Space & flows of practice: exploring the relationship between Web 2.0 technologies and a practice perspective on HRD.

Here is a paper abstract accepted for the upcoming UFHRD conference in Brighton:

This paper explores through an analysis of technology enhanced professional learning (TEPL) using social software a practice based approach to understanding and framing human resource development (HRD) and communities of HRD practitioners. Social software has been described as employing web 2.0 technologies in supporting ‘digital social networks’ supporting interactions between social entities (Kieslinger & Hofer 2007, p7) through computer-mediated-communication to form online communities (McAfee 2009). These technologies can include applications such as blogs and micro-blogs, discussion forum, wikis, etc. (Wagner & Bollojou 2005). The use of social media to enable collaborative and peer-to-peer professional development activities has become increasingly common in recent years (McCulloch, et al 2011; Bingham and Conner 2010).

The practice perspective perceives learning and knowledge as relational processes (Cook & Brown 2005) where learning is understood as a social, collective and active process. Learning and knowledge are not possessed (Cook & Brown 2005) but rather are something that people do together (Geiger 2009). In the context of TEPL it can be seen that the main mechanism of practice is textual (Koole 2010). Hakkarainen (2009) points specifically to technologies that generate epistemic artefacts providing a material representation in the digital world of agents’ intangible ideas. Online, such artefacts can be seen specificially as text or discourse objects (Bartel & Garud 2003). So through TEPL using social software, practices are interactions between people and these discourse objects (Orlikowski 2007; Hussenot & Missonier 2010). This interaction can be understood as a process of learning where actors in a network (Aceto et al 2010, p6):

…learn by making and developing connections (intentionally or not) between ideas, experiences, and information, and by interacting, sharing, understanding, accepting, commenting, creating and defending their own opinions, their viewpoints, their current situations and their daily experiences.

Furthermore, such objects and interactions generate consequences that are separate from the intentions of the original authors (Alvesson and Skoldberg 2009, p234).

Lawless et al (2011) describe human resource development as a social and discursive construct. HRD as a can be seen as a practice that is defined by how it is discussed and what discursive resources are mobilised in the practice of HRD (Francis 2007).

This paper explores how HRD practices are assembled in networks (Fenwick 2010) in open online environments for TEPL. The study research sites are two regular open Twitter “chat” events focused on HRD practices and as a learning resource for participating in the events. The research approach uses Actor-Network Theory as a socio-material and practice framework operationalised using Discourse Analysis. The research analyses the interactions between people and discursive objects to explore how HRD practices are identified and framed.

The research finds that specific networks evolved within the “chat” events as actors sought the enrolment of others through processes of translation (Mitev 2009). The dominant discourses of HRD as performance based were replicated (Lawless, et al 2011; Francis 2007). Common discursive repertoires between the two sets of event participants were identified and a number of common viewpoints taken as black-boxed “givens” that acted as obligatory passage points for participants to pass through to be enrolled in specific networks. Clear positions of identity discourses emerged to differentiate members from “others” outside the specific communities (Bragd et al 2008). Noted ‘other’ actors included (pejoratively) ‘management’ and ‘regulations/ compliance’ requirements. A distinction could also be noted in how certain HRD practices were discussed as being for a more particular group of actors able to engage effectively in self-directed learning as against those perceived as lacking the competences to engage in such learning activities.

Rather than realizing the democratic potential of the “architecture for participation” of web 2.0 (Martin et al 2007), the research found that strategies for the containment or management of discursive struggles were often mobilised (Alvesson & Deetz 2000; Alesson & Wilmott 2002) to generate a “co-ordinated management of meaning” (Oswick & Robertson 2009, p186) in the framing of HRD practices. So, as has been argued with workplace learning in general, these open environments for professional development are socially constructed and regulated learning spaces (Billet 2004, p320). Discourse objects act as boundary objects (Denham 2003), a space of negotiation, translation and tensions between actors where (Antonacopoulou 2005, p5):

…tensions capture both the socio-political forces as well as the ‘elasticity’ and fluidity of organizing as different processes and practices connect to provide new possibilities.

Furthermore, the framing of HRD practices could not be identified through the development of a single discourse object but rather as an accumulation of micro-practices of individual actors (Pachler & Daly 2009). So the learning network assemblages framing HRD practices can be understood as textscapes (Keenoy and Oswick 2004) whereby HRD practices can be understood in a particular way in that particular virtual space at that particular time. Thus, a focus of analysis is placed on what Scardamalia & Bereitner (2008) termed ‘ideational content’ focusing on the linkages and patterns between utterances rather than specific text objects themselves. Actors could be identified operating as generalisers summarizing and “black-boxing” certain practices while localisers attempting to translate generalized practices to local micro contexts (Nicolini 2009). So HRD practice can be framed as rhizomatic (Cormier 2008) in that is shaped, reshaped and negotiated by actors in the practice at that time and space.

So it is suggested here that HRD practices can be conceived as the practices of the bricoleur who (Wiseman 2000):

…works with materials that are always second hand … The bricoleur is in possession of a stock of objects (a “treasure”). These possess “meaning” in as much in as much as they are bound together by a set of possible relationships, one of which is concretised by the bricoleur’s choice.

This paper argues that analysing the discursive strategies of actors in open web 2.0 spaces provides an opportunity to analyse discourses of HRD practices as they emerge through the interaction of actors within networks; that these networks and learning practices extend beyond specific organisational or institutional boundaries and that these discursive practices are rhizonomic and hence what can be framed as practices of HRD is in a constant state of fluidity. HRD practices can be understood as bricolage whereby HRD practice is constantly in an “interactive moment” (Shotter 1993, p3). However, it is also suggested that such networks of HRD practices are sites of discursive struggles that can be (unconsciously) contained to inhibit expansive learning (Fuller & Unwin (2004) and constrain new opportunities.  Furthermore, this paper argues that HRD practices and practitioners need to engage with the flows of knowledge interactions and artefacts as they form wider networks of learning that flow beyond, across and between the traditional boundaries of the organisational structure.

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