About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A cultural analysis of Thanksgiving

Over this past week, we celebrated the quintessential American holiday: Thanksgiving. Only Canada and the US celebrate this holiday. I'm not sure that the Canadian holiday holds as much meaning as it does in the US. So why is this holiday so important and what cultural values are embedded in our celebration of this holiday?

First, let's speak about cultural frameworks. Many researchers use Hofestede's framework. However, I prefer Hall's anthropological framework for cultural analysis, specifically, the high context/low context basis of analysis. The US is a fairly low context culture, meaning that the culture is open to those that have not been born into the culture. It is not necessary to understand the "context" of the culture as there are few rules, but those that there are rarely are broken. It is not necessary to understand the context of the holidays, for example, in order to understand the rituals.

So what are the features of Thanksgiving that gives an insight into the US culture?

Agrarian culture

Even though we are known for our urban centers in the US (NY City, LA, Chicago, New Orleans), we still have our roots in Agriculture. The land, food, and even patterns of life are based around the agrarian lifestyle. Our school calender is still around the harvest. Depending on where a person lives, the calender will change. In the Northeast, where we have late summers and late falls, our school calender is late by definition of the rest of the country. Thanksgiving is basically a holiday of the harvest, as we celebrate with a core set of dishes (Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweat potatoes, pumpkin and apple pies, squash) that are traditionally harvested late in the fall. However, like the rest of the country, there are regional differences, again based on the regional cultures.

Last Thanksgiving, our family celebrated Thanksgiving in Georgia, where the food was a bit sweeter and richer, with pecans, cream, and cornmeal playing a key role in the side dishes. My own family used to include foods such as dried fruit, green beans, and stale bread stuffing. My husband's family used sausage in making their stuffing for the turkey, and side dishes that reflected his family's Italian roots.

Going Home

One aspect of Thanksgiving which is unique to other US holidays is the importance of going home. This is more than going home to be with family, it also is a time to reconnect with the community in which one grew up. Perhaps a result of an agrarian culture which became mobile (as people moved to the cities or other parts of the country for better opportunities), many people take the time out to go back to visit school friends, extended family, and reconnect with their past. This is unique for a culture that tends not to look to its past. However, it is more than just seeing old friends.

Many high schools have official or unofficial reunions. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving (this holiday is always on a Thursday) is a big day for the bars and local restaurants as people go out to be with their friends they have not seen for some time. This is truly one of the most social times of the year. The Wednesday before is also the biggest travel day of the year. Interestingly enough, this "migration" reminds me of the biblical census time where everyone was expected to go back to the town in which they were born. I also feel the same sense of connection to community as I did on Election Day in Costa Rica in which most voters returned to their home town to vote. There is a connection with the past and the present; with those who were brought up with the same values even though they may have changed and have different values today.


Interestingly enough, if you were to see the portrayal of Thanksgiving on television, you would think that is was the most important part of this holiday. While family is more important than many other US holidays (e.g. Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day), who we spend our Thanksgiving is an indication of how we define "family". In some cases, family is extended, in others it is nuclear, and still in others it is a close set of friends.

What we do as a family also varies. In my own family, when we were growing up, we would go outside and play American football. For many years we spent Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house on Long Island. The day after Thanksgiving, my father would take us into New York City once we were old enough (I think 6 or 7), to look at the Christmas decorations and have Shirley Temples (punch) at the Plaza Hotel. My own family has a tradition of going for a walk after dinner and before dessert is served. This too is an insight into our culture, as each family creates their own traditions on Thanksgiving.

To me, when I lived outside of the US, Thanksgiving was the hardest holiday NOT to celebrate. It seemed so AMERICAN. Perhaps that is why we always celebrated it as expatriates. We often had a feeling of real nostalgia and it was difficult to explain the "spirit" of Thanksgiving to non-Americans. For anyone who lives outside of the US, if you want to capture the true American spirit, I would suggest that you spend a Thanksgiving in the US. It is unlike any other holiday here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is it the train or the tracks that are important

Harold Jarche had an interesting post about a metaphor used in the book Revolutionary Wealth. In it the authors outline a metaphor using the speed of the train as an indication of readiness for technological change.

However, I did not like this metaphor. I feel it is the tracks (which includes the structure and the paths laid out for the trains to go on) which makes entities ready or not for change. Some organizations, such as the government, might have the newest technology available, but are restricted in how they can use it. I see the train as the technology itself. Some older trains can do very well if there is a well kept track, while even the most advanced engines must slow down for poorly maintained and planned tracks.

