Reflections on a Research Practicum

By

Brian Gore

A Research Practicum submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Masters in New Professional Studies: Organizational Learning

George Mason University

1999-2000

Approved by  Don Lavoie

Chairperson of Supervisory Committee

 

 

Program Authorized
to Offer Degree:  Program on Social and Organizational Learning

Date


George Mason University

Abstract

An appreciative approach to understanding the power of tech-talk

by Brian Gore

Chairperson of the Supervisory Committee: Professor Don Lavoie

Department of PSOL

 

This paper is three-fold. Somewhere in the middle is the content of a research project conducted at the National Academies entitled “An Appreciative Approach to Understanding the Power of Tech-Talk”.  The data in this paper is extremely valuable and provides some significant insights into the relationships between technical help personnel and computer users.

The paper represents a tremendous amount of effort as well. Due to some challenges ranging from institutional policies governing studies of this nature to rounding up participants and the “politics” of doing research in one’s own workplace, the value-added as a result of reflecting on this project “out-loud” may be greater than the project itself. So, I will spend some time reflecting on the original intent of the project along with the proposed methodology. Then, “in the middle”, I will share the major portion of the paper and, finally, close with reflections on topics such as how the project actually went, thoughts on appreciative inquiry and the hazards of doing research at work.

 

The first chapter, Getting Started, reflects on the original project proposal and how I saw the research and the paper evolving. This project was full of surprises to one who has had little experience with the research process.

 

The second chapter includes the bulk of the Final Draft of the paper, excluding reflective sections that may now be more suited to the Reflections portion of this expanded paper.

 

Then, in the chapter titled What Really Happened?, I will talk about how the research and resulting paper compare with the original plan along with some discussion about the challenges with Appreciative Inquiry and doing it at work without a “Champion”.

 

And finally, a summary of the whole experience entitled, Appreciating the Whole Experience. It is important to recognize the value of the whole experience, even though the project may be viewed as incomplete.

This entire paper may be read in one of two ways. First, feel free to simply read through its entirety from front to back. Otherwise, you may wish to read the text of the original project before reading chapters 1, 3, and 4. I actually suggest the latter to allow you to make your own judgment on its merits before reading my reflections on it.

Then after reading, feel free to share your own reflections in some way, whether it be silently, by writing down thoughts, or finding a way to communicate these to me directly. My E-mail address is included here for this purpose (bgore@erols.com).

 

 

 


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Getting Started: With Eyes Wide Shut

Chapter 2 - An Appreciative Approach to Understanding the Power of Tech-          Talk

Chapter 3 - What Really Happened?

Chapter 4 - Appreciating the Whole Experience

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank his Wife and Children for their rugged endurance and patient support.

To his peers, for their faithful friendship and the support we provided one another as adult learners.

To the Faculty of PSOL, for their guidance through a process that he thought would have ended by now.

To those at the National Academies who participated in the project as interviewees and members of the initial AI group. This was challenging to do at work - Thank You!

 


Chapter 1

Getting Started: With Eyes Wide Shut

Reflections on the original project proposal and how I saw the research and the paper evolving. This project was full of surprises to one who has had little experience with the research process.

 

The original proposal called for 30 individuals to participate at various levels of the project. Initially, 20 would participate in the group session where stories would be shared and the "core values" or, in this case the characteristics of a positive technical exchange, would be hashed out. I also had some fairly strict guidelines imposed by the legal folks at the NAS that governed non-Academy sponsored studies. While this was understandable, the guidelines stifled some of my initial ideas about gathering participants. So, the workgroup that came up with the initial characteristics consisted of three people. Prior to this I had conducted five electronic-based surveys, asking the typical AI questions and those same questions asked in the group session. These responses tended to support one another so I felt confident that they were fairly accurate, at least for this group.

Another aspect of the proposal called for 10 individuals to participate in verification interviews intended to validate the results of the initial AI group. Of course, the reality was that electronic surveys and the AI group both occurred prior to the verification interviews.

While these interviews held fairly true to the findings of the two previous data gathering methods, I am not sure how much the results were impacted by this change of method.

Some individuals seemed resistant to the electronic survey after expressing interest in a group session where ideas might be exchanged. I am unsure whether these individuals changed their minds about participating in the project as a result of this change or whether this would have happened when it actually came time to participate in some way anyway.

So, my initial projections about how many people I would be able to gather were much too optimistic. I felt constrained to use some fairly passive methods for inviting participation. I avoided personal relationships and instead posted a message in an all-staff database inviting participation. All those who responded already knew me personally except for one, who turned out to be one of the most valuable participants of all.

Because I had not anticipated such problems in getting participants I found the resulting obstacle almost impassable. I panicked, actually, at the wonder of how I would accomplish the project with so few people. So, the first lesson for me comes from my lack of preparation in the face of adversity. Having a Plan B and possibly even a Plan C may have lowered my stress level and allowed me to continue much more smoothly when participants were not as forthcoming as I had anticipated. Another note here: this number was fairly arbitrary, as I really had no idea how many participants would be necessary nor how many would be available and willing.

So, while I was optimistic and excited about talking people about the topic and making an attempt at applying Appreciative Inquiry on my own, I was ill-prepared in some of the finer points of conducting research.

In Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Annis Hammond reminds us that “to begin to understand Appreciative Inquiry, … you have to understand the role of assumptions in organizations”. My assumptions regarding the ability and willingness of several people to participate proved overly optimistic. I don’t apologize for this but note only the importance of assumptions and the need check them carefully. In hindsight, it seems useful to have someone to bounce some of these ideas around with. My proposal adviser asked me about the number of people and I thought I could do it. I thought so because that is my orientation to the world. Feeling this out at work may have proven more insightful but, at this point, that is speculative hindsight – and not even 20-20!

Regarding my optimism – I believe that this is in harmony with the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry, which seeks to find the positive. Taken too far, one can be blinded to potential problems. In reflecting on her experience as a change management consultant enlightened by the AI method, Hammond suggests that asking AI questions provides her with the information that she needs, but leaves the organization with the “confirmed knowledge, confidence, and inspiration that they did well, and will continue to do well with a heightened awareness of what works. Not only do I have new eyes, but, hopefully others do too.

I think that I have done well, and this reflective process will help me to see with new eyes. Dr. Tojo Joseph Thatchenkery in A Guide to Appreciative Organizational Analysis, refers to the distinction that Gabriel Marcel makes between problem and mystery. “A problem is something to be fixed”, he says and, “there is very little to appreciate in a problem other than getting rid of it or solving it” (p.4).

My point here is really a warning: Although Appreciative Inquiry is a positive-oriented method, the AI consultant cannot be so blinded by optimism that he cannot foresee “problems”. My perspective was so positive that it occurred to me that only positive things could happen. I would also say that if one is going to err, that this is the direction one should go. While it may make completing a paper and getting a good grade challenging, the resulting new and more positive approach is well worth any other aggravation!

In this project I made a choice to play the “believing game” as opposed to the “doubting game”, as Peter Elbow describes (Thatchenkery, p.7). This is related to where the title for this section came from. My eyes were wide open to the believing and the possibilities that I foresaw. I was also extremely excited about conducting a project of this kind – something I had never before done. Yet, my eyes were very much closed to the challenges that waited to befall me ahead. I hope that this is also useful to the first-time researcher who attempts this kind of project.

One pivotal point occurred very early in the project and is reflected on some in the original paper. That is: the decision to distribute an electronic survey after several original group members decided to not participate. This really took the “low road”, hoping to easily capture some data to get started with. I felt so behind the curve as it was that this method was too tempting to pass up. Starting early enough when there is a prescribed time limit to work with is obviously essential. I had identified a time line in the proposal, but this was completely obliterated from all reality very early on.

Again however, optimism kept me going. Because this is a quality-oriented program it is easy to be fooled into thinking that whatever one does is quality. There are active proponents of this, although I am not purposely one of them (though it may appear so at times). I think about quality time with my children. My 5-year old son yearns for time playing castle or baseball. But frankly, 10 minutes of really quality castle playing just simply is not enough! He needs some significant time regularly and frequently – as do my two daughters. It takes time to create quality!

So it is with this project. I did not really appreciate the connection between quantity and quality (really, not until my advisor pointed this out to me in subtle ways) and found it difficult to adjust when what I thought was quality – and still do – could not be supported by quantity. This is something that I appreciate much more now than I ever have and I am glad for that.

Though not technically a case study, this AI project was designed with particularistic  qualities as defined by Sharan B. Merriam in her book, Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. This design is especially good for "practical problems--for questions, situations, or puzzling occurrences arising from everyday practice". For me, these technical relationship and language questions are extremely puzzling. And while the scope of the "problem" is very broad, I was particularly interested in the specific situation here at the NRC and trying to "concentrate attention on the way specific groups of people confront specific problems …" (Merriam, p.29).

With several individuals participating, this seems viable. The intention was to have a large enough group to support a claim that results were representative of the entire institution. It is possible that many of these characteristics hold true in other groups as well, but my intention was to focus on my own workplace.  

