10 March 2013

Communities of Learning and the effect of existing hierarchies

Last week (March 1, 2013) , I had the honour of  being asked to sit in on a PhD defence committee. The thesis was about the impact existing hierarchies have on the learning that goes on in communities of learning. I very much enjoyed participating since the topic of communities of learning is close to my heart and to my own research on networked learning.

Martin Rehm's research was carried out in a large international organisation that set up 3 month, online learning programmes for its employees. Some 200 - 300 people participated in each one of the various studies. His main conclusions may be thus summarised.

1. The participating employees happily participated in the discussion fora that drove the communities; their contributions were about both social and content-related issues, but the latter dominated; the employees felt the forum helped them better to learn.
2. Employees higher up in the organisational hierarchy contributed more than did employees lower in it; however, there were a number of 'lowly' employees who contributed in numbers equal to their higher-up peers; finally, people higher up performed better at the final exam.
3. Everyone pretty much read the contributions of everyone else, but they were much more specific in the way they reacted to contributions;  in social network analytic terms, employees lower in the hierarchy tended to engage with employees higher up more so than with employees lower down; this  means that the higher in the hierarchy you are the more central is your position in the community; Rehm described this as a hierarchical vortex.
4. Employees at all levels made both social and cognitive (task-related) contributions; over time, the number of cognitive contributions went up relative to the number of social ones; overall, the level of cognitive contributions was higher for employees higher up in the hierarchy.

These findings show two things: first, communities of learning help you to learn; second, organisational hierarchies get copied into an organisation's communities of learning, perhaps are even reinforced by them. The first finding is a reason for joy, the second one a reason for concern. After all, learning is not just about filling in the gaps in your existing knowledge, about horizontal transfer of knowledge that I have and you lack or vice versa. In a knowledge-driven economy, it increasingly also is about exploring new avenues, about developing new insights, about being creative. This allows an organisation to reinvent itself, to be innovative and, ultimately, to remain competitive. Existing hierarchies ensure that the current jobs get done, but are no guarantee that the future jobs get done too. If anything, organisational learning should be a means to foster innovation rather than, at worst, to stifle it. For that to happen, the hold that existing hierarchies have on organisational learning should be relaxed if not overturned. How can this be done?

Martin Rehm makes a number of suggestions. I interpret them in a rather loose way here. He first suggests that learners should be given roles that upset the existing hierarchy. So 'lowly' employees become moderators. Second, higher management could be made aware of the current situation and its undesirable effects, in the hope they alter their behaviour and stimulate employees lower in the hierarchy to become more active and challenge received organisational wisdom. Or, third, communities of learning could be deliberately composed in ways to minimise the effect of hierarchy. Unfortunately, I fear the first two of these measures will not work as they all in some way or other upset existing hierarchical relations. As these relations determine your fate in the company once the community-based learning period is over, employees will avoid risks and behave in accordance with the existing hierarchy. The third one comes close to what I myself would want to explore, though I am not sure that Martin intended it this way.

The most radical interpretation of the third suggestion would be to demand learners to participate anonymously in the communities of learning. Assuming it is at all possible to avoid being exposed, which I doubt, it is probably not desirable not to be able to identify who wrote what. If a company is to profit from its employees' learning insights, the person who contributed some piece of wisdom should be identifiable. An alternative, less radical approach would be to dilute the hierarchy by involving more employees than the relatively small training sessions. In the set up chosen, the full focus was on the communities of learning and the remainder of the organisation was ignored. Suppose we were to move the learning to the level of the company as a whole, involving everybody on a permanent basis in learning, with more formal bouts of learning for some punctuated by informal bouts for all? This would effectively turn the organisation into an instance of a learning network. Before discussing the questions of whether this works, a note on terminology.

For me,  there is a clear distinction between networks and communities. The distinction is not numerical, although networks tend to be larger than communities as communities are parts of networks and communities cannot become so large as to overload our cognitive abilities. In a community, people have a shared goal, at least for the time being; in a network, they only have a shared interest. Community members are fully and directly connected (everybody is directly connected with everyone else), even though the intensity of the interchanges they have may varies; fellow networkers, on the other hand, may be strongly linked but may also be weakly linked, via intermediaries, or not at all. A network, therefore, usually consists of several communities. These communities may wax and wane in size, may overlap to a larger or smaller degree, may emerge and go extinct, even on relatively short time scales. In contrast, a network is long lived, it typically outlives any specific community that is part (technically: a subgraph) of it. What would happen if we were to conceive of communities of learning as parts of such a larger network?

Taking a networked view would mean that everybody in the organisation is permanently learning from each other. This learning is mostly informal, that is, it is intentional, but not part of a formal training or continuous development programme, with lectures, tasks and exams. Occasionally and for a subset of people only, a period of formal learning may be organised. Such periods are different in that somebody (an instructor) deliberately structures the learning in a particular way, organises supportive structures (e.g. fora) and perhaps even sets exams. In this set up, the hope is that, since everybody in the organisation is learning permanently, if not formally then informally, the grip that hierarchies have on employee behaviour is slackened. Employees, higher and lower, over time will adjust their behaviour to the demands social learning makes on them, thus limiting the clout of the official institutional hierarchy. Of course, to find out whether this will indeed happen, long-term research is needed that pays particular attention to the dynamics of the learning networks and the communities of learning in it.

Rehm, M. (2013). Unified yet Separated: Empirical Study on the Impact of Hierarchical Positions within Communities of Learning. Doctoral Dissertation, Maastricht University.  Retrieved from repository U. Maastricht.

Note: link to thesis pdf added after publication, March 25 2013