The last two themes dealt with how the group and members accessed, created, and used knowledge and expertise. In the one theme, knowledge and expertise of perceived value often was used as currency within the power structure, with study participants sharing, accessing resources, or withholding their knowledge and expertise based on their analysis of situational factors within the environment. This could be termed as transactional knowledge. With the second theme, when expertise and perceived knowledge was shared, there was a process of negotiation in which meaning was created, sometimes at the individual, group, organizational, or professional levels, sometimes at multiple levels. This could be termed as negotiated knowledge or expertise.
Transactional knowledge could be used within the group, between departments, within the organization, and outside of the organization, either between stakeholders or within a community of practice. Expertise, in and of itself, would be difficult to define, but needed to be valued by decision makers and those within the power structure. While a person might have had an expertise to offer on the project, not all expertise was perceived as being valuable to the project. Sam, for example, explains the perceived value of the elearning department within the organization:
We’re isolated a little bit. And we…I don’t know if the other contract managers or whoever they are, um…see elearning as something that they could…they could use to their advantage when doing classroom training. You know, we’ve had experience with blended learning solutions where people may…take some elearning kind of as prerequisite before they get to the classroom training. And then get…everybody would be on the same kind of page if they had don…if they do that. You know what I mean? So things like that, I’m not sure is a…is a solution that they have in mind (Sam, interview 2).As a result of the elearning department not perceived as having valued expertise in the registration process, for example, those in authority drew resources from the stand-up training department, rejecting the design and registration work presented by those in the elearning department.
The perception of valued knowledge and/or expertise, therefore, was dependent upon whether the knowledge or expertise was 1) in demand, 2) valued by those within the power structure, 3) was perceived as meeting the needs of others (stakeholders, group members, those with legitimate authority), and/or 4) added value to a product, project, or process. In the case of added value, because knowledge was a product for the organization in this study, the ability to convert knowledge into something tangible became an added value to the organization. The tangible knowledge, or knowledge that was represented in a format that was identifiable, could take the form of documents, models, visual representations, interviews or testimonials, assessments such as quizzes and tests, credentials such as diplomas or training credits, web or training tools, and brands. The more tangible the expertise or knowledge was perceived, the easier it was for that knowledge or expertise to be traded or used as currency.
The use and offering of valued expertise and knowledge could be banked and used as a currency for future access to resources. Phillip, for example, spoke about the importance of his work with this group for future positions in the organization, “This is where my education is, all my experience is here. I feel really comfortable, confident, you know, in this field. So I probably want to stay here and this…this ac…this would, um, compliment the experience I’d already have. So could transfer into…into moving me into some other position, maybe, in the future.” The use and offering of valued expertise and knowledge could also allow the value of an individual, group, or department to increase. The quarterly report was important to the organization because it could be used as currency for future projects with the project funder. In addition, many study participants spoke of how this project could be a model for future projects both within and outside of the organization.
The use and offering of valued expertise and knowledge could also create a community of practice within a socially based work network. Within this network, trust, status, and the identification of valued knowledge was developed. The network then could provide access to information, resources, and expertise for future work. However, access within the network was not always reciprocal. If the expertise or knowledge being offered the network was not perceived as being useful or valuable to others within the network, than a member or members may not have had reciprocal access. As a result, the relationship within the community moved away from collaboration and moved towards direction, or even dictating from those with a perceived position of power.
Within the group, for example, the elearning group’s expertise became less and less valued. By the end of the study, the elearning group would withhold their expertise as the stand-up training department began to control the flow of knowledge for the group. This created a situation in which the elearning group used their expertise to do their part of the project, but withheld that knowledge and expertise from the stand-up training department until the elearning piece was complete. As Phillip explains it:
it’s not so…it’s not so much…making concessions or, you know, be willing to give stuff up, it’s, “ I don’t think we’re collaborating in the best way that we can to get this product done.” (Phillip, interview 2).
The elearning group perceived the stand-up training group as dictating the way in which they completed their work. As a result, to maintain ownership over their work and expertise, the elearning department did not consult the stand-up training group until the elearning piece was completed. The elearning group would then make any necessary changes, but did not share their expertise as they were completing their task.
The video group withheld their expertise in a different way. As Olivia explains,
I think a function of that too is I’m not involved in all of the planning sessions for the classroom training or the online training, so they, decisions are made that I don’t know about or they decide that they want this objective. Ah, I don’t think that I need to be a part of that? As long as I know exactly what they want out of that. (Olivia, interview 1).