Several concepts that Mishler talks about went to into my preparations for conducting this project. Mishler talks a about the interviewer's frameworks of meaning as something that people have to be able to accept working within for interviews to be successful (Mishler, p.54). I expected that my enthusiasm would rub off and infect those who participated. I also anticipated that, since I share much of the frustration that accompanies computer use, many people would be excited about the project as an opportunity to talk about computers and the way they get help. As a result, I think that I may have assumed that this shared meaning already existed. My initial presentation was intended to familiarize people with the process more than creating any shared meaning. It is possible that the positive outcomes of this process were as ambiguous to the group as they were to me given the challenges related with getting the project off the ground. If this were the case people could feel initially excited about being part of a forum for sharing issues about computers and computer-related communication but could not see the long-term benefit of their participation. Even for me at this point I suspect that this project will be a great learning experience for me with little hope for wide impact in my work environment.

Along with shared meaning I think come shared understanding - understanding what I mentioned regarding the potential impact of this project. Obviously, the hope in doing this project was not only for me to gain experience in a field that I am extremely interested in, but that the project might make a difference for people in their everyday work lives. If I were to state the top motivation for me to do good work, it would be to do meaningful work that will make a difference for someone. So this was the motivation for the project. I wondered early that, instead of shared meaning and understanding, some participants were more interested in a forum for complaint rather than really being part of a larger process. This assumption may seem unfair, but given the dropout rate, I have seen this as a major factor in weeding people out early.

Again, this was such an exciting prospect to apply Appreciative Inquiry among employees at the National Academies – a place of prestige in the scientific community – that I could almost not see straight! Enthusiasm is a wonderful gift, and can be contagious (but shouldn’t be laid on too thick)! I was enthused about this project and looked forward to the opportunity. I thought of this as a first attempt at the consulting world that so many of my PSOL associates were already involved with. I think this idea has been tempered as a result of my experience, but the thought of aiding organizational change in a positive way is still a very real hope for me. I saw myself as a rookie looking to make a name for myself and begin building a portfolio of experience and credentials. Maybe I missed the point somewhat by looking so far ahead though I can’t say necessarily that my focus was wrong or misdirected. I do recognize that my ambition may have affected my ability to see what was happening, but I’m not sure that I would have known what to do in some of these trouble spots anyway. I think I can spell rookie with a capital ‘R’!

I think that the scope of this project was something that I was somewhat blind to. I had done AI with a group and so I was fairly confident that I could follow the steps and make this work on my own. This process requires a lot of work, a lot of thought. On paper, my proposal made it look fairly easy, in fact, and given the shared meaning that I assumed already existed this seemed straightforward. The challenging reality was a different story indeed! This AI project turned out to be a surprisingly much larger animal than I had thought. The interpersonal aspects were appealing to me while the rigor of this kind of research was something I knew nothing about.  

I played baseball, football, a little soccer, and wrestled as a child and young adult. Visualizing in sports is a powerful way of preparing for competition. Learning skills and practice are vital requisites if this is to be effective. After all, one must know what to visualize! In looking at this project I visualized my actions and those of the potential participants. Visualizing problems was not part of the process in preparing for sports and I did not visualize problems with AI either. There goes that blind enthusiasm again!

But winning at sports is all about overcoming obstacles. Visualizing a touchdown run or a stolen base includes overcoming the obstacles that would impede progress. Something I knew about were the obstacles involved in stealing second base (and third occasionally). Something that I didn't know about were the obstacles I might encounter along the way. This for me stresses the importance of having time to build a foundation of experience so that when visualization occurs it is not glossed over by images that portray success without obstacles. An additional help would be to have a partner in the process.

In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, the authors share an image of the Chinese characters that represent Learning. The two characters mean to study, and to practice constantly, respectively. The character for to study  is represented by symbols that represents a child in a doorway and means, to accumulate knowledge. The other symbol, meaning to practice constantly, shows a bird that is developing the ability to leave the nest. One part of the symbol represents flying, the other youth.

Senge, et al., goes on to explain that the root for the English word for learning held similar meaning - that learning is a lifelong process. For me, I jumped right out of the nest with periods of flying and crashing. Using these symbols to define learning, however, I can say that for this process has the potential of being a lifelong opportunity for learning. The lead time prior to taking on the project was fairly short, but given the opportunity to reflect on this at some length I not only will salvage my grade but, more importantly, I will hopefully be able to fly even just a little further next time!

 

Chapter 2

An Appreciative Approach to Understanding the Power of Tech-Talk

The bulk of the Final Draft of the paper, excluding reflective sections that may now be more suited to the Reflections portion of this expanded paper.

The following several pages include the substance of the original project. The paper has been left in it’s original form to the extent possible including hypertext links, web formatting, and  some color. Occasionally you may spot what sounds like an apology for not having enough participants or for making a slight modification in the process. These and other references to trouble spots in the project will not be hyper-linked together, but one should pay attention to them and recall general references to these in other parts of the paper.

You may also find some ideas duplicated in portions of Chapters 1, 3, and 4. While I have made some effort to add some very reflective portions of the original paper within the text around it, I have not been concerned too much about finding all references. Because I believe that the original paper still holds much value, I hope to preserve it here as much as possible so that the reflection around it makes sense and so that you as the reader can see the original project.

This original paper represents the process, the learning and though unintentionally, draws some attention to the challenges of the project. I should also say here that despite these challenges, which is why this “packaging” is being written around it, this was an extremely fulfilling and meaningful project. I hope that this is evident in the following text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Appreciative Approach to Understanding the Power of Tech-talk

A Research Project conducted at

The National Research Council

 

Purpose


The purpose of this analysis is to describe and profile both the power and the most helpful uses of technical language. Through this analysis, the most helpful methods for communicating technical language as well as some suggestions for improvement will be extracted and analyzed through a method know as Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The term Core Values will be used to describe the most meaningful Characteristics of the technical-based exchange. Also, the AI process has been modified somewhat to accommodate the following: 1) the focus on technical language and the exchange between technical (computer-related only) and the "end-user" and, 2) some restrictions guiding this research project at the National Research Council.

 

Disclaimer


The use of this data will be used in accordance with NRC Guidelines regarding non-sanctioned studies. It should also be noted that this study and its contents are the sole responsibility of the author, Brian Gore, and that the National Research Council has not commissioned this study nor given consent for the publication of the results. Appendix contains a memo from The Office of the General Counsel regarding specific guidelines.

  

Appreciative Inquiry Consultant:

Brian Gore

LRNG 792 – Spring 1999

George Mason University

Adviser – Dr. Don Lavoie

 

 

Table of Contents

Overview of Appreciative Inquiry

Organizational Profile

Analysis Methodology

Results

Discussion and Interpretations

Implications

Possibilities

Possibility Propositions

Conclusions

Surprises and Special Learning

More Questions: A Theoretical Bent

Appendix A - Consent Form / Questionnaire

Appendix B - Electronic Responses

Appendix C - Selected Bibliography

Appendix D - Memo from General Counsel

Original Practicum Proposal

 

 

Appreciative Inquiry


Appreciative inquiry is a philosophy for change. It assumes that within every organization, something works. By identifying what works, change can be managed more easily through these areas that work. Rather than the traditional theory of "Change Management," that looks at/for the problem in an organization and focusing on what’s wrong or broken, appreciative inquiry looks at what is right in the organization. What works is key to appreciative inquiry. The methodology for AI is simple. Through a collective gathering of employees/people, moments of success are shared and discussed, creating positive energy. Taking that positive energy and turning it into a "living process" is how AI works. Since the statements are from real people and are real experiences, the success can be repeated. This approach is used by organizations to discover, understand, and foster positive innovations in organizational processes. To apply AI the following six steps of are followed:

  Step 1. Identification of organizational core values or life giving forces (LGF’s). (This step takes place in a 2-3hour session with a group of about 20 people).

Step 2. Expansion of core values or LGF’s using interviews designed and conducted by an AI team of consultants. (Once the core values are identified, find which ones sustain the LGF’s.)(This is accomplished through the appreciative interview.)

Step 3. Thematic analysis of the data undertakes organizational analysis. (A model is developed to frame the organizational analysis. A matrix is developed and agreed upon, then the LGF’s or core values are matched against organizational factors.)

Step 4. Constructing possibility propositions. (States ‘what is’ rather than, ‘what might be’. This step recognizes and focuses on what organizational practices maximize the potential for participation. Then the ‘what is’ is expanded to "what might be".)

Step 5. Consensual validation of the propositions. (This is where a survey is conducted based on what was set between possibility propositions in Step 4 to gauge them, and tabulation is performed afterwards to prioritizes those propositions in the organization.)

Step 6. Creating and mandating an implementation team. (This is the most important step in the AI process. Groups must begin implementation either through individuals, teams or committees.

These six steps are a small part of the AI process. Ideally throughout the process appreciation, focus, envisioning, open dialogue and innovation are all occurring. What an organization focuses on becomes reality.

 

Consistent with my intention to focus on computer-related interactions between technical support people and end-users (as people who actually use computers are so labeled), some steps will be modified and the use of the terms Life Giving Forces (LGF) and core values will be substituted with the term Characteristics, to denote desirable characteristics of a technical help-related interchange from the end-user perspective.

Organizational Profile


The National Academy of Sciences is a non-profit organization chartered by the Congress of the United States in 1863, by order of the President, Abraham Lincoln. The charter requires the Academy to provide the US Government with Scientific advice. Thus the current nickname; Advisers to the Nation. Since the original charter, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council have joined the NAS to form what is now known as The Academy Complex. The National Research Council constitutes the operating arm of the Academies, and is staffed by more than 1,200 employees who provide support to the research of the Academy member’s and other scholars who participate in the work of the Academy. The organization structure of the Academy is fairly complex, and organization charts depicting the Program Organization and the Administrative Organization are attached for reference. Also, you may click on the links and view the charts directly from the NAS website. Other charts depicting various organizational structures may also be viewed via links from the pages referenced above.

