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Innovation in Communities of Practice (1)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting communities of practice literature, and I’m writing now to see what I think about it. After all, how will I know what I think until I’ve seen what I said? I’m channeling Karl Weick again there. Bonus points to my 504 students who recognize that logic. Anyway, moving on to what I think.

The NSF project that current pays my rent is ostensibly about facilitating the development of civil infrastructure. When I was first presented with the project, the part that seemed most interesting to me was the ‘transfer of practice’ (TOP) problem. The TOP problem goes something like ‘it’s difficult to move practice from research labs to the real world.’ Sure is. I looked forward to working on that problem. As I got into the project more, my focus changed. It seems like now the problem is not so much how do we move a practice from over here in research land to over there in construction but rather, how do the practices of civil infrastructure design and construction change when the materials available change?

Engineered cementitious composites (ECC) have the potential to change the practices of civil infrastructure design and construction. (You can read about ECC’s revolutionary properties at the University of Michigan news site.) I don’t know enough about that design and construction to yet know what the possibilities are, but I get the sense that they are big and dramatic. Iron and steel certainly made a big difference. Concrete, the rigid kind, is sure important. Imagine what happens when you change the tools again! At least, that’s what I’m imagining. With a little help from my colleagues, I’ll do some more definitive imagining.

So what does any of this have to do with communities of practice (COPs)? The problem of TOP is something like moving a practice from one community to new individuals. Here, I’m describing what happens when new people learn about ECC and start to learn how to work with it. It’s tough to make ‘ the recipe is incredibly precise and the underlying theory is important ‘ and it’s deceptively similar to regular concrete. To solve TOP, you simply send that newly trained person off in to the world, much like a graduate from the lab at Michigan is now off in the world getting his company to use ECC. Obviously I’m oversimplifying here, but you get the idea. By characterizing the problem of developing new infrastructure as a TOP problem, we make the research lab and its practices the goal, and the ‘real world’ and its practices the target. This could even be a transfer practice from one community to another problem.

However, that’s not what I think is going on. Rather, I think the communities of practice involved are a little broader than that TOP conception allows. I don’t think the problem is one of trying to ease the problems with throwing ECC over the wall between lab and field. The really interesting problem, I think, is how does a change in practice within the civil infrastructure design and construction community happen? Much of the existing COP literature is about moving practice from a community to an individual. What about changing a practice within the community? How does that happen?

To start to answer those questions, I’m off to explore a variety of literatures including innovation (generally), innovation (in construction), organizational change, apprenticeship, public policy and infrastructure, and standards development and negotiation. That’s just to get me started. I’m likely to blog about this quite a bit in the near future as I try to figure out what I think is going on, or rather where I think something interesting is going on. I’d like to figure out how to study that interesting bit and maybe even get a dissertation out of it.

Rethinking failure

I took a class taught by Karl Weick during the Fall 2006 term. I can’t remember the title of the class, but I know it was MO 700. I’ll call it “MO.” MO and I were instant friends. The reading list was interesting; the course discussions were, for the most part, thoughtful. And Karl was there. Nikhil Sharma and Jude Yew, the students who recommended MO to me, were absolutely right. Karl Weick is a wonderful instructor who provides amazing amounts of constructive feedback both in discussion and about our papers.

The paper I’m thinking about now was the last one I wrote for the class. I called it something like Collaboratories through a Sensemaking Lens. Writing that paper was a tough task. At that time in the course, we were reading Managing the Unexpected, and I was struggling with the way the book used the word “failure.” In the book, “failures” are more like “unexpected events” or “events that don’t go as planned” than they are the terribly negative outcomes that come to mind when I hear the word. Sure, some failures in the book are monumental – I’m thinking nuclear reactors behaving badly. Not all failures need to be life-or-death in order to benefit from the characterization Weick and Sutcliffe give them though. Weick and Sutcliffe ask us to think of failures as opportunities to learn and adjust.

It’s pretty easy for me to recognize a nuclear reactor melting down as a failure. What’s harder is thinking about what would count as a failure in an academic research setting. I’ve been living by the mantra, “It’s all data to me!” Does that mean that I don’t have failures? When things don’t go according to plan, I see unexpected results in my data. Unexpected data, or data that runs counter to one’s hypotheses, certainly provides opportunities to learn. I may even want failures in this sense so that I can easily develop new research topics. Life wouldn’t be very interesting if all my hypotheses were correct. I bet I’d get a “great” academic job if that were true though. More on job stuff later.

So why does it matter that Weick, Sutcliffe, and I think about failure differently? Well, for starters, I’m trying to write a paper about collaboratories using the language provided by sensemaking and high reliability literature. In collaboratory world, we’re not used to talking about sense or failure or reliability. We talk about coordination, bench science, email, cyberinfrastructure. We might benefit from trying to describe what we see in social studies of collaboratories in the unfamiliar terms of sensemaking and high reliability. I’ll give it a shot and let you know how it goes.

Last summer after my field prelim exam, Michael Cohen encouraged me to get in touch with my picky inner critic.  He’s sure that my inner critic will be more demanding of me than I have been without him/her.  For example, my inner critic is likely to make me explain what I mean by “failure” rather than to assume my readers know what I mean.  I look at this Collaboratories through a Sensemaking Lens paper as an opportunity to consult my inner critic and to get his/her help in becoming a more careful and precise academic writer.