Olivia did not offer her expertise because she believed decision makers and those in position of authority did not value that expertise. She only did the work that was dictated to her by those higher up in the organizational power structure. Any value that she could have added to the group’s work was withheld if not requested by the group or the organizational power structure. In this way, she maintained ownership of her expertise, withholding it rather than giving it away when it would not be valued.
Members of the group also managed access to their knowledge network. Olivia, for example, seemed to be a strong gatekeeper to her network, partly because of her perception that the group and those in authority did not value her expertise, but also because she was unsure of her place within the project and organization. In other words, she maintained her network outside of the organization and group so that it would not be corrupted should she have to leave the organization. On the other hand, other group members protected their networks from specific members, again so their network was not corrupted (lack of trust, poor reputation, associations with undesirable experts, ideas, or policies).
While transactional knowledge and expertise was based on perceived value, with knowledge identified as something tangible or the ability to be made tangible (through documentation, visuals, processes, etc…), knowledge that created meaning was dependent upon discussion and interaction. This interaction could include communication between coworkers, resources, documentation, the environment, and/or communication tools.
When interviewing study participants, they spoke much more about discussions and trying to develop a shared understanding of the project in the first set of interviews than in the second. The participants used terms such as “being on the same page”, “understanding where they [other group members] were coming from”, and “they (don’t) get it” when they were initially interviewed, which were not as common in the second set of interviews.
There are a couple of possible reasons to explain this. First, in the initial stages of the study, the group seemed to work at getting a shared mental model of their work, project goals, and understanding the perspective of their group members. According to research on group formation (Tuckman,1967; Gersick, 1988) and communication (Jeffrey, Maes, & Bratton-Jeffrey, 2005), this is a natural function of newly formed groups. Once the group has developed a shared mental model, the knowledge and expertise will then be partiaged throughout the group (shared cognition). This partiaged knowledge will be accessed when needed with the renegotiation of the group mental model taking place when internal and external factors demand it.
The lack of discussion and focus on shared meaning and meaning making in the second half of the project might also be explained by the change in management midway through the study. The new management was not perceived as valuing a shared vision or ownership of group projects. They used a management style in which all decisions and project direction came from management rather than from the group itself. As a result, the management changed the project communication structure in which the group members no longer had the opportunity or environment in which to create shared meaning. Weekly group meetings were discontinued and the conversations online were monitored by the Project Director. If she felt the conversation had lasted too long, she would stop discussion online.
Some of the factors participants identified as being important for creating shared meaning included: 1) an openness to ideas, 2) feedback, 3) a sense of trust from those with whom the meaning would be negotiated, 4) awareness of where the starting point should be, 5) a sense of relationship of those involved or perspective taking abilities, and 6) cognitive dissonance or the awareness that there is a difference in understanding. The problem with negotiation meaning on the part of the management, as the group members perceived it, was that creating shared meaning was time consuming, often without results or identifiable (transactional) valued knowledge.
Group members used a number of communication modalities to create shared meanings. These included:
• Face-to-face communication in the form of formal discussions (e.g. regular “check-ins” and updates), working meetings (e.g. planning, departmental, content), weekly meetings, and informal discussions (e.g. breaks, “water cooler” or hallway conversations);
• Written communication in the form of scripts, online postings, programming codes, work approvals, reports, emails, writing planning documents, project task checklists, and feedback solicitations;
• Visuals in the form of write board diagrams, maps that represent content; flow charts, powerpoint slides, video footage, and representative photos.
These different modalities helped to transform implicit knowledge into a tangible, identifiable form which sometimes triggered cognitive dissonance and helped participants discover differences both within and outside of the group.
The cognitive dissonance, once identified, then was the basis for negotiated meaning, with participants defining the boundaries of their understanding. Each participant creates new boundaries, sometimes redefining vision, ideas and/or meaning. For example, Phillip described the process the group went through in adapting content for elearning:
So we kind of, like, arrived at some middle position. So it’s kind of a neat…ah, you know working relationship. And what it does is gives you o…other ways to think about things that you just wouldn’t have thought of. You know, you…you don’t know to think of those…things if you don’t know. (Phillip, interview 1).
At other times, participants maintain their vision, schema or individual beliefs, but are able to understand the perspectives of other group members. This new understanding, a result of perspective taking, would allow group members the ability to discuss their work using negotiated meaning for shared common terms, language, symbols, and formats.