 

The President of the National Academy of Sciences also serves as Chairman of the National Research Council, and various Executive Offices serve to support the staff and program functions of the NRC. These offices include the President’s Office; NRC Executive Officer; NAS Executive Officer; Office of General Counsel; Office of Congressional and Government Affairs; Office Public Understanding of Science; Office of News and Public Information. It is among these offices, along with one program unit – the Commission on Physical Sciences and Mathematics Applications - that this research was conducted.

 

Another fascinating element of the Academy is its academic, collegial environment, seemingly mixed with a government agency "feel" to it. Eighty percent of the studies and reports generated by this non-profit organization of scholars in the medical, engineering, and natural sciences are requested by United States government agencies. As a result, the perception is that this organization is characterized by many qualities unique to both academic institutions and government agencies alike.

 

The Office of Information and Technology Services (ITS) provides such services to the entire institution. One characteristic of this is that the program and administrative units of the NRC pay a tech rate for such services as computers; network connectivity; internet; computer support; Help Desk services; application development; much like a typical contractor relationship. However, technology-related employees are fully employed by the NRC just as all other NRC staff. A basic rate paid per computer residing on a user desktop provides certain services to the units. Special requests such as website development, custom application development, are paid for at a specified rate. The NRC units become "paying customers" as a result of this relationship and, as such, have high expectations. They want to be sure, and rightly so, that they receive services commensurate with the costs so associated.

 

Analysis Methodology


The initial methodology as outlined in the attached document entitled "Practicum Proposal", was modified to accommodate both the needs of the National Research Council staff who participated in the study as well as organizational, time, and legal restraints as provided by the Academy’s Office of the General Counsel (see attached). 

 

The original plan required the use of a "slightly modified version of a technique called Appreciative Inquiry. A summary of the process is attached. The modification extends only to the point that participants will be asked to limit their initial "stories" to those of a technical nature; experiences when technology and technology support people were helpful, and why. Normally, participants would be asked to share a generic experience illustrating when they felt valued, excited, etc.

 

Data Collection and Instrumentation – In the process of Appreciative Inquiry, I will gather two separate groups of ten (10) participants each to share initial stories for the gathering of themes or values related to technology-based experiences. The second phase of the study will include interviews of a separate group of twenty (20) participants to "verify" the themes. I am hopeful that some of the participants in the first phase will help to facilitate the second phase. I will need to study the impact this may have on the latter’s responses.

 

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, access to users, and some legal restrictions, the AI process was modified even further as outlined below.

 

Thirteen users initially committed verbally to participate in the project. The process and the intention were explained to each individual. Most expressed a sincere and enthusiastic interest in participating. Due to the constraints listed above, the initial group meeting was canceled. I then sent an E-mail to each participant that included the following:

PowerPoint presentation explaining AI methodology and process

Interview Consent Form

Interview Questions

Each participant was informed of the changes to the process and the reason for this departure from that previously explained to them.

 

Along, with the electronic forms, I also had face-to-face conversations with five participants who did not respond to the electronic survey. Of the thirteen original participants, five responded to the electronic, five were informally interviewed face-to-face, two participants requested that they be excused from the project, and one participant left employment at the NRC and did not participate in the project at all.

 

Data from the electronic responses were analyzed for various themes that could be interpreted as Core Values for the purposes of the AI Model. Also extracted from the data were Characteristics, which replace the traditional AI Factors that Enhance Core Values. These Characteristics represent aspects of the technical interchanges described in the interviews. Therefore, the AI Matrix describes Values and the Characteristics of the technical interchange that Enhance those values.

 

Those users who did not respond to the electronic survey were asked the following triggering question:

 

What about the electronic process made it challenging for you to respond?

 

After this initial question, some of the other questions originally on the survey were asked, but generally the conversation was allowed to flow around the difficulties I now assumed - but had not anticipated - that people had with the electronic survey. Responses to these conversations are recorded and Analyzed in the Section titled Surprises and Special Learning.

 

It should also be noted that even conducting informal interviews posed a time problem. All of the users are extremely busy with many managing the offices and schedules of Academy executives. Notes were not taken during these interviews in an effort to allow the process to be as natural as possible.

 

 

Results


 The results of the study were actually not very surprising. The assumptions outlined in the Practicum Proposal which prompted the study were strongly supported. However, the objective of the study was not to verify the assumptions but to provide some insights into the characteristics that compose a positive and helpful interchange between technical support personnel and the computer user.

 

Following is a list of Themes that I extracted from the stories shared by those who responded to the electronic survey form. An * next to an item denotes that this theme was noted more than once by a given respondent. A + means that the theme was listed by more than one respondent.

 

Availability (of Technology)

Productivity (Technology Increases) +

Calm

Professional

Simple English ++

Technical Terms Explained +

Learning Opportunity (for User) + *

Technical Skill (of Techie)

Team Effort (Techie and User) *

Patience + *

Trust

Confidence

Communication

Understanding (of Techie)

Competence (of Techie)

Helpful Attitude

Time

Knowledge Sharing +

In extracting the data, it was interesting to note that 4 of the 5 respondents alluded that they hoped to be a part of the process of solving the problem. One respondent stated that he/she had never received help from a technical person. This was an interesting because I have personally been involved in situations where technical help was provided to this individual. I have worked hard to not regard this as a personal affront, but I am also still trying to make some sense of this response. At some moment that "seems" right, I will ask the respondent about this answer. It is hard to tell whether the individual may have misunderstood the question or simply found it difficult to put an experience into words.

 

Several characteristics were verified as key elements by the five interviewees who did not respond to the electronic survey. The top four are listed on the graphic in the Discussion and Interpretations section. However, four of these five individuals shared the view that fixing the problem quickly was the most important element, and that how it was done and any learning gained was not important. As a note, from personal experience, all of these users generally prefer what we call deskside assistance in trouble situations.

 

Clearly the priority for people is to have their problems resolved quickly. There are certainly differences in preference as to how this occurs and much depends on the particular situation. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough data in this study to reach any concrete conclusions.

Discussion and Interpretations


Thematic Analysis/Implications

 

Examples of Factors that Enhance Technical Communications (Figure I)

 

Characteristics: Þ Factors That Enhance Them:ß

Plain English

Courtesy

Knowledge

Understanding of Problem by Techie/User

 Attitude of Techie

 Helpful

 

 

 Patient

Attitude of User

 

 

 Desire to Learn

 Patient

Learning Opportunity

 

 

 

 

Timeliness

 

 

 

 

Resolution

 

 

 Quickly

 

  

 

I was disappointed when several users opted not to participate in this project after initially committing enthusiastically to the project. After some careful reading along with some insightful discussions with Dr. Lavoie, I have a better idea now of some things that may have happened. The fact that more than half of the original candidates did not participate along with some reasons that may have contributed to this have had significant impact on the study. One obvious result is that there is simply not as much data as originally anticipated. So, some of the interpretations and discussion result not only from the data but from these other factors as well. For these reasons, this discussion seems to fit best here.

 

As some users either did not respond in a timely manner or expressed their desire not to participate, time demanded that the process change some, as outlined earlier in this paper. The original group discussion was replaced by a standard questionnaire which was distributed electronically. I had not anticipated that the way the questions were asked would have such an impact on the response. D. Nadler made a comparison between various methods of data collection(Cummings and Worley; p.114). The four major potential problems he associates with the questionnaire method follow:

1. Nonempathy

2. Predetermined questions/missing issues

3. Overinterpretation of data

4. Response bias

 

One user expressed all of these problems in her response to my electronic query:

"I have not had a 'positive experience' where I understood and used technology well. I may not be the person to respond to these questions. The questions are so obviously asked in such a way that you will get positive responses only."

 

It seems that the restriction that seems to be placed on users by asking them to recall a situation when they understood and used technology well was flawed, and overwhelming for this user. One of my assumptions is/was that most of us do not understand technology well at all. Secondly, that my questions were geared to solicit only positive experiences also caused a problem. I had made an assumption that people would enjoy the opportunity to share positive experiences. This proved difficult for all respondents, and two users stated this specifically in slightly different ways.

 

Also, this method seemed to provide users a blank sheet on which they were required to provide some positive experience about the "thing" they were required to use in drafting responses: their computers. In my personal interactions with all of these users, I recognize frustration levels of varying degrees regarding the use of computer equipment. The group interaction would probably have provided a much less threatening environment and a refreshing break from their computers. We might ask who wants to talk about computers using a computer?

 

The NRC recently completed the organization-wide upgrade to Microsoft Office 97. For many this caused tremendous stress. WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS users are feeling particularly threatened. According to the Force-Field Analysis method, a derivative of Kurt Lewin's three-step mode of change, Group Performance Norms, Well Learned Skills, and Member Complacency are all factors in resisting change (Cummings & Worley; p.125. As a group of sensitive users, these factors must come in to play as we "force" software upgrades upon them.

These factors also appear to come into play within the context of this study. As some users recognized the real impact and intention of the research, I wonder if there was some concern that these areas might be threatened. Afterall, if we make things better as a result of our efforts, we will be accountable for that input which may require an increase of output and the learning of new skills. It is hard to say exactly what is going in people's minds without asking them directly. Even then, one would be hard-pressed to flesh out all of the root causes of behavior.