Collaboration and Identification

My dissertation proposal threatens me. When I use an alarm clock and end up hitting “snooze,” it haunts my snooze time. It looms over my waking hours, mocking me with its shape-shifting. Writing in Word has proven ineffective, and so, I’ll try some stream-of-consciousness right here on my blog.

I think my dissertation will explore collaboration and identification. I’m especially interested in how the ways in which we identify ourselves and others influences the ways in which we work with them. Some previous work on which this builds includes

  • Common ground – Herb Clark
  • Identity in organizations – Janet Dukerich
  • Sociality – Michel Maffesoli
  • Networks and context – Bruno Latour, Stan Wasserman
  • Sensemaking (esp. property of identity) – Karl Weick
  • Personal knowledge – John Bransford
  • Smart groups – Brigid Barron
  • Facework and presentation of self – Erving Goffman
  • Social computing – Marc A. Smith, Paul Dourish

In the posts to come, I’ll try to tease out what it is about those works that I think can inform my own. The list is obviously incomplete and non-exhaustive, but it helped to write it down. Now you can all hold me accountable for it (eventually).

Take that, positivists!

I’ve been struggling to articulate my frustrations with social software and community technologies, and I’ve finally found an article that helped me immensely. (Thank you, Sean Munson, for sending me the paper!)

What’s bothered me is how anti-social so many examples of social software seem to be. They seemed to employ, as Paul Dourish said, a “highly positivist interpretation of social phenomena – a sort of social science, perhaps, uniquely attractive to engineers” (Dourish, 2005). Rather than recognize that often people just want to connect to others, social software seemed to assume that individuals were incredibly goal driven and that any software designed for those goals (e.g. organizing meetings) would be readily embraced. Continue Reading

Social Responsibility

As I wrestle with my ideas about what to study for my dissertation, the idea of “socially responsible research” keeps bubbling up. It’s not a term I’ve heard used often; I’m borrowing it from “socially responsible investing.” I’m not sure what it means to be socially responsible or to conduct responsible research, but I’m trying to figure that out. Studying poker players and their social identities seems like a great project for me, but it’s hard for me to see immediate or short-term positive social impacts of that research. So instead, I’ve been reading up on socially responsible investing, U.S. politics, and rethinking my ideas about researching training/novices/newcomers/etc.

So, the questions weighing on my mind are:

When should I pick a Democratic candidate and start thumping for him/her? Who’s Running in 2008? (nytimes)
How can I collect data about changes in social networks over time?

What would a study of new members’ (of organizations) informal social learning look like?

When I start earning money again, where should I invest it? Socially Responsible Mutual Fund Screens (socialinvest.org)

Poetry in Motion goes to Paris (nope)

UPDATE: Paris in the summer is beyond this grad student’s budget. Oh well, at least I got in. Maybe next time.


I’ll be presenting about my Poetry in Motion study at the 5th International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities in July 2007. You can read the abstract here.

Poetry in Motion is a study around kinetic typography and its use in poetry teaching. My pilot study showed a great deal of promise for animated text helping students get over their initial hesistance to engage with a poem, and I’ll be running experiments in the next few weeks to test those preliminary results. Come to Paris next summer (or check back on the blog) for results!

Poker and research: friends or foes?

I’m a poker player. Some days I am terrible; others I am quite good. Mostly, though, I am fascinated. Here are my thoughts about a new research project I’d like to conduct around poker. The categories for my project outline are from Writing Your Dissertation: How to Plan, Prepare and Present Your Work Successfully by Derek Swetnam.

Project Outline: Poker
I’m interested in poker as a form of leisure and profession. I’m also interested in how it has changed over time and how technologies and situations affect poker players and how they think about the game and themselves. Continue Reading

Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuroscience – Class 4/17

Where are we now? (Byrnes and Fox was 1998, what’s happened since)

Priti – kids learning grammar; phonological process deficit, some research shows what parts of the brain are involved; example of identifying neural problem, developing a tool that addresses those problems (almost cures ’em)

Value of neuroscience – cost of doing that kind of research may outweigh the benefit; it’s not that neuroscience doesn’t have any benefits but that it is really expensive and may get at answers that could be found in another method for less; maybe used to justify rather than to figure something out
Discovering errors – cognitive tutors, distributed cognitive systems

Colleen – molded by experience and how that changes you; you’re not the same after an experience as you were before you had it

A little history –
learning – how are they changed by what they experience
Post-doc with Ed Hutchins was first work outside the lab

Continue Reading

Notes from Bransford’s Talk

John Bransford’s Learning Sciences Guest Lecture

Book/research recommendations:

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose
Anders Ericsson (expert performance, experts resist automaticity)

Quality of Life issues –

health care, nutrition, finances, local environmental conditions (research within the LIFE Center)

Themes –

  • adaptive expertise – recognizing adaptability (when do my schemas apply?)
  • innovation
  • efficiency
  • schemas (i.e. SAT problem types)
  • constructive nature of knowing – we build knowledge out of what we already know
  • people knowledge – figure out what we need people to share to identify with and learn from

“Innovation is the sudden cessation of stupidity.” (Bransford quoted someone else)

Learning from Others

people learn better from people they know


Research in the LIFE center seems really interesting; I should go explore that area some more to see if there are “informal learning environment” ties or analogies to what I’m working on. Continue Reading