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.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Defining Design and Design's Role in Distributed Groups

I thought I had posted about this topic, which was actually an important idea that had to be cut from my dissertation. However, Colin Gray's current research on design and innovation resonates with the findings that design is a social construct rooted in multiple cultures within distributed groups. He speaks of the disruption of thought which is something that distributed groups do when they negotiate meaning.

Design is the application of power structure values and work patterns to genres. As a result, design becomes the processes by which genres are created, embedded in the organizational cultures, and aligned with organizational vision. Buchanan ( 1992) distinguishes between categories and placement of design.

Categories consist of fixed meanings that allow us to understand and analyze existing knowledge. These categories can fall into four forms: symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and organized services; and complex systems and environments. These types of categories represent the intention of “signs, things, action, and thoughts” (Buchanan, p.12) based on the understanding and analysis of perceived knowledge. In other words, design is the result of analyzing a situation, applying concepts based on experience and perception of what works and does not work, and developing a plan the creates boundaries within which individuals and workers have the intent to work.

A more important aspect of design, however, is placement. While categories imply a static structure analyzing “what already exists” (Buchanan, 1994, p. 13) , design is a reflection of the dynamic environment in which a plan must be implemented.
Placements have boundaries to shape and constrain meaning, but are not rigidly fixed and determinate. The boundary of a placement gives a context or orientation to thinking, but the application to a specific situation can generate a new perception of that situation and, hence a new possibility to be tested. Therefore, placements are sources of new ideas and possibilities when applied to problems in concrete circumstances. (Buchanan, p. 13)

In other words, design is the result of analyzing existing structures, but also helps in the creation of new meaning and understanding as designs are situated differently. The success of a design is based on environmental factors, intention (including the degree of agency granted to those implementing the design), and boundaries setting the orientation to thinking.

Study Findings

After the first series of interviews, I noticed that many of the participants used the term design, but each in a slightly different way. As a result, a definition of design was included in the second interview. In fact, the definition of design had very little in common from speaker to speaker. In addition, it seemed the most difficult term for the participants to define, most having long pauses before they answered.

Those from the stand-up training department tended to perceive design as a definitive construct using terms such as “strategies”, “content”, “framework”, and “curriculum.” For those in the elearning department, design was a more situated term to define, grounded in the creative and meaning making process. For example, “Design is the…planful…elegance and pattern…which gives…definition and meaning.” Not only is there some situated aspect to design, but those in the elearning department identified a sense of agency in their definitions.

Such a divergence in the understanding of what design is could lead to differences in understanding during the creation of a collaborative document, especially when there is no structure to the document, such as the Project Map. The first writing project, using a clearly defined structure was, “Well, the quarterly report’s always a by-product of individual contributions.” On the other hand, the second collaborative project studied was a document created by the group to help identify the various aspects of the elearning project. In discussing this document in a group interview, the difficulty in creating an agreed upon product was obvious:

Well, what formally…I think the … for the classroom trainers, they have a document. Module 1 contains X number of elements. Module 2 contains X number of elements. Eh…for me, there’s a sort of isomorphic mapping of those content elements onto a schema that reflects those same strains and tho…and that same order.


P: There’s a certain way to do that in the classroom. So, um… I think that’s…I don’t know if you can…say right now what your product is going to be. It’s going to be some type of elearning product.
R: Right. I mean…
P: But what it’s going to look like and how it’s…how it’s going to work is not…really isn’t there yet.
R: It isn’t really there... I mean, we have an idea…

Those in the stand-up training department seemed to perceive design in what Buchanan (1992) refers to as the categories of design: “Categories have fixed meanings that are accepted within the framework of a theory or a philosophy, and serve as the basis for analyzing what already exist (p. 12).” The elearning department looked at the possibilities of design, however. This is what Buchanan refers to as placement of design. “Placements have boundaries to shape and constrain meaning, but are not rigidly fixed and determinate. The boundary of a placement gives a context or orientation to thinking, but the application to a specific situation can generate a new perception of that situation and, hence, a new possibility to be tested. Therefore, placements are sources of new ideas and possibilities when applied to problems in concrete circumstances (p. 13).”

It appears that coming to the collaborative writing process from these two different approaches affects the knowledge creation and collaborative process. In the one instance, categories, the design is part of tangible knowledge: artifacts, clearly defined processes and skills. In the second instance of placement, design requires spatial knowledge, or the ability to link ideas and construct or create knowledge by building new ideas and theories. The categories of design, then, use knowledge that can be identified or represented tangibly (i.e. diagrams, processes, symbols, formats) whereas the placement of design requires environmental, social, and cognitive interaction to create knowledge networks where externally held knowledge can be accessed when needed. During the collaborative process within this distributed group, the different approaches in design resulted in tensions due to different expectations.