 

My own sense is that software upgrades threaten these areas; that discussions about how to use technology well threaten these areas; and that sharing information about what works well may be used as evidence for driving the user community further from their comfort zone. Professor Yasmin Kafai, in briefing an NRC committee assembled to address information technology literacy, stated that the term "fluency connotes the ability to reformulate knowledge, to express oneself creatively and appropriately, and to produce and generate information (CSTB/NRC; p.viii; 1999). This concept of "cluency" could potentially create some apprehension for computer users. Many already feel intimidated by the machine that occupies their desktop. But many also feel "fluent" in the processes that they have "memorized" to accomplish certain tasks. Events that appear to threaten ones fluency must certainly exacerbate any previously existing feelings.

 

Implications


This data along with the attending discussion and interpretations denote several significant implications, not only for the NRC but for all technical organizations that provide support to computer users. The assertion in the Practicum Proposal as originally suggested by Dr. Lavoie is that techies and users appear to be operating within a system that does not necessarily promote cooperation and understanding. In short, the road that can bridge the apparent gap between the techies and the community of computer users is certainly a two-way street.

 

Techies become expert in understanding how computers work and in navigating their interfaces. But, this does not require that the techie understand the business of the user. Conversely, users know what it is that they want to accomplish but have been given a tool to help without having a good grasp of how these tools work. The what and the how don't seem to always connect nicely. Computers want to "force" users into accomplishing the user's objective in a predefined way. This may account for the many forms of vain use of the name of Bill Gates. 

 

Candace Sidner of Lotus Development Corporation admits that "today's user interfaces are just too hard to use". She continues, "they are too complex even for the narrow range of users for whom they were designed (More Than Screen Deep; p. 315). Ms. Sidner made this assertion in a Proposition Paper submitted for a study conducted by the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council. Now, what chance do we have to close the gap I have discussed when an executive from the developer of Lotus Notes software makes such an admission? And who are these interfaces designed for? It appears that these interfaces were designed for a few users who "fit the profile of use for current interfaces" (NRC; p.319), whatever that really means.

 

Ms. Sidner suggests that the lack of research in the areas of "human discourse communication" and of "human-to-human collaboration" and thus the lack of application of these principles to the design of user interfaces contribute to their lack of usability. Dr. John Warfield, Professor at George Mason University, asserted in a lecture from his course entitled, "Resolving Complexities in Organizations, that the main problem with software to day is that it is not designed at all. Conversely, more research in these areas would "offer a means of integrating various modalities and of extending the range of computer users (NRC; p.315). She also suggest that industry will be less interested in this type of research because the payoff is questionable (NRC; p. 317). Consequently, government and institutions such as the National Research Council are in a position to make an impact in this important area. A collaboration between developers and designers may have to occur to bring us closer to interfaces that more closely resemble the natural processes of human discourse (see Possibility Propositions 6 & 7).

 

Possibilities


In many typical consulting models, this section would most likely be entitled "Recommendations". Having identified problems, the natural next step for the Consultant would be to recommend changes, or fixes for the organization’s problems.

 

Previously, the implications and interpretation of the results of this inquiry are represented in a matrix (Figure I) which references the relationship between particular Organizational Factors and the Core Values, otherwise known as Life Giving Forces (LGF’s). The results of this thematic analysis represent the status quo, or the "What Is", in the AI Model.

 

From this perspective then, the natural next step is to reflect "What Will Be". As the previous matrix illustrates the relationship between Organizational Factors and the LGF’s, the following matrix (figure II) shows Propositions related to factors that enhance the Core Values (LGF’s).

 

Speaking in the form of possibilities does not always translate well in technical environments. We work in a world of numbers, quantifiable and measurable define how we might gather information and what of that information is actually usable. A recent discussion regarding user surveys resulted in the rejection of the idea based on the several factors: 1) that responses would have to be read, 2) that the results would be hard to quantify and measure, 3) that many suggestions would not/could not be implemented anyway. I found this discussion frustrating to say the least. A general lack of willingness to expend some energy to connect with the community that we serve typifies many technical organizations. I would like to say service organizations, but I think that many technical organizations are just not there yet.

 

So, there is some qualified hope in these possibilities. And with some effort and reorienting toward a service organization, this hope may even be quantified and even measurable and some point in the future. Possibly not in the traditional methods but, who knows, the possibilities are endless!

 

Possibility Propositions


 

Matrix Illustrating Characteristics and Factors that Enhance Them (Figure II)

 

Characteristics: Þ Factors That Enhance Them:ß

Language (Plain English)

Courtesy

Knowledge Sharing

Understanding of Problem

Attitude of Techie

Propositions related to Attitude T that Enhance Language

Propositions related to Attitude T that Enhance Courtesy

Propositions related to Attitude T that Enhance Knowledge

Propositions related to Attitude T that Enhance Understanding

Attitude of User

Propositions related to Attitude U that Enhance Language

Propositions related to Attitude U that Enhance Courtesy

Propositions related to Attitude U that Enhance Knowledge Sharing

Propositions related to Attitude U that Enhance Understanding

Learning Opportunity

Propositions related to LO that Enhance Language

Propositions related to LO that Enhance Courtesy

Propositions related to LO that Enhance Knowledge Sharing

Propositions related to LO that Enhance Understanding

Timeliness

Propositions related to Timeliness that Enhance Language

Propositions related to Timeliness that Enhance Courtesy

Propositions related to Timeliness that Enhance Knowledge Sharing

Propositions related to Timeliness that Enhance Understanding

Resolution

Propositions related to Resolution that Enhance Language

Propositions related to Resolution that Enhance Courtesy

Propositions related to Resolution that Enhance Knowledge Sharing

Propositions related to Resolution that Enhance Understanding

 

Note the complex relationships that exist between all of the Factors and Values. Also, not all relationships include a specific example for the relationship. Those without examples are given for reference only. From this matrix I will extract the relationships which I see as having Possibilities. It may be assumed that among these other relationships, the present, or What Is", already represents What Will Be.

 

These possibilities will be illustrated from the matrix in the form of Possibility Propositions, as opposed to Recommendations. These Proposed Possibilities will be for the client to use as desired.

 

Proposition 1:

As part of the ITS philosophy, we do not assume that all computer users understand completely, nor do we expect them to, how it is that the computer technology they use works. We appreciate that for them computers are a tool, not "the job". Recognizing that computers are much easier to use if we understand some basic concepts, we provide as part of our regular "Brown Bag" training courses, a course in basic computer and network terms and functions.

 

Proposition 2:

We describe those who use computers to do their work as "interacter's", as opposed to mere "users". This attitude helps our technical staff to appreciate and respect those who interact with computers to accomplish the vital mission of the National Research Council. This helps us to shed a more positive light on the abilities of those interacters and on the often difficult challenges that today's computer interfaces present to them.

 

Proposition 3:

We are developing a short-course training program that sensitizes technical employees to the challenges faced by computer interacters. This program is intended to help technical employees appreciate that it is in fact their job to completely understand the computers that are used in the institution. Likewise, it is intended to remind technical employees that it is an unrealistic to expect all interacters (or even a majority) to understand all aspects of the computer and its operations and functions.

 

Proposition 4:

In helping interacters understand the often un-scientific nature of computers, we hope to create an atmosphere of patience and tolerance in resolving problem technical situations. That direct cause and effect relationships are not always clear and that troubleshooting processes can be as much intuitive as logical is a goal of this initiative. Another outcome of this proposition is a more realistic compromise to the often stated expectation: "fix it now!".

 

Proposition 5:

Our technical organization recognizes the community of interacters as customers. As such, each ITS employee recognize him or herself as a customer service representative. As such, a total service orientation exists which absolutely extinguishes any feelings of superiority by technical staff regarding computer interacters. Service is our motto. Customer satisfaction is the Clarion call.

 

Proposition 6:

The ITS organization at the NRC is so serious about customer service, it has commissioned the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board to launch a study in the areas of concern outlined in Candace Sidner's Proposition Paper as part of the NRC publication entitled "More Than Screen Deep". The two areas of focus are:

1. Principles of Human Discourse Communication

2. Principles of Human-to-Human Collaboration

All applications developed "in-house" will be designed based on the findings of such a study.

 

Proposition 7:

In conjunction with Proposition 6, ITS and the NRC are working actively to promote the implementation of the principles of design consistent with the study findings into future revisions of software.

 

Conclusions


The first and, possibly, most obvious conclusion is that doing research at work is a challenging task. A technical person doing research among computer users about the helpful qualities of computer-related exchanges may be considered either brave or fool-hearty! Not because the people among whom the research was conducted, but because this computer world effects everyone. And it effects everyone in different ways. Some people really love using computers to get work done. Others recognize that they cannot get their work done without them. Some want to understand them and make computers really useful tools. Others seem to look behind the computers to the people who build them at write the software they use with as sort of contempt. I can appreciate this because I have my own gripes with the design of so much software and hardware today.

 

Computers are everywhere. Auto mechanics use computers, attorneys use computers, scientists and clerks use computers. At the Academy, there is no shortage of highly educated people who could run circles around computer-related techies in discussions about biology or chemistry or physics. But while average person experiences these things daily, they are somewhat invisible to us. We don't have to how we breathe to do it. We don't have to know the properties of water to drink it or cleanse ourselves with it.