The interaction group members had in negotiating meaning also created relationships both within and extending outside of the group. Group members could act as translators of knowledge for resources within their own knowledge networks. Specifically, each group member had their own knowledge network which they accessed when they needed to find intellectual and cognitive resources (e.g. answers to questions, feedback, information, expertise or specialization). When the individual member was unable to find the resources through their own network, they then turned to group members.
However, because the group members’ cognitive boundaries might not allow them to communicate and/or understand other group members’ knowledge networks, the group would need to rely on its members to mediate understanding between the various knowledge networks and group members. A good example of this was Ronda visiting healthcare provider students with Helen. Helen was able to speak to the students, many of which were also healthcare service recipients and then translate that knowledge into concepts and terminology that Ronda was familiar with. Ronda then incorporated this information into her elearning designs. Without Helen, however, Ronda might have had difficulty in interacting with the students, asking the correct questions for identifying their needs, and/or understanding the information the students provided as Ronda did not have first hand experience or knowledge about the subject matter.
The collaborative writing process and the use of written forms such as meeting minutes and online postings documented the negotiation of meaning and dialogues that created shared mental models. These written communications then became both currency and a basis for continued negotiation of meaning.
For example, the map document was the result of a written roadmap on a whiteboard developed by the core group (Robert, Helen, Paul, Phillip, and Ronda). This whiteboard roadmap was then used as a basis for the Top 10 List learning object outline. Moving between the core group (which members acted as translators) and the elearning department, the Top 10 List became the Map. The Map was the tangible result of the dialogue between the core group and the elearning group. The Map then continued to be revised as those in the various departments began to use it. The project decision makers (Project Director, Project Manager, and Director of IT) began to reconceptualize the project based on the vision outlined in the Map. Each draft of the Map became a documented dialogue that negotiated meaning both inside and outside the group.
Related to this negotiated meaning is the choice of language in collaborative writing which reflects the cultural underpinnings of the discourse community of the profession, department, and/or group. This is knowledge which is difficult to identify. As a result, group members would use other group members and their knowledge networks to check understanding and meaning. As Helen explained about Ronda’s work:
So sh…you have to be able…if you’re going to be writing about it, theoretically, she’s going to write all this, you have to understand disease, how it’s treated, you know, the modalities. I mean, she didn’t know… what do you mean when you say modalities? Ahhh! Inpatient, outpatient, long term care, you know, medication, but…all that kind of stuff. So, she would sit there and ask…she asked us lots of questions so that she could understand it so she could write about it. (Helen, interview 2).
Ronda confirmed this view:
Well, mostly I’m looking for factual corrections, just to make sure that I’ve said the things…I’ve made the point and I’ve captured the information correctly. Cause I’m not an expert on disease interventions. So for example, if I’m doing a…eh, a learning object on medication, ah, understanding the range of medication and the contra indications from medication. Um, there’s a lot of detail there about, you know, milligrams and dosages and, ah, contra indications and answers and stuff. Ah, I would turn to Philip and Helen and Paul to make sure that I’m correct. That I haven’t said anything incorrectly. (Ronda, Interview 1).
It was not necessary for Ronda to have expertise in the field as long as she was able to build her understanding of the healthcare profession’s culture and discourse community by accessing the expertise and experience of the face-to-face training group. Each time Ronda received feedback from Helen, Paul, or Phillip, she developed a deeper understanding of the cultural underpinnings of the healthcare field, even without direct professional experience. Those within the face-to-face training department developed a deeper understanding of the elearning culture and discourse community by accessing the knowledge network of Ronda, David, and Sam. However, the group members did not perceive to have access to Olivia’s knowledge network, either because Olivia was unable or unwilling to translate the culture and discourse needed to access knowledge within her network. While Robert offered access to his knowledge network, the group members perceived their own networks as more valuable sources of insight and knowledge than Robert’s. As a result, they did not access his knowledge network unless they were forced to.
Galanes, G. & Adams, K. (2007). Effective Group Discussion: Theory and Practice. Boston: McGraw Hill.
Gersick, Connie (1988). Time and transition in work teams: Toward a new model of group development. Academy of Management Journal, 31 (1), 9-31.
Jeffrey, A., Maes, J., and Bratton-Jeffrey, M. (2005) Improving team decision-making performance with collaborative modeling. Team Performance Management 11 (1/2), p. 40-50.
Tuckman, Bruce (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups. In Classics for Group Facilitators.