Collaborative Design:

Fundamentally, design is always done in the context of a group. Collaborative design gives ownership of the process and product to the group. However, design does more than develop a shared process and product. Collaborative design creates a shared mental model and understanding of the work task, identifies group member strengths, weaknesses, resources, and knowledge networks, and develops social relationships within the group. It also gives access to group member knowledge networks and group members that can translate knowledge from outside of the group so that it has meaning for the group. Design becomes both the categories (schemata, paradigms, values and perspectives) and the placement (possibilities) in the application of group knowledge (Buchanan, 1994; Goodwin, 1994; Nonaka, 1994).

To maximize partaged knowledge within the group, distributed groups need to have time to design collaboratively on a continual basis. It is important that group members have a mechanism to continually align perspectives and understand group members’ knowledge networks as these networks redevelop.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Creating the felt for the velcro to stick

I believe that colleges create a felt upon which the velcro of future learning can adhere. In other words, schooling should prepare students to be receptacle to learning from new environments, interactions, information, and experience. Like felt, new ideas will "stick" best to younger learners who have more room in their developing brains. However, as we age, the felt becomes crowded with knowledge we have accumulated. Older learners may need to change their thinking (lift the velcro from the felt) which can be difficult. In addition, like velcro, there will always be a bit of the felt that stays behind and makes it difficult for new information to stick.

So what is the "felt" of education that we should developing in education and training?

1) Learning is lifelong and does not stop with formal education. Even now my kids talk about how they look forward to getting out of school and never having to learn again. We need to start at an early age acculturating students with the idea that learning is lifelong and will never stop.

2) In a recent article in Thought & Action, Chad Hanson identified 4 area that businesses could learn from colleges and universities: innovation, structure/tradition, diverse lines of inquiry, and social relations. These are good places to start in creating a citizen that will be flexible enough to retool/relearn and be productive in a knowledge society.

Colleges and universities should prepare students to look beyond what is to what can be. Unfortunately, many businesses say they want an innovative employee, yet are looking for skills to answer just-in-time needs of the company. This tension can be resolved by identifying the parameters of a field, but at the same time, helping to push the parameters past current culture. In other words, it is not enough to teach students within a structure of current discipline or business structures, there must also be the push beyond what is known to what can be.

This is where the diverse lines of inquiry come in. Students must understand how to move between disciplines. The liberal arts education pushes students to work with different vocabulary, different knowledge bases, different rhetoric, epistemologies, and forms of inquiry which will develop them into employees that can move between departments, cultures, and work environments. My own research confirms that the most successful members of distributed groups were those that were able to move between and within groups. Their expertise in accessing resources, translating them for others, and bringing that knowledge back to their departments made them invaluable.

The social networking by employees are only one aspect of of social relations. Living with a diverse population, working with those of varying abilities, and understanding the way a community works are all skills colleges develop which can be brought into the workplace.

3) Colleges and universities require students to learn things that may not make much sense to a student today, but which may be important for future environments. I think, for example, of the economics class I took, which did not make sense until I was in the working world. The content was not as important as the theoretical basis upon which the content (which has changed in the 30 years since I took the course) was based. The same is true of computer science, which was in its infancy when I studied it. Many of the models and basic understanding of programming remains the same, although the languages I learned are no longer used.

While some people complain that colleges are too theoretical, students without that theoretical underpinning cannot keep up with changes in the field, the environment, tools, and knowledge. These theories make the felt of learning flexible and strong, allowing for change and the ability for learning to stick.

Learning in the future

In order be successful, our educational system needs to create life long learners, who are flexible, able to see possibilities, understand the social structure of knowledge (including transactional and negotiate knowledge), able to access resources though social networks they have created (partaged knowledge), be able to move between disciplines, learning the language and rhetorics of those disciplines, and, most importantly, develop a positive attitude towards lifelong learning and self-regulated learning.

To accomplish this, the educational system, especially undergraduate education, needs to continue to require students to have a liberal arts basis so students can develop knowledge within the context of multiple disciplines. They must also develop problem solving skills, communication competencies,technology/digital literacies, and critical reading/thinking skills. This needs to be accomplished through exposure to multiple environments and unstructured problems (e.g. project based learning). The focus needs to move from content to either content within context or skill based learning.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The history of training in US companies

The role of education and training in the US correlates to the management practices that have developed over the last century.

In an agricultural economy, labor was divided into small individual pieces. Knowledge of work practices were passed down from expert to novice through the apprenticeship. In the US, the labor movement developed apprenticeships so that the burden of training in a Union shop was carried mostly by the union.