 

But everyone has a computer on his or her desk. It is an in escapable thing that sits on our desks and forces us to do things its way. And so often computer-related techies seem to take advantage of the pervasiveness of the computer in our lives. We have to use them and, in many ways, it is difficult to use one effectively if we don't have some idea of how it works. Put gas in your vehicle, turn the key, and drive along the country enjoying the view. Combustion, voltage, spark, air pressure, cooling, etc. All of these things and more make the car go. But we don't have to understand it all to drive to the grocery store or to Grandma's house. But if want to type a letter to Grandma and send it to her electronically, we may need to understand a little about how the computer works.

 

Not necessarily when everything is going the way we are accustomed. It is when something goes wrong that we find ourselves at the mercy of the techie. While there may be several ways to perform an operation, we may only know one of them. Knowing how the process actually works would provide us with the knowledge to try a new of doing something that may work. Then again, maybe not.

 

Clearly, many are convinced that they do not, cannot, and never will understand computers. As a Techie, I am not sure that I do either. But something in my training and experience guides me through a process of trying a new way if something isn't working right. Computers are a tool, just like a car. And we expect those tools to work properly, and that is fair. We may also wish that they would work the way we want them to and they may never happen. Because people learn differently, like and dislike different things, etc., it is unrealistic to think that this will ever happen. But it appears that these expectations often cause us some difficult in the computer revolution era. Computers also generally do what we tell them to do. And they don't always respond well when we tell them to do something that they are not programmed to do. They will never understand us, so our only choice seems to be to try and understand them. Scary!!

 

Here is an example: An individual was working in a Microsoft Access database. This database had tables and forms. A nice feature allows a user to sort by form. So, while looking at a table, one users attempted to use the Sort by Form feature. Unfortunately, tables are populated by Fields, not Forms. So this function did not work. Well it did sometimes. That was the strange part. This should have NEVER worked in this way. But because it had somehow worked once or twice, the perception when it did not work was that the software, well, wasn't working. It was enlightening for all of us as we learned more about this. So, a frustration that was initially blamed on bad software (and I agree on the point that the function should never work so as not to confuse users regarding its proper use), was merely a result of not having a clear and broad view of how a database works. So, while one may be able to enter data and create a database, interacting effectively with that data may require some deeper conceptual understanding of how databases actually work.

 

So, can we conclude that all users are dummies and don't understand computers? I don't think that would be fair. The computer revolution is moving rapidly and changes daily the way people do their work. People who provide computer support normally understand technology well. People who use technology to try and do their jobs understand their business function very well. But where do the two meet? This is what I am not sure of. We have some more questions to ask, but hopefully this is a good start on the path to bridging the gap between technology and those who support it, and those who use it everyday, often under extremely frustrating circumstances, to accomplish their work.

 

 

Surprises and Special Learning


 

As this section title suggests, I was surprised by several aspects of this study and, consequently, have learned some things I had not anticipated. I also have several unanswered and, in many cases, still unformulated questions. I will make no intentional attempt to draw any conclusions in this section. Rather, I wish to share some of these surprises, learnings, and questions with a hope that this will generate some more discussion that may not only help to fill in gaps in this paper, but also to assist with research processes that may have helped to avoid some of the difficulties of this study. However, I do believe that some of the surprises I encountered may be associated with the technology system that we function and cannot be attributed solely to any flaws in the approach.

 

As stated elsewhere, I was surprised by the shift of enthusiasm for the project by people who had originally committed to participate. I am not angry with these individuals, but I hope that somewhere along the way I can get a better handle on "what happened" that "caused" individuals to withdraw from the study. My initial impression - and resulting from a limited conversation with one user - is that the change in process form group interaction to electronic survey format had an impact on some people's willingness to participate. I have not been able to verify this with those individuals and, because of my work relationship with them, may never feel able to approach this topic. I will be open to opportunities as they arise.

 

Another surprise, and hopefully a learning, was the response by some who stated that they had never had a positive experience using technology and/or with a technical help person. My initial gut reaction to this was along the lines of personal offense. I know that I have helped all of these individuals to some degree with technology. But I was asking the question from my perspective and so, as I reflected on this, recognize that I may have simply asked the question in a way that did not carry the same meaning for them as it did for me. Was it the way the question was phrased, or the format provided for answering the question? One nagging question for me is what results may have been afforded had the original plan for a group session actually occurred? My assumption is/was that as individuals shared positive stories that others would also have been able to "piggy-back" on the stories of others. In this sense they may have realized that they do share positive experiences and that interaction with others may have brought those to light.

 

On the other hand, it is possible that many do not feel that a computer can be a medium for a positive experience. I don't know what basis I have for that feeling except that in my interactions with many computer users, there seems to be an almost constant, antagonistic "relationship" that exists between user and machine. A near-hatred for the computer seems to hang like a shroud over one's ability to recognize the computer as a powerful tool and a useful facilitator of certain activities that would otherwise be much more difficult to accomplish. Among many users, however, talking on the telephone, and face to face conversation are really the "tools of the trade". In this context, the computer may be seen as a hindrance to the more human-oriented, natural course of communication.

 

 More Questions: A Theoretical Bent


This paper highlights some very strong relationships between technical support people and those who use computers, along with characteristics that help (or hinder) the communicative process between the two groups of people. But, simply, there is not enough data to make the solid conclusions along with some possibilities that would satisfy me and my academic adviser while also preserving the integrity of this study and that of the research process as well.

 

So, there are still many questions to ask. This section is intended to provide some theoretical basis for some of the actions described along with conclusions. Some historical background will also shed some light on the progression of technological impact in society. This should be a fascinating journey that will not only serve to fill in some gaps in this paper, but to serve as a catalyst for asking some deeper questions in trying to sort out what appears often to be a cultural clash. Not only between technical people and the users of that technology but also the intrusion of technology into our social systems, changing completely many ways that we function and even the way we think about the world around us.

 

In his book titled Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman illustrates the impact of technology on societies through Plato's story of Thamus and his interaction with the god Theuth. Theuth had invented several useful tools such as number, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing (Postman). Theuth displayed his inventions before the king Thamus, who inquired as to their purpose and use. From Socrates the story goes as follows:

 

"Thamus … judged Theuth's claims to be well or ill founded" and "is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth's inventions. But when it cam to writing, Theuth declared, 'Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.' To this, Thamus replied, 'Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society."

 

Of course, Thamus judged Theuth's "invention" of writing to be a burden while appearing to miss the potential benefits of this discovery. It is fascinating to note their completely opposite perspectives toward this technology. Theuth was enthralled with his invention, while Thamus saw only the downside. Donald Norman describes this phenomena in terms of a machine-centered view of technology and a human-centered view of technology (Norman, p.9). In this case, Thamus was probably over zealous in his wholesale condemnation of the art. Yet, the contrast between the two points of view is undeniable. And the point is well taken and worthy of discussion. Clearly, one side often only recognizes the benefits while the other may only be able to recognize the criticisms. While both are probably valid, they are not sufficient to stand alone. As Thamus and Theuth needed then, and as our techno-culture certainly does today, a recognition of the total impact of any technology on society is vital.

 

The case for computer technology is no different today. Writing was sold by Theuth as a tool for increasing memory, etc. Actually, the opposite is true. Writing, and computers as well, may be viewed as crutches that allow us to forget things with the knowledge that we can retrieve them later. This should not be viewed necessarily as a judgment, for I highly value both writing and the ability to use a computer. It is obviously important to note that any technology will certainly deliver some benefits, but should not be accepted with one's proverbial eyes closed! The impact of technology cannot be measured only in terms of contribution. This crutches metaphor may be also substituted for more favorable ones. Conversely, computers should also allow us to know less, because so much knowledge becomes "embedded" over time. Instead of the computer being looked at as a crutch that allows us to remember less, it may be viewed as a tool that should allow us to remember less, but doesn't always work well.

 

Gutenberg, for example, perfected the printing press, allowing the Bible to be made available to a much larger audience (Postman). Gutenberg surely did not anticipate was the newly found ability of people like Martin Luther to use this technology and its resulting mass-produced book of scripture to poke holes in the religious thinking of the day. Had he anticipated this, would he have proceeded as he did? As Theuth, he only saw what he defined as the good that would result from his invention without - and probably without all the information necessary to do so - considering what he may perceive as undesirable effects resulting from this new technology.

 

There are hundreds of examples of technologies which came about as mankind searched to better his lot in life. The clock, for example, came about as Monks sought to keep a tight schedule for prayer and ritual. As we all know, much of our lives are now regulated by the clock. Time and motion studies, with the clock as the central figure, were meant to help business become more efficient and produce more. This contribution is indisputable. But what has happened to the worker as a result? This represents the qualitative element that is so often missing at the launch of new technology and, possibly even more critical, missing as technologies make their weak effort at assimilating into our societies.