There is portion of the train ride from Albany, NY to NY City were trains have to come to the slowest crawl imaginable because the track cannot sustain the train. There is a delay in Washington DC as engines from the south (or north) must change to fit the difference in track size between the south and north. Trains from the mid-west to the east coast are always late due to the complex structure and poor condition of the rails around the Buffalo area. Trains must feed into this one high traffic area where there is always rail repair going on.

So with that in mind, I developed the follow metaphor using the tracks, rather than the train. I have copied it from the comment section on Harold's blog:

I can’t say I really like that metaphor. It assumes that Business is the only fast train with all other support services as behind the times.

I think a better metaphor would be the “tracks”. Big business has the fastest tracks maintained and built right to their door. As a result, they have the fastest track to progress.

Small business must try to deal with their track being just a bit out of reach, so they have a fast train to a certain point, but then must be creative in getting the goods (knowledge and technology) to their door.

The civil society makes sure that there are spurs off the main track. Even if these spurs are a bit slow and in need of some help, at least it gets to a larger number of people. They just need to be patient.

The government train has the nicest tracks around, although they don’t go to the places that they necessarily need to go. However, this is a very efficient train, so it doesn’t matter if it is going anywhere, as long as it can prove that it went SOMEWHERE. Meanwhile, the train employees would just like someone to plan out the track and END at some point.

Education keeps having the tracks ripped up and relaid. Sometimes this means that the train will get to where it needs to go, but for those on poorer or more isolated routes, it might just go around in circles. Of course, then the passengers blame it on the conductor and engineer, who are just trying to keep the train on the tracks.

The international track goes only so far, and then it stops. There is no coordination, and the track owners of one railroad won’t speak with the track owners of the others. When they do, it still takes time to move from one set of tracks to another.

The political system train can’t decide where to lay the track. It stops at their friends houses, but doesn’t connect to others. As a result there are hundreds of miles of tracks planned, but nothing is actually laid out because no one can agree on a system.

Finally, the legal train builds up, then takes down tracks. The piece meal track system means that there is no coordination with actual walls between some, but bridges that link others. As fast as the political system is laying out track, the legal system is rearranging it.

I can't help but think there are some stakeholders missing. Perhaps members of minority groups or "non-techies". Non-techies put up walls to prevent the track from coming to their community and hope to preserve their way of life.

Minority groups, tired of always being by-passed by the larger companies, lay their own tracks often in isolation. The larger more popular tracks then have others who come from outside who want to link them up to the main tracks.

Perhaps you can think of other groups.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Learn Trends 2009

The third Learn Trends 2009 is taking place this week. For anyone who has never taken part, it is well worth the time. What I especially like is the interaction during the presentation as there is often a very active chat. This year (tomorrow morning) they have a session in French. I hope this will expand in the future as I would love to see what else is going on around the world in the area of professional training and elearning.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Residents and visitors

Andy Coverdale had an interesting post on his blog about Dave White's idea of digital "visitors" and "residents" in place of the concept for digital "immigrants" and "natives". I feel much more comfortable with the idea of visitor and residents as it allows for different generations and levels of engagement with technology, applications, and tools. As I commented on Andy's blog:

This appears soooo much more useful than natives and immigrants. It also makes me wonder about the students (regardless of generation) who are visitors, but we want to become residents. Does this also tie into online communities (i.e. you might be a visitor in one type of community, as I am to facebook, but a resident at another, as I am with ning)? How do we get people to become “residents”? I think the question of trust is a big issue.

When Andy asked me if I thought that this was determined by socio-technical or platform factors, I replied:

I guess one problem I had with the digital natives or immigrants was that fact that there was a uniform amount of knowledge in “technology”. I have a greater understanding of the technological underpinnings of new technology than my husband or children. But I would be considered an immigrant. But the fact is that technology continually changes and with it the socio-cultural structures. I was on Facebook within the first year that it was developed as a member of our University. It changed drastically when it was “opened” up. My kids use it differently than friends and relatives of my generation.

Within the technological structures, there can be multiple socio-cultural structures and practices. Just like habitat structures can be similar between urban, suburban, rural, and different countries, structures between technology can be similar. However, the town next to mine differs because of a different community feeling. Experience, ties to the community, understanding of communication cues between members of the community affect the way someone feels coming into a new community. My husband and I lived in a neighborhood for 7 years and never felt a part of the community and felt as if we were considered “visitors”. However, our current community, we feel like residents as we know how things work, who the players are, and the subtle communication cues.

I feel it is the same with technology in that some will always feel like technology visitors as they learn new technology. Some may always “fit in” immediately and be a resident where ever they go. Still others will be a visitor initially and then move to resident status depending on the technology and community support in using the technology. And finally, others will be visitors at some technologies (usually by choice) and residents at others. I think there is a lot more choice in the use of technology and a lot more community influence that creates trust in using a certain technology.