After WWII, however, college education through the GI bill made university affordable to those who would not have been able to attend college before. In addition, technology and the depression made business more mobile and workers were expected to leave their home towns to work in massive manufacturing plants. The need for educated managers created a system in which college educated employees who had skills in reading, writing, computation, critical thinking, problem solving, technology, synthesizing information, and communication were trained throughout the manufacturing process. There are still these management training type of programs in large multinational companies. The key to these programs to develop a generalist that can step into any plant/situation/field and manage. Today, many of these management training programs require a Master degree as the basic skills, especially in critical thinking, synthesizing information and problem solving, are not integrated into the college curriculum until the Master's level.

There was a two prong system, the on-the-job training from the unions and the management training from the corporation. However, as manufacturing became more specialized, more specialized training was needed. This required a higher level of expertise and investment than companies were willing to contribute. At the same time, in the 1970's and 1980's, there was a new model of business developing in which employees were expendable. An employee that did not contribute to the corporation was laid off. In addition, corporations used outside contingent labor to augment their cyclical labor needs. This meant that the burden of training shifted on to the employees. Unions looked to community colleges to train their workers and individual employees looked to the colleges to train them for specialized jobs.

During this time, higher education changed. Majors became more specialized, training a student for a future job. If a student was not able to be employed after receiving a college education, the college was blamed. As a result, college programs, especially those in business and technology, worked closely with businesses in developing specialized curriculums. This was fine when companies were looking for specialists. However, the economy changed in the 1990's with the advent of the internet.

In the 1990's knowledge based companies began to take over the economy, with companies requiring more efficiency and cross training. Teams replaced specialists so that more could be done with less resources. Individuals were expected to be able to learn multiple tasks outside of their specialties. In order to address the training needs, companies developed training departments that worked with traditional and in the 2000's, online methods. The training was perpetual, but specialized training was the responsibility of the individual, usually. This was because companies did not want to invest in an employee's training only to have the employee leave.

On the part of the universities, this was a change in the nature and culture of the university. First, the average student now could include those returning to college after years of experience. No longer was there a clear cut divide between "continuing education" and "day classes". In addition, there was a demand from the students to provide specialized courses they needed to get ahead in their career, which companies were no longer interested in investing.

This brings us up to the current state of training and education. Companies are still expecting colleges and universities to provide the specialized training to students that companies need at any given time. However, I know in my own career, over the last 4 years, my computer mediated communication class has changed drastically in terms of the content I have taught. Four years ago I taught about two and multiple communication. Now I teach about networking. Four years ago I taught about visuals using powerpoint on flickr. Now I teach about video conferencing, video production, interactive visuals, etc... A student who took my course 4 years ago is already irrelevant if all I had taught was content. However, even 4 years ago we were discussing the changes happening because of facebook and linkedin. I taught my students how to teach themselves about new technology and its uses. I focused on technology affordances and the impact of technology. I taught them how to observe trends, generalize best practices, reflect on their work and how to make it better, research new trends, implement new practices, and evaluate and correct those new practices. These are life long learning skills that will allow them to be successful throughout their careers.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Unemployment, training, and education

I watched an episode of Moyers & Company yesterday in which the Conservative Expert divided the US into three types of people, those with a university education who were successful, those that were poor and dependent upon the "welfare state", and the "middle class" with a high school diploma who were loosing ground in our economy. He repeated the often heard call to education in Science and Technology as we had openings in the US for these jobs that companies could not fill.

Looking at data from the Department of Labor, however, from 1974-2010, those with an associate's degree and "some college education" came out better in some demographics when it came to number of times they were unemployed. Specifically, Hispanics and white males had less unemployment spells with an associate's degree than with a college education. In fact, according to Allegretto & Lynch (2010), the labor force with only or without a high school diploma has shrunk since 1983* and the percent of the long-term unemployed who fit in this category is less than in the most recent recession. In fact, unemployment rates increased for those with some college or at least a bachelor's degree.

In addition to education that does not match the conservative profile, is the disregard for another major change in the characteristics in the long-term unemployed profile: age. While unemployment is high for the 16-24 year old age group, according to Allegretto and Lynch, this age group is able to find a job faster than those over 45 yrs old. In my mind, there can only be one explanation for this: salary.

With these statistics about unemployment, education, and age, therefore, we must reconsider our policies about training, education, and the unemployment rate. Namely, training for a specific job will not make employment decrease. It is no longer enough to require someone to get a college education or to educate our workforce. Rather, there needs to be some changes to the way corporations hire and train their workforce. With an integrated approach with educational institutions combining both theoretical with practical training/education, we should be able to have a workforce that can be continually trained/updated, but also have the creativity upon which the US successfully expanded into the information economy.

Interestingly enough, the US stopped collecting data on workplace training in 1995. This means very little is known in terms of what training or knowledge assessment companies do today. To understand, however, how our children should be educated to be successful in the knowledge economy, it is important to understand the past and current role of education and training in the US economy.

Tomorrow: The history of training in US companies
Friday: Creating the felt for the velcro to stick

*Allegretto and Lynch looked at long-term unemployment during the last four recessions.