 

Computers do not work the way we work. They do not think at all, but if they did, the process would be much different than our own. And, somehow, this is judged worthy of our acceptance and even our giving in to the demands of the technology. Truly we must question the value of a tool that is not molten with our own hands with our own needs in mind! From the machine-centered perspective (Postman, p.17), the infallible technology provides a form of "unreal knowledge" to the technocrat. But how long will this so-called knowledge be held in such high esteem? Along a similar vein, Donald Norma admits, "… that technology aids our thoughts and civilized lives, but it also provides a mind-set that artificially elevates some aspects of life and ignores others, not based upon their real importance but rather by the arbitrary condition of whether they can be measured scientifically and objectively by today's tools" (Norman, p.15). Likewise in the words of Thamus to Theuth, "the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it" (Postman, p.4). It certainly would not take a genius to see who is preaching the value of computer technology today! But, if anyone needs any help, software vendors and manufacturers of computer hardware are leading the cheering section touting the value of their "wares"!

 

So, what does this discussion have to do with the communication between technical people and the end-user of computers today? From my perspective in a technical support role, this knowledge as power issue provides a strong base from which to operate. An arrogance and even a disconnect from reality (Norman?) is pervasive among technical people. The clash between the machine-centered micro-world and the reality of the human-centered world is stark and often intense. I submit then that much of our communication problems stems not necessarily from a purposeful plot on the part of the technician to exercise some power and control over those who use the technology. Rather, there seems to a problem built into the very nature of technology, why we seek and deploy it, how it is administered, and who understands it. 

 

In our growing world of Knowledge Workers, one world of knowledge that strings possibly all others together is the computer world. So, is it any wonder that some arrogance may exist in the technical world. Opposed to an interdependent relationship, so many fields rely on computer technology to accomplish their work. "You can't work without us and our machines" the computer workers may say. And everyone knows it. Not that this attitude is intentional, the value of technical people can effect the relationship they manage with users.

 

In my organization, a five-thousand dollar reward is available to those who recommend a technical employee who is hired and remains for at least 6 months. This incentive - while possibly necessary - sends a powerful message to the supposed non-technical world. There is no incentive program to recommend experts in the fields of biology, chemistry, or any of the social sciences. While these fields represent the work of the organization, and there are programs to recruit individuals with these skills, the 5 Grand associated with the successful recruitment of a technical employee confirms our suspicions: that technical people are highly valued. And while this is not necessarily a bad thing, the assumptions that technical people make more money and the fact that the organization is willing to pay such an amount for the recruitment of technical employees enhances negative perceptions and aids in widening the gap that seems to already exist between the technical world and the users of that technology.

 

The following is an excerpt from Howard Rheingold's Homepage and seems appropriate here. This experience affirms the concerns of the mythological character Thamus:

 

It's a good thing I chose the first week of June to visit Intercourse, PA, to ask Amish people how they make their rules about tools. Two weeks later, two young Amish males in that vicinity -- "Abner Stoltzfus and Abner King Stoltzfus (no relation)" -- were busted for buying cocaine from the Pagans motorcycle gang and distributing it through Amish youth groups. For a couple of days, reporters from everywhere were in Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Gordinville, and Gap. It wasn't easy finding people who would be willing to speak to me before the bust. It would be impossible now.

 

My brief excursion into the Amish philosophy of technology is in the process of becoming a magazine article, so I probably won't put the full narrative here for a while, but I do want to share a few tidbits that struck me. I visited an Amish-run machine shop -- a place that uses machines, powered by diesel and hydraulic power rather than electricity, to make machines. The owner-operator wore the plain black Amish uniform and the Abe Lincoln beard without a moustache. He handed me a reprint of an interview with Jaron Lanier when I asked him about his philosophy of technology: "I agree with this guy," he said,

"especially the part about it not being possible to build something foolproof, because fools are so clever."

 

This fellow, call him Abner, looked me in the eye and said: "We don't stop with asking what a tool does. We ask about what kind of people we become when we use it."

 

It is probably fair to say that much of our society stops at asking what the tool does, and then we wait for the implications to manifest themselves later. But is it too late then? Should we ask these questions sooner in an effort to design tools - computers and software in this case - in ways that allow them to function in more human, and humane, ways? And here is something to think about:

 

"A systematic rejection of

subjectivity in the name of a

mythical scientific objectivity

continues to reign..."

 

So the cry for objectivity often drowns out the voice that may be trying to scream, as Abner above asks, "wait, what will we become when we use it (new technology?)? This creates problems in many aspects of our lives both morally and otherwise. Objectivity is equated with open-mindedness while questions of why or what or how are viewed as evidence of an old-fashioned mindset that is outdated and needs to be cast out. So, is it surprising that when computer users raise questions or express frustrations that there is often no one there to hear them? The answer is "keep up with progress". And while we should progress, there are many working definitions regarding what progress is.

 

I experimented with some other graduate students on the use of virtual worlds as a way of transferring knowledge. There were powerful experiences associated with this effort. One thing that rang clear was the fact that while the experiences were virtual, not real, the emotions and effects of those experiences were very real indeed. In sharing my experience with some friends, a mother of four children told me that her children were trying to learn how to communicate with each other. This struck me as profound. We are asking an electronic tool for communicating in ways that we may not be capable of doing otherwise. Is this good? Is it bad? Can we really ask a tool to help us accomplish something that we haven't figured out? I wonder if some frustration comes from using a tool that is a weak substitute for the way that humans naturally interact, but that we find difficult to do regardless!

 

 Lest this sound to some like technology-bashing - which it is not meant to be - an excerpt form an article written by Howard Rheingold should help to clarify my view here, which I now share with Mr. Rheingold. As he articulates:

 

How do we find new modes of perceiving technology, new ways to think about, design, and use tools? How can we develop more conscious means for democratic societies to make decisions about technologies? The next step beyond access to tools is access to understanding how to use them. In what directions does that step proceed? How do we start learning to look at the world of technology, and our places in it, in new ways? Before we can hope to achieve answers, we must elevate the level of discourse from an argument between tree-huggers and nuke-lovers. The world is more complicated than that. We need richer, more widespread, less simplistically polarized discourse about technology and social issues, because that is the only kind of environment where viable solutions are likely to emerge (Rheingold)

 

This ideal really will not be able to happen without some cooperative discourse between those who discover and enable technology and those who will eventually use it. Or maybe the nature of those who do the discovering needs to change. Daily I here people say they don't understand technology and could never do what I do. I find this somewhat odd given the extraordinary things some of these people do in their own fields. I wonder what the obstacles are that limit the power of great minds to discovering things that we feel unqualified to do? Certainly if the user has more to say about what is useful the tool would expectedly be more useful. Right? There appear to be some disconnects regarding to who is deciding who needs what.

 

However, Jerry Mander describes what he calls a pro-technology paradigm in his book, In the Absence of the Sacred. This model assumes that technology is neutral and that its affects are determined only by people. He describes this as pervasive and dangerous. Interestingly, Mander makes a connection "between the advances of modern technological society and the plight of indigenous peoples around the world". He suggests that these are the very people who are best equipped to help us out of our fix, if only we'd let them be and listen to what they say." The model of deep listening - even some shallow listening would be a good start - could do much in the way of not only creating technology that is more useful and helpful (and maybe less harmful) but also in narrowing what is often a deep communication chasm that separates the technical people of the world and those who they are employed to help and support!

 

Howard Rheingold has also interpreted some of Calvin's writings on evolution in some interesting ways regarding technology. One piece of "evidence" that he cites seems to suppose that humankind's penchant for change is "hardwired". Or, that we somehow are predisposed with an "urge to alter things". We might assume form this that our chase for things to improve our lives, or even to simply try new things is built in. But I wonder if what it is that individuals are interested in altering varies so dramatically that we find two groups - mentioned previous - that seem to clash: the technophiles and the technophobes. Or is it that we search for things and when someone "finds" something useful we all want to try it, possibly without thinking ahead of its potential impact or our looming over-dependence on the thing? Langdon Winner, in his book entitled, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a theme in Political Science, states that "technical systems become severed from the ends originally set for them and, in effect, reprogram themselves and their environments to suit the special conditions of their own operation. the artificial slave gradually subverts the role of its master". Clearly someone does this, not the machines. But the system certainly does include both man and machine.

 

We must ask as Thamus did who should judge the value of the new technology and the sum of its whole impact on society. It seems in the technical environment that is so pervasive today that the field is set up for the technophiles to win, with the phobes coming out on the losing end. Or at least they may perceive this anyway. And perception is reality, isn't it! Thus in this environment that now demands that we bend our will to that of the methods employed by those machines supposedly built to aid us in our work, what or who is serving what or who? And while the tool is still useful, we may also ask whether we are driven by technology or whether it is really being pushed by us to where we want to go? Or is that we go where technology wants us to go? If this sounds discombobulated it should. So many seem to feel this stress and anxiety around the very computers that are created as tools. But without good design and rife with constraints and narrow conditions for their successful use, no wonder that often those employed to help the user get caught in this same metaphorical bind. Can the technical person unwittingly become a representation of the very thing that causes the anxiety?

 

Appendix A - Consent Form/Questionnaire


 

 

 

INTERVIEW CONSENT FORM

 

Brian Gore is completing a Master’s Degree in a George Mason University program titled Organizational Learning and is required to do a project for completion. The purpose of the project is to do an organizational analysis using a new methodology called appreciative inquiry. The project should normally provide valuable insights about the organizational dynamics of the firm and generate concrete propositions that are based on the core values of the organization.

 

Your participation in this project is requested. If you participate, you will be interviewed using variations of the questions listed on the next page. The interview may be audio-taped (optional) and transcribed for later analysis. The information will be used in writing a project report and turned in to the professor as an assignment. Should the results of this project be published in the future, the permission of the organization will be sought. If your organization requests a copy of the project report, it will be given to a designated person who may share the findings with you.

