is my draft proposal:

[MA research proposal]

Personal learning networks as sources of innovation in organisations: an exploratory study

This research proposes to explore the nature of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), and their potential impact on an individual’s innovation in professional practice.

(A) Personal Learning Network refers to the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs….often by information and communication technologies.

             Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012)

PLNs’ link to innovation

Recent research by Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012) on PLNs suggest a link between PLNs and innovation. In their study of the factors that people consider to be valuable to daily learning from their PLN, they found that the concepts scored most highly were: “different perspectives”, “Values”, “passionate”, “inspirational”, “trust”, “innovative”, “expertise”, “disruption”, “reality check”, “do things differently”, “familiarity”. Many of these relate in some way to innovation, suggesting that people utilise PLNs in some capacity to support innovative practice.

Further, research and theory on strong vs weak ties in communities and networks, suggest that PLNs may have the potential to foster both incremental and radical innovation.

Grabher and Ibert (2008, cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) propose that personal networks feature three layers with ties of differing strengths: a communality layer (strong ties), a sociality layer (weak ties) and a connectivity layer (very weak ties). Dal Fiori (2007) hypothesises that strong and weak ties propagate different types of innovation, arguing that communities, with strong ties and high degrees of trust, support the exchange of tacit knowledge (Ghoshal, Korine, & Szulansky, 1994; Hansen, 1999; Szulansky, 1996; Uzzi, 1996 – cited by Dal Fiori 2007) to foster linear, incremental innovation. In contrast, networks consisting mostly of weak ties, are sites for boundary-spanning learning which expose people to different perspectives on the same issue. This composition likely supports more combinatorial, radical and breakthrough innovation. Interestingly Dal Fiori goes on to suggest that broad social adoption and diffusion of each type of innovation still require both networks and communities: incremental innovation requires a network to propagate it; and combinatorial innovation needs a community to become socially rooted practice (Dal Fiori 2007).

How might PLNs facilitate innovation in professional practice?

Professional networking can be used to continuously support professionals’ life–long learning in practice (Johnson, 2008 cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Personal professional networks, as platforms in which conversations and dialogue can occur, support the type of individual (non–formal) learning (Eraut, 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) especially prevalent in practice, where tacit knowledge is built through experience and reflection and shared through social interaction with others (Bolhuis and Simons, 2001; Hearn and White, 2009 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Having the capacity to obtain support and converse with people when needed also enables knowledge creation in organisational settings (Von Krogh, et al., 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012).

Communities of Practice, networks of practice and PLNs

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are ‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (Wenger et al. 2002: 4, cited in Murillo 2007). They are composed of strong ties and characterised by direct and sustained mutual engagement between members on shared problems, concerns or topics. Learning is viewed as ‘the process of becoming competent practitioners in an informal community’, and knowledge is embedded in shared practices (Murillo 2011).

‘Networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000) comprise people who engage in the same or very similar practice, but don’t necessarily work together and may never even know, know of, or come across others in their network (Brown & Duguid 2000, cited in Murillo 2011).

As PLNs comprise of strong, weak and very weak ties it is conceivable that they may contain both embedded CoPs (that foster collaboration between strong ties within the PLN) and networks of practice (comprising of weak ties across the PLN). Therefore, when postulating how PLNs might facilitate innovation in professional practice, it is useful to draw on the body of research and theory on Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998, 2000) and ‘networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000). And there has been considerable research and theory on CoPs (Wenger 1998, 2000 cited in Murillo 2011) which tie them closely to innovation. For example Murillo (2011) cites studies which present innovation as a defining feature of CoPs (Orr 1990; Brown and Duguid 1991, 2000a; Brown and Grey 1995; Prokesch 1997; Swan et al. 1999; Wenger 2000b; Lesser and Everest 2001; Fontaine and Millen 2004), as well as studies that provide evidence of innovation occurring within CoPs (Anand et al. 2007; Meeuwesen and Berends 2007; Schenkel and Teigland 2008). Networks of practice have also been linked to innovation (e.g. Fleming and Marx 2006, cited in Murillo 2011).

Boundaries as sites of innovation

Innovation in CoPs and networks is thought to occur more often at boundaries: e.g. Wenger (2000, cited in Murillo 2011) describes CoP boundaries as the intersection connecting different CoPs, where radical insights often occur. Sie, Bitter–Rijpkema & Sloep 2011 point to studies which show that connecting to people in other networks (including outside the organisation) promote innovation and creativity (Kratzer & Letl 2008; Perry-Smith 2006).

PLNs – supporting radical, open innovation in organisational practice?

Connections in an individual’s PLN may be both internal and external to the organisation the individual works in. External connections may be seen as connecting individuals to networks outside the boundary of their organisational practice.

PLNs may also include connections not directly associated with an individual’s professional practice (e.g. friends, relatives, acquaintances). These connections may connect individuals to networks and influences outside their professional practice.