In a related post on wirearchy blog, they discuss the importance of revisiting socio-technical systems business design field. As they contend, the "social business design" sounds very similar for the socio-technical systems business design theories in organizational development. However, the education field has continued to this body of literature over the last decade.

I think what is relevant in both of these fields is that it is hard to disassociate the tools that have been adapted for use in education and business from the social structures that continue to evolve. New tools are created as there is a social need; and tools are "retooled" with new social practices that develop around the new tools and the "retools". This is especially important to recognize in virtual groups, organizations, and workplaces. However, it also spills over into the personal life and the line between "personal" and "work" becomes blurred.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Does any one know anything about open source qualitative research tools?

As I am in the midst of my dissertation data analysis, I keep thinking that there has to be an easier way to do the data analysis than to cut and paste coded data (using the tracking and comment function of word) to do my data analysis. The problem is that I need to maintain a certain degree of privacy in my data analysis as per the IRB (Institutional Research Board) at our school. While I have access to data analysis programs at the university, I can't use them securely.

So after reading Michael Hanley's series on open source elearning, I began to wonder if perhaps there are some open source free research tools. Why do qualitative research tools cost so much? And why aren't universities trying to develop free research tools for others to improve the quality of research?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Valuating expertise

Ken Allen had an interesting post recently about expertise . I have become very interested in expertise as its definition within a group seems to be a key element in collaborative writing and knowledge creation.

Specifically, how "expertise" is defined varies among group members based on their professional development, the politics of the organization and department, and their own epistemology (often a result of schooling, culture, and reference groups).

The problem is that defining expertise is often implicit. As a result, when interacting with others, decision makers will impose their own definition of expertise if they don't first interact with those who will be impacted by their decision. If a decision maker's definition of expertise is different than the stakeholders, there will be discontent and the appearance that the decision maker is inept (after all, s/he should not make "stupid" decisions based on "false" data).

This is especially true when there are multi-generations. Some of the older expertise may be undervalued by younger stakeholders and some of the younger expertise may be undervalued by older stakeholders. Rather than merging the expertise, taking out the best for the situation, one or the other will be discounted.

This recently happened to me (and it is not the first time). As an expert on instructional technology, with a deep level of experience in multiple contexts, you would think that a school would reach out to have my input on instructional technology and its instructional design. Instead, my daughter worked on a distance learning component of her school (high school level) yesterday, experiencing a number of factors that are common mistakes made by first time distance learning instructional design. As I mentioned before, this is not the first school to discount my expertise because I am a parent (you wouldn't understand, you only have college level experience, you're a parent...not a teacher).

I am disappointed because I expected more from the school as it is an alternative school. However, upon reflection I realized that there are different definitions of expertise working here and that admitting a lack of expertise is a difficult as redefining "expertise" and "knowledge". There needs to be tools, especially in the current "objective" standardized educational system the US has been moving to, to allow for new ideas, new ways of doing things, but also the maintenance of old ideas and ways of doing things that may still work in different situations. One advantage of the current technology is that there is a more permanent record of not only new ideas, but old ideas as well. I need only peruse my blog as I develop my syllabus for next semester and see what worked, what didn't, and what situations I might need to deal with next semester.

I am especially concerned with the current recession, as the 50+ workers are being laid off, that some of the time tested ways of doing business will be thrown out (the good with the bad) and the same mistakes will be made (and covered up). Let's hope that the amount of expertise that is out there will be used rather than wasted.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Professions and expertise

My current research has made it obvious that in the workplace expertise in the profession is equated with "knowledgeable" or "intelligent." A specialist often is hired over a generalist. However, is this truly the best use of organizational resources?

My husband was complaining that the last 3 consultants (specialists) that his department had hired have not worked out. Why? Because they are not able to take initiative and see the big picture. They can do their small piece as long as they receive direction outside of their specialization. They don't take the time to figure out what is needed outside of their small scope of work.

In looking at cross specialization, I have found that there is a long time frame for those from different professions and specialties to create shared knowledge. The reason is that initially each person comes in with their own sense of what is viable knowledge, often based on their profession. Even if these divergent ideas can be combined, there is also a need to create a shared understanding of the task and knowledge from the various departments.

It would seem to me that the first step in any group work should be to create a shared understanding of knowledge, standards, and group processes. This means that any use of a wiki or google docs for example, should begin with some discussion as to what and whose standards for knowledge will be used. This may take some time, but I would think the outcome would be a much deeper understanding and creation of knowledge.

Unfortunately, I am finding in our fast paced world, this is not considered good use of time. It is hard to measure "outcomes" especially if the group will not stay together. Of course, if an instrument were developed to measure the impact the knowledge would have on company production (like the multiplying effect in economics), then this time spent would have some economic basis.