 

This project will be performed according to George Mason University procedures governing your participation in this research. The student’s Adademic Adviser is Professor Don Lavoie, who may be reached at 703 993 1142 for questions. You may also contact the George Mason University Office of Sponsored Programs at 703-993-2295, if you have any questions or comments regarding your rights as a participant in this research.

 

 

 

I have read this form and agree to participate in this project.

 

 

________________________________          _____________

SIGNATURE                   DATE

 

 

 

 

Appreciative Inquiry questions that will be used in the interviews

1) Think about a few recent positive experiences you have had in this organization. Describe one such event when you felt you understood and used technology well.

Follow-up questions

a) What made it a significant positive experience? Or, What is it about the experience that you continue to cherish?

b) What did you learn from that experience?

 

2) Name an event where a technical person was particularly helpful. (outstanding/highly successful). What did s/he do?

Follow-up questions

What did you admire in her/him?

a) How has that (what s/he did) contributed to the success of the organization?

b) What kind of language did he/she use?

3) What are your images for the successful use of technology? What would you like to contribute to make that happen?

4) Tell me something about what attracted you to this organization? How did you start out? What were your initial excitements and impressions?

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

5) Several people in your organization have identified ______ as a core value. Can you tell me something more about it?

 

 

Appendix B - Electronic Responses


 

Following are transcripts of the electronic responses to the survey questions. The original question is listed followed by the answers given by respondents.

 

1) Think about a few recent positive experiences you have had in this organization. Describe one such event when you felt you understood and used technology well.

 

Brian: I have not had a "positive experience" where I understood or used technology well. I may not be the person to respond to these questions. The questions are so obviously asked in a way that you will get positive responses only.

 

A recent positive experience was updating and designing webpages for three units. I was asked to modify existing sites to update information, make the sites easier to maintain, and/or to make the sites more usable for readers.

 

Our office inadvertently deleted the data in one of our databases. It was a significant amount of data that was entered over the course of an entire year. To recreate the data would have been an enormous amount of work. We contacted the help desk and requested a file restore from the backup tape. However, it didn’t work and the data wasn’t restored. One member of our office was frustrated and began reentering the lost data. The other member of the office and I felt that we should try the file restore again. I contacted the help desk and explained the situation. After discussing the sequence of events, the person from the help desk determined what went wrong on the first attempt and arranged a second file restore that worked. We were all very relieved that we recovered our data and avoided a tremendous amount of extra work.

 

My boss and I were working on a form in Access and I learned a few new ideas in making the form more user friendly. I used that experience to complete the form and prepare it for the person who will enter the data.

 

a) What made it a significant positive experience? Or, What is it about the experience that you continue to cherish?

 

This was a positive experience because it allowed me to be creative, while balancing amount of information with ease-of-use.

 

The fact that the technology worked and saved us so much time and effort. It was a particularly gratifying experience for me because it involved working with someone to solve a problem. The help desk person and I were able to solve a problem by effective communication and patience.

 

I love to learn new things, especially in databases, and it is nice to know that people are willing to share their knowledge.

 

b) What did you learn from that experience?

 

I improved my understanding of html coding (which I had previously been encouraged to learn on the job), how to work with the relevant units to figure out what information they wanted available, how to design the sites so they will be easy to maintain for people without an html background, and how to prioritize the information to determine what should be posted.

 

That technology is more effective when there is good communication between IT providers and users, and patience and understanding as well.

 

Mainly the technical knowledge of fitting combo boxes with typed in options as opposed to combo boxes linked to queries of tables. Also new ideas of how to make to form easier to input data.

 

2) Name an event where a technical person was particularly helpful. (outstanding/highly successful). What did s/he do?

 

Though it did not have a huge impact, one such event was when a coworker developed a macro to fix formatting errors in Microsoft Word. They then distributed the macro and described how to install it.

 

I have to use the same event as above because I’m relatively new to the Academy (9 months service) and have not had a lot of contact with IT folks. She was able to arrange for a file to be restored from the backup tape. This was after an initial file restore failed.

 

I am sorry to say I have no such experience.

 

What did you admire in her/him?

 

I was impressed by the person’s willingness to attempt to write such a macro (they are not a trained programmer, just someone who saw a software need and fixed it).

 

Her competence and willingness to work with me to solve the problem.

 

a) How has that (what s/he did) contributed to the success of the organization?

 

While it has not contributed widely, the macro can save a fair amount of time when handling text either pulled from the Internet or received from outside sources. The time alleviates very boring work and allows one to spend it more effectively.

 

Her assistance saved our office a considerable amount of time that would have been expended in recreating the lost data.

 

b) What kind of language did he/she use?

 

When I was given the macro, the author explained to me in plain language what each line of the macro was doing, then attempted to explain the programming code used to accomplish it. I understand fully how the macro works, though I would not be able to duplicate the writing of the program. How to install the macro was clearly described.

 

She used mostly non-technical language, which facilitated effective communication between us. Of course, the problem was not very technical in nature. However, I had the feeling that, even if it were a very technical issue, she would have been able speak to me in a way that would be understandable.

 

3) What are your images for the successful use of technology? What would you like to contribute to make that happen?

 

I believe that making technology successful depends on the amount of time the creators of the technology take into account the end use. It is equally useless to have a wonderful technology that users cannot figure out as it is to have an easy-to-use technology that no one needs. Similarly, if the technology is not widely disseminated, or at least advertised, to the user community, it is useless. I try to make people aware of helpful functions in known technology and spread the word when I hear about new useful technologies.

 

The effective delivery of technical support to end-users is, obviously, the most important element for the successful use of technology in an organization. My contribution to make this a reality is to understand that the IT Dept and the end-users are a team, both working toward the same objective. The relationship should not be one of, "us against them".

 

Logical and precise dissemination of information, improving medical care and education in general

 

4) Tell me something about what attracted you to this organization? How did you start out? What were your initial excitements and impressions?

 

The nature of science policy and combination of writing with science attracted me to the organization. My initial impressions had to do with the quality of the staff members and committee volunteers, the amount of non-scientific office work done, and the ease of communication with people within the Academy complex.

 

I was familiar with the Organization and was impressed by its stature and reputation. I am most impressed with the fact that the studies that are undertaken by the Academy affect virtually every aspect of our lives. I also feel that this is a very good place to work, both in terms of compensation / benefits and quality of working conditions and workspace.

 

It is fun to work with the Academy members. I started at the Annual Meeting and had a chance to meet about 200 members and listen to interesting lectures.

 

 

Appendix C - Selected Bibliography

 


 

Computer Science and Telecommunications Board; National Research Council, "Being Fluent with Information Technology," National Academy Press, 1999.

Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning; National Research Council, "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, experience, and School," Innovative Adult Learning With Innovative Technologies, Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (eds.), National Academy Press, 1999.

Steering Committee, CSTB, National Research Council, "More Than Screen Deep: Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation's Information Infrastructure," National Academy Press, 1997.

Lavoie, Don Dr., Lecture notes and personal discussions, 1998-1999

Cox, Brad Dr., Lecture notes and personal discussion, 1998

Postman, Neil, Technopoly: The Surrendering of Culture to Technology, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993

Norman, Donald A., Things That Make Us SMART: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, Addison-Wesley, 1993 

Rheingold, Howard, Rheingold's Rant, http://www.rheingold.com/rants/

Mander, Jerry, Resisting the Machine, http://www.beacham.com/mander/mander_radio.html

 

 

 Appendix D - Memo from NRC Office of the General Counsel

 


 

To:   Suzanne Woolsey@NAS

cc: Jim Wright@NAS

Subject:   Re: Research Project - Help

 

Sue,

 

If you're inclined to grant approval, I would recommend that Brian observe the following conditions:

 

1. Any use of Academy computers and related equipment should be limited in nature and should occur during non-working hours, and in all other respects, be consistent with the institution's policies, including the policy on Access to Information and Use of Equipment Owned by the Academy Complex (HRP&P 600.10) and policies on time-keeping. The institution, consistent with its policies, reserves the right to review the situation and to determine at any point that any use of this nature constitutes an unreasonable cost or burden to the institution.

 

2. All individuals asked to participate by Brian, in addition to signing the consent form he has indicated he will use, should be expressly informed that their participation is voluntary, that the study is neither sponsored or endorsed by the institution, and that if they decide to assist Brian in this endeavor, they should do so during non-working hours.

 

3. Any resulting written report, whether published or not, should carry an express disclaimer that the study was neither sponsored or endorsed by the institution and that the results, conclusions, opinions expressed in the report are solely those of the author.

 

4. Brian's consent form indicates that publication of the report would require permission of the institution. In considering any request, any publication would require compliance with the Guidelines for Staff Publications in Non-NRC Publications.

 

Audrey

 

 

 

Chapter 3

What Really Happened?

How does the research and resulting paper compare with the original plan? Challenges with Appreciative Inquiry and doing it at work without a “Champion”.

 

The paper that reflects the effort required to write in many ways compares favorably with the original proposal. The process of getting to this point is different than I had probably expected and required some steps that I had not anticipated. Firstly, getting participants was more challenging than expected.

