I have finished another section of my dissertation. This section deals with the politics that affect workplace collaboration, especially the development of workplace knowledge and access to workplace resources during collaborative writing processes.
Knowledge Embedded within the Project Power Structure
While professional, group, and departmental expertise and knowledge appears to be the result of embedded practices that group members may not be aware of, the knowledge embedded with the power structures of the project appeared to be more explicit, tangible, and intentional. The power structure consists of expectations by those who have organizational power, those within the group who have expert power (as opposed to authority), and stakeholders within the profession and the fancying agency and the perceived authority of the official hierarchy within the group and departments. Some of the study participants, such as Robert and Olivia, perceived power as equal to the hierarchy laid out by official organizational charts and job titles. Others, such as Sam and Paul, perceived those in power as those that were able to influence work, decisions, and group members based on access to resources, expertise, and organizational placement. This second perception of power is referred to as expert power, in which a person (or people) have power that is acknowledged by peers and those in positions of authority by virtue of being able to contribute, not solely because they have been granted power by those in positions of authority (Engleberg & Wynn, 2007; Galanes & Adams, 2007).
In the study, individual members felt empowered or powerless dependent upon their perceptions of how their ideas, contributions, and expertise are valued. The greater empowered they felt, the greater sense of ownership they felt towards their work. For example, Helen discussed how they rewrote the curriculum after the curriculum that was handed them to use for stand-up training was deemed insufficient. “But all of this, in my opinion, has been driven by the stand up curriculum that we’ve been writing that has changed this innumerable times…[later]…Like I said, we were looking at the old curriculum, what their outline was, what their content was, how this field delivers services, you know. And we totally restructured it.” Notice how she distinguishes between the two curriculums: she uses the pronoun of their when referring to the curriculum that was originally imposed on the group and uses the pronoun we when referring to the revised curriculum. This implies a greater level of ownership that they were permitted to exercise by developing their own (the stand up training department in the project group) curriculum.
On the other hand, formats, work processes, and visions imposed on the group or individual group members from the authorities within the perceived power structure often resulted in a distancing from the work and a lack of personal or group ownership of the product. An example of this was the quarterly report. Helen’s description of her process for the writing the quarterly report was similar to the other group members:
It has the same format every quarter. I mean it’s…it’s…you know, there is a…[pause]…outline that… that’s followed and it’s a report on each segment of…the project. Classroom training, technical assistance, elearning progress. The video people get reported in on the IT stuff. It’s…I mean, I’ll be honest with you. I contribute my part and I’ve never read anyb…I’ve never read a quarterly report. (Helen, interview 2).
There was a certain amount of apathy towards the quarterly report in which each group member wrote a contribution, but Robert was the owner of the final report. Many of the group members, like Helen, never read the final version. As Helen implies, the format was imposed on the group members from the sponsor (through an outline of required information in the project contract) and the organizational hierarchy. The hierarchy imposed the report format through a series of approvals required before the final report was sent to the sponsor.
One common problem with the collaborative process that the group had was that the work did not always align with the expectations of those that had authority within the power structure at various levels in the organization and project. This happened on the individual, group, departmental, organizational and professional levels. One way conflict was resolved was for those who perceived themselves as powerless in a given workplace circumstance to distance themselves from their work, giving ownership to those that they perceived as having authority. They also withheld their expertise, tacit knowledge, skills, and identifiable knowledge that they did perceived those within the power structure did not value. This was what members of the elearning department did after the new Project Director took over.
Originally, the content objects were designed to be stand alone related lessons. Project members from the elearning department worked closely with those in the stand-up training department to create a shared vision of the content objects. However, there was a different project vision between the group and the organizational hierarchy. This resulted in some members leaving the organization (thus withholding their expertise from the organization), while the remaining members simply coded the content rather than adding creative elements and other expertise on online learning to the finished product. In analyzing the supporting project documents, documents created after the new Project Director took over were more uniform between departments than those created before the new Project Director arrived.
If, however, the group members had a greater sense of ownership towards their work, they were more likely to circumvent or ignore the preferences of those in authority. This is what happened in the planning stages of the Top Ten/ Subway document. The project group were using basecamp to allow access to the document’s various drafts and solicit feedback. The Project Director approved a draft and ordered the group to discontinue further discussion on the document. However, the project group continued discussions using an alternative space within basecamp in order to circumvent the notice of the Project Director. This document had value for the group, so the group continued to develop it. The document had such value, in fact, that numerous group members claimed ownership of the final subway map and its content.
From an ethnomethodological perspective, there was a reciprocal relationship between the group and those outside of the organization, especially the funding agency, the trainees, and the profession. The power structure, in fact, was perceived differently by individual group members at different stages of the project, for different project tasks, different work environments, and different levels of access to resources. In other words, the perceived power structure was situated and dynamic. Those perceived as having power over the group and the project were solicited for feedback and approval for activities that impacted the group’s work processes, formats and products. This feedback was then used to create group work norms which could impact the group, the departments, or even the organization. If the feedback from those within the perceived power structure was ignored, group members feared that resources would be withheld and ownership may be taken away. While there may not be explicit threats or repercussions, group members would react to the potential threat they perceived from those in positions of authorities in the power structure.
