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.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Differing discourse communities: a major source of tension in distributed teams

I have been away from my work on my dissertation for the last month in order to prepare for next semester. However, at 3:00AM this morning, an insight into the current analysis I am doing for three of the themes I've identified (1. expertise is defined by the profession, 2. expertise is defined by the department, and 3. Expertise is defined within the organizational power structure) came to mind. So I got up and began to write.

This is still in the development stage, and I need to pull specific examples out (which I have, but the most relevant need to be chosen still) to support my analysis. However, each of these themes can be explained by discourse communities and how these communities affect communication within distributed groups.

Defining discourse communities

Discourse communities are similar to communities of practice in that who belongs to the community, how the community functions and its rules and values, is all dependent on the perspective of the individual members. Like community of practice, there are rarely explicit rules for membership and membership behavior. Some individuals, in fact, may believe they are a member of a certain discourse community while others might not perceive that person is an actual member.

For example, Eminem's use of language puts him in the urban African-American culture. However, many urban African Americans do not accept him as a legitimate member. Other white Americans perceive him as a "want-to-be" who mimics urban African American discourse. Having grown up within an urban community surrounded by the urban African American discourse community, he probably is part of that discourse community, especially around friends and others he has grown up with. However, there are no clear cut rules or membership requirements for a discourse community.

A discourse community has to do with the way in which those within the community communicate. Most recent research on discourse communities have come out of the research from those advocating a genre approach to teaching writing (i.e. Gee, Swalyes). Discourse includes shared values in communication, shared formats and rules of communication, shared lexicography (not just terms but a shared understanding of how those terms and combination of terms are interpreted and used), grammar and language structure use, and even ways to identify who is "part" of the community and who is not.

Discourse communities in distributed teams in the workplace

In my study, I identified four distinctive discourse communities: the profession(s) to which the study participants belonged; the department(s) to which the study participants belonged; the organization and the power structure within which the group operated; and the group itself.

Not surprisingly, the most successful participants within the group were those that could move easily between and work within multiple discourse communities. Group members such as Paul, Sam, Helen, and Ronda, who were identified as being the ones that could contribute the most to the group and project were those that had an ability to learn and move within new discourse communities. Olivia and Robert, along with supporting personnel external to the project were identified by numerous study participants as appearing to be unable to participate in the discourse community outside of their own profession or department.

This supports those researchers in the "Genre School" in learning how to dissect the "genre" in order to be successful in society. However, these findings would also suggest that it is not enough to know and understand the mainstream genre. It is also important to be able to learn and work within multiple genres, especially when working with distributed teams as the new knowledge economy requires.

Much of the tension on the project, in fact, appeared to be caused by the clashing of 2 or more discourse communities. When this happened, the study participants either

1. retreated to work only with those within their discourse community,

2. tried to create new meaning and/or understanding that would bridge the two discourse communities; or

3. create different communication channels to maintain the conversation in both discourse communities (parallel discussions).

In the first case, participants with power within the organization or group would be able to contribute to the project, as their discourse community could be made the standard for discussions. Those outside of the power structure, however, became disenfranchised, frustrated, and felt that their voice was not heard (when in fact their voice was not being interpreted correctly).

In the second case, a new working discourse community was developed within the group for group processes and products. In order for this to work, however, it would take some time to create the new heuristics for the created discourse community. This process was both useful, but also time consuming.

In the third case, it those that could move between the two communities became invaluable to the project. Because of their ability to interpret messages from one community to the other, work could be completed simultaneously in each community. However, when those that were acting as interpreters either left the project (Ronda) or pulled back into one or the other community (Paul and Sam), the success of the group working within both communities was a burden on those that could move between both groups. This may have been why Helen complained that she felt she was carrying the burden of the project.


This has a number of communication, training, and management implications. First, training should recognize the role of discourse communities in any new intervention. They should be prepared for miscommunication between discourse communities, parallel discussions, and the burden on change coming on those who do not necessarily have the expertise, but rather can move between discourse communities.

Second, there needs to be different channels of communication available for different discourse communities. These should not be exclusive of one discourse community or another, rather they should be available to open up dialogue BETWEEN discourse communities. Formal channels might need to be set up that encourage and allow interaction between the different discourse analysis.

Finally, there needs to be a way to ensure that group members are all adept at moving between the discourse communities so that the burden of work does not fall to one or a small group of people. This also ensures that when one person leaves the group, the group will not be paralyzed due to lack of interpretation between discourse communities.

1 comment:

LuĂ­sa Miguel said...

Hi virginia,
I sayed before in Andy Coverdale's blog, but now directly in your blog: Your post, has really a lot of great importance for all of us who are involved (whit one or more) community of pratice.I founded in your text, a very rich sorce of information about D.D.C. that is helping me much to reflect about this and also, the possibility to get a better understanding of my own relation,behavior and conscience whit the terms/language I'm using inside a group of communication. Thank very much for post.