Research on boundaries in CoPs and networks suggest that these connections may potentially act as sources of combinatorial, radical innovation in an individual’s organisational and professional practice.

This research aims to explore these potential links.

MA research questions

Possible research questions:

  • Are an individual’s interactions with connections internal to their organisation characteristically different to interactions with those external to their organisation? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • Are an individual’s interactions with people connected with their professional practice characteristically different to interactions with those who aren’t directly associated with their practice? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • What types of connections in an individual’s PLN have the biggest influence on the implementation of innovative practice within their organisation?
  • Do connections external to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovations in an individual’s professional practice?

References

Brown J.S and Duguid P (1991) Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.
Organization Science 1991 2(1): 40-57 http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~duguid/SLOFI/Organizational_Learning.htm

Dal Fiore, F (2007) Communities Versus Networks The Implications on Innovation and Social Change. American Behavioral Scientist, March 2007; vol. 50, 7: pp. 857-866.

Murillo, E (2011) Communities of practice in the business and organisation studies literature. Information Research vol 16 (1) http://informationr.net/ir/16-1/paper464.html

Rajagopal K.,  Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

Rajagopal K, Verjans S, Sloep P.B, Costa C (2012) People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools . Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning 2012, Edited by: Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat M, McConnell D,Ryberg T & Sloep http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2012/abstracts/pdf/rajagopal.pdf

Rory L.L. Sie, Marlies Bitter–Rijpkema and Peter B. Sloep (2011) What’s in it for me? Recommendation of peers in networked innovation.  Journal of Universal Computer Science, volume 17, number 12, pp. 1.659–1.672.

********

What’s next

I have a whole lot more research to review to refine this proposal. As there doesn’t seem to be that much research specifically on PLNs, I plan to draw on research on networked learning, networks of practice, CoPs, PLEs, & connectivist learning. Also need to review innovation research in the management literature.

The definition of a PLN is very broad and may potentially be difficult to operationalise. I’ll need to specifically define ‘innovation’ / ‘innovative practice’ and operationalise that too.  Looking to draw on Feldman, M. S., and W. J. Orlikowski. “Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory.” to define from perspective of microdynamics of everyday practice.

Currently participating in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks open online seminar, aiming to get more insights and connect with people on the concept of PLNs and how they are used in organisations.

Road to research

A couple of days ago, I re-enrolled into the Master of Learning Sciences and Technology program I first started back in 2009. And afterwards, I started freaking out. Just a little. Reasons being:

  1. It’s been 3 years since I was last enrolled in this program. Whilst it was undoubtedly a valuable and intellectually stimulating experience, I also recall a lot of stressing out about uni work on the weekends and in the evenings after work.
  2. A helluva lot has happened in these intervening 3 years. Not least of which is that I now have a kid who I adore spending my weekends and evenings with.
  3. Somehow, I let Prof Michael J Jacobson talk me into staying in the research stream. And research stream = 12,000 word dissertation. And yes. That’s a big part of why I’m freaking out.

I’m not even quite sure how this happened. I went into enrolment resolved to change from Research to the Professional stream. Although I’d previously harboured ambitions to do research in a past life, the thought of undertaking a PhD now makes me slightly ill. But instead of saying that out loud to the Prof., I found myself looking interested when he said the amount of work involved in the dissertation would be about the same as the Professional stream project  (really?!), and empathising when he told me how disappointed one of his former (Professional stream) students was when told he couldn’t easily gain entry to a PhD because he hadn’t done any previous research (wouldn’t have happened if he’d done the Research stream..). Then, all of a sudden I was talking research topics.

Here are some of the ideas we discussed:

  • Productive failure – this refers to a finding by Manu Kapur: students given complex, ill defined problems without any prior instruction, whilst not able to correctly solve the problem, later demonstrated better understanding of the concept than students receiving direct instruction (worked example, practice, feedback).  They attribute this to the fact that students in the ‘productive failure’ condition generated a lot more ideas about the problem when trying to solve it, thus gaining a greater understanding of its structure and ability to apply their knowledge to other problem contexts. Whilst this is a very interesting learning phenomenon with big implications for learning design, I’m actually interested in exploring how it might relate to innovation. There’s commonly a link made between organisational innovation and failure (or experience gained from failure) – and I think Kapur’s research goes some way to explain why. I’ve always thought that if I were to do research, I’d want to apply it in a context I know. So the idea of taking an idea that has previously been researched within a school context, and exploring if and how it generalises to an organisational environment could be interesting.
  • Technology facilitated collaborative learning – this is an area I’ve always been interested in, and there’s a lot of scope for a lot of interesting work here. It’s just a matter of narrowing it down.
  • Design of learning environments for the future – this is the title of a book that Prof Jacobson and Dr Peter Reimann edited which incorporates lots of interesting topics (incl. using visual representations in learning, virtual worlds, collaborative teams, personal learning communities…)

So I don’t know…but I might just be starting to get over my freak out and getting a little bit excited about this research gig after all.