For example, Ronda spoke about trying to access resources for video production, which those in authority did not value. They would use the excuse that there was no money for video, and yet video was cheaper than other resources they would recommend.
In this case, Ronda believed that those with authority within the power structure did not want to use video, so they would withhold resources to create video. Paul, also spoke of the effect that the Project Director’s potential feedback and approval had on his workplace writing process:
I’m, like, well, how irritated is the Director going to be? Will seeing these….you know, which to me, I mean certainly I have put a lot of time and effort into…but, you know, I see them as rough draft kinds of things. And usually you want the…the, you know, the top leadership person who is looking at these things to have just final say and you really want to have, um, really high quality products go to them before…You know, really have things really worked on strongly before they go to basically, you know, like an executive level person for final approval. (Paul, interview 1).
Those with authority within the power structure used funding, access to resources (including interdepartmental expertise), training, standards, formats, and communication tools (basecamp, website, word processing templates) to maintain approved organizational culture, hierarchy, and relationships that created the power structure. Throughout the study, the hierarchy of the power structure shifted from the group to the stand-up training department and from the external clients and healthcare profession to the funding agency and organization. As a result, knowledge and expertise that was valued shifted resulting in group members constantly trying to identify their place within the power structure. As the importance of their knowledge and expertise was repositioned, their perceived ownership of the project was also repositioned. This was especially evident within the elearning department in which they perceived their expertise to be increasingly undervalued by the organizational hierarchy. They therefore felt less and less ownership for the final products that the elearning department was creating for the project.
While those in positions of authority used resources to control the work processes and enforce the use of power structure formats, others in the group were able to improve their place within the power structure by knowing how to access resources, develop a network of expertise, and disseminate or deliver knowledge that was perceived as valuable within a network of knowledge.
As Paul explains it, expertise is held outside of the group and group members. Accessing the knowledge that the experts have means the group and its members needed to understand where that knowledge might be, what form the knowledge might take, how the network can be developed and accessed, the key players to accessing the network, and how to overcome barriers to creating and accessing networks within and outside of the project power structure. The development of these knowledge networks may be dependent upon an understanding of the political nature of the power structure, social networking skills, cultural (organizational, professional, and departmental cultures) awareness, and the ability to link ideas, information and resources across a social system or network.
There were two approaches study participants used to access knowledge networks within the power structure:
1. Identify valued information within the power structure and present that knowledge for use by those in authority. In this strategy, information would be complied, structured, and sequenced using a format those within the power structure expected. In presenting the information using the power structure’s format, members supported the type of knowledge and expertise that the power structure valued, thus reinforcing the perceived value of the knowledge and expertise for those who had legitimate power. Information was often unfiltered and analysis was conducted by those perceived to have power. This strategy used knowledge that took an identifiable form such as reports, design plans, meeting minutes, and written feedback.
2. Filter, analyze, and highlight information to present a point of view that may or may not be aligned with the power structure. This information then would be used to try to change culture (organizational, departmental, professional), create a new mental model, develop shared cognition, change the project vision or processes, or realign some aspect(s) of the project perception. This strategy often used more tacit and less identifiable knowledge, relying on social and knowledge networks.
The first strategy was often used when there was a product in which the group or a group member did not feel a strong sense of ownership, the group or group member felt powerless within the power structure, and/or there was a group or group member perception of alignment of project goals and vision(s) with those who posed authority within the power structure.
Olivia, Paul, and Robert used this strategy. Olivia was influenced by her supervisor who she perceived had authority over her work. She often commented on how it was not her place to make decisions on her work, but rather her supervisor’s, especially after her department was newly absorbed into the training organization. Robert perceived that he was part of the power structure within the organization and as such, it was necessary for him to maintain the formats and processes that he and others he perceived as having authority developed. Paul’s work was often influenced by feedback from those he identified as having legitimate authority with the group, organization, and profession. Using the power structure as a framework, he developed a network of social contacts and sources of information that he could access when those he perceived as having authority needed to access knowledge they deemed as valuable. Paul himself tried to maintain a neutral perception of the information, expertise and resources he had access to within his knowledge network, doing very little filtering. Instead, he would use different highlighting standards dependent upon his analysis of what those within the power structure valued as knowledge for a given situation. In other words, he would find information and expertise that would support the power structure’s view point, ignoring information and expertise that might refute the goals and vision of those with perceived power.
The second strategy was often used by those who felt a strong sense of agency or ownership over their work and/or perceived there was a misalignment of goals, vision, or work processes between themselves, the group, or those within the power structure. The use of this strategy had the potential of creating conflict. Helen and Ronda often used this approach. They would filter or withhold information or work processes to convince those within the power structure towards a certain action, decision, or approach.
- V Yonkers
- 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.