As a teenager growing up in southern Arizona, I was optimistic and trusting almost to the extreme. I recall one day driving my father's 1968 GMC pickup truck on a sparsely traveled back road when I encountered a flat tire. The spare was missing. I suggested to my friend that we attempt to flag down a passerby, borrow a spare with the promise of returning it, and be on our way. He chuckled and agreed to help. So, we spent the next 30-60 minutes, mostly waiting, flagging down those who would stop and making the request. One older couple was obviously nervous and passed on. A monk from a nearby monastery squealed away - in a truck almost identical to my own with full spare in view - anxiously after hearing our request.

Finally, a truck from a company who employed a family friend rolled up. I made the request and threw the name of the friend out for good measure. 15 minutes later I had his spare tire installed on father's truck and we were on our way. The wrath I incurred from my father after he noticed a "new" tire on his truck is another story!

The power of one name meant more than my honest plea for help. I think this person was inclined to help anyway, but the wheels really turned when a mutual friend, although vicariously, was able to establish a foundation of trust and credibility. Knowing something about the friend was also key.

When I developed the proposal and began seeking participants for the research project I firmly believed, as I did that hot day on that back road in the Arizona desert, that people would readily respond and "come to my aid". One thing I was missing was a name - a Champion. My original call for help noted that under guidelines given by the General Counsel, I embarked on this project with the permission of the Chief Operations Officer. I thought that this would help. But I'm not sure that this is the same as having an advocate - as having someone to not only say "yes, you can do this", but that " I think this is really important and encourage you to participate", as well.

One of the difficulties that contributed to this was my apparent unwillingness to approach the COO and ask for “championing”. I don’t know that I would have gotten what I asked for – because I never asked. It’s funny, in a way, that I have a very good relationship with this individual, yet approaching her in person to talk about the project was a hurdle that I could not overcome.

It’s strange that I missed this opportunity given the fact that I am generally gregarious. The problem lay in having to ask for help. Aha! That’s it – I had to ask for the help of someone much more senior – organizationally speaking – than me. Boy, what a silly hurdle to such a critical element of the project!

I have come, for some reason, to despise talking on the telephone. Or at least dialing the number. So, what keeps me from dialing the telephone or walking down to the COO’s office and taking the opportunity to explain my degree program, the elements of my project and to ask her for her support in “championing” the project. In reflecting on this I realize how much real fun that would have been, even if Dr. Woolsey – as a result of policy or otherwise – had been unable to fill the role. I wonder if this stemmed from a fear of rejection, or a simple hangup with asking for help and being dependant on another?                   I wonder …

I recall a time as an undergraduate attending the University of Maryland in Europe. I had never before given a presentation in a college class, though I had had many opportunities to speak before large groups and teach lessons of one type or another. The fear of interaction – not just reading a speech and sitting down – seemed to be what bothered me most then.

I remember sitting in my BMW in front of the school for some time, debating whether to skip class that night and take my chances later. I went to class – late – and stood eventually to give my presentation. At the instant that I released the first syllable all of that anxiety turned into positive energy. It has been a long time since I have thought about that experience and had probably forgotten that, while I often feel anxious when approaching similar situations, that preparation will save me and that nervous energy will generally result in a positive energy. I have also learned that people are generally quite gracious.

So all of the reasons for not working for a champion, based on my personal experience, were basically unfounded. If nothing else, reflecting on that evening sitting in my car wondering whether to go to class or skip out gives me both energy and hope. To the one who may hesitate to find a champion: pick up the phone or walk down the hall and use the enthusiasm for your project to overcome whatever fear you may feel. So this fight or flight mentality seems to have been changed by technology.  Or, technology now provides a new alternative to fight or flight: send an E-mail message. Instead of talking with the COO personally, I now have a safe, detached option which, if all goes well, provides an answer without the pain.

There is a really great advertisement on radio that illustrates an important point: If you have something really important to say (or discuss, or do), do it in person. Telephone still is, as the saying goes, "the next best thing to being there". And E-mail comes in last place on my list of alternatives for communicating really important information.

So, if you are looking for a champion to support and promote you project or to get participants, don't use E-mail to do it! I think I did for some of the reasons listed above and though I can't really get into the psychology of why I tried, I recognize the fear and, after the fact, the frustrations that followed in part because of this.

I would say here again that the impact of technology is tremendous. That this project was about technology and technology-related language and relationships is significant. New challenges emerged in the very effort to make some progress toward fostering understanding and communication. It did not occur to me until much later that using too much technology, as may have been the case with the electronic survey, got in the way of learning more about technology and its impact. On this note, that many people dropped out of the project after the electronic blitz started may be sufficient to support a study of its own! I am interested in learning more about this but I am hesitant to go down this road with people so long after their experience with the project has ended.

One topic that needs to be addressed in approaching a technology related AI project is the impact that the technology will have on the study itself. I have found no scientific data to support the theory that I am about to state but, intuitively, it seems that there may be two ways to approach this – on theoretical and one practical (of course as we know, as Kurt Lewin proposed, that there is nothing so practical as a good theory!). In this regard I mean that one could study technology-related communication by inserting opportunities for exchange and then observing them (but then this wouldn’t really be AI, would it) or by using less technological means to gather the data. It seems that the sharing of stories is meant to personalize this process, something that technology cannot do. By their nature computers isolate people and allow them to function alone. I can see now how someone might balk when learning that they are going to discuss technology related communication electronically. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and it now appears clear at how silly it may have been to think that people would respond favorably to this method. A chance to get away from their computers and possibly talk badly about them left people deflated, I suppose, when they learned that they would have to use the very machines that seemed to control their lives in this effort. Oops!

At this point it may have been wise to look at my own workplace more closely and determine if I needed to widen the potential participant pool. The point is that instead of trying to refit the model to fit the group, it may have been more effective to refit the group to the model. One thing that happened though was that as time moved on the thought of changing location seemed too overwhelming, while changing the model midstream to fit the dynamics of the group appeared to be a viable compromise. I think also that completing the project became the all-consuming focus, resulting in some loss of the initial projects purpose and integrity.

Another option would have been to find creative ways to expand the group of participants at the NRC. We are located in several buildings in Washington, D.C. so it is possible that the project was unattractive to the people given the perceived notion that some may have travel to another location to participate. This can be tricky given the time accounting requirements and with some employees working on several projects, and hour or two unaccounted for can dig into an already tight project budget. So, the electronic option was meant to resolve this problem, but other factors must have contributed as well. Another factor related to our multiple locations is that I am unknown to most people who are not located in my building given that my work is dedicated to individuals who actually work in the main NAS building.

As stated in chapter one, my intention was to perform a particularistic study of  technical language characteristics at the NRC. As a large number of participants was not forthcoming, my project became more "descriptive" (Merriam, p.29) in nature with an attempt to provide "thick" description of what had occurred. This provided a challenge since there was not enough data to provide this thick description.

This turned into an effort to thicken the paper with theoretical fluff. I don't mean to devalue theory - I think it's important and valuable. But the initial focus of the paper - an effort to explain some particularly puzzling things - became lost in an effort to artificially "thicken" the paper. So, understanding the term "thick" within the context of qualitative research is obviously critical. Thick doesn't mean to simply add more pages of writing but rather to provide a "complete, literal description of the incident or entity being investigated" (Merriam, p.30). While I thought I understood this term, I was challenged in applying it practically! (That must be obvious since I am writing this new, thick description, not of the original topic, but of my own experience doing it).

I suspect that much of the difficulty with this project stemmed from a lack of experience. I had read much of this material but, without much opportunity to try out research skills, I found it hard to apply principles and techniques to accomplish the task. All in all, the lack of participants created the catalyst for trouble to set in, and an attempted transition from a particularistic approach to a more descriptive one  - without the practical experience and deep theoretical understanding to navigate this transition - made recovery extremely difficult, if not almost impossible.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote about theories and ideas that were relevant to the topic but that still failed to sufficiently describe what had happened. Now I am writing and writing and writing about my experience and, hopefully learning more  about thickness in the research context.

Another missing ingredient that I think became critical as the original project progressed was a simple lack of experience in research methodologies and how to respond to problems. Merriam talks about data collection and describes the elements of how sample selection occurs (Merriam, p. 135). Obviously, the person conducting this study has some basis for choosing “LIRs that had been in existence for at least four years” (Merriam, p.135). I selected thirty as the number for my complete group of participants, but I really had no scientific basis for choosing this number. Thirty people approximately represents one-third the number of clients that I personally support (as a support analyst). Having a strong research background and some solid understanding of these methodologies was missing, and may have made a difference in how the project flowed. Having a really interesting topic is important, but certainly not enough to sustain a project of this sort on its own.

In his book entitled, Research Interview: Context and Narrative, Elliot G. Mishler suggests that too often in research “technical solutions are applied unreflectively, they become routine practice, and the presuppositions that underlie the approach remain unexamined. He continues by lamenting one consequence of this approach as “the almost total neglect by interview researchers of work by students of language on the rules , forms, and functions of questions and responses” (Mishler, p.12). While I am not an interview researcher, I am a student who lacked the experience and knowledge of rules, forms, and functions of questions and responses in conducting an interview-based research project. I also appreciate the need for reflection in this process, and expect that he would see value in this in other types of research as well. Time presents a challenge in being reflective during a research project. I was so focused on finding subjects that reflecting on what was happening just did not fit into the schedule.

My orientation to this project was to function as a “collaborator”, as defined by Mishler (Mishler, p.126) and as “observer as participant” (Merriam, p.101). I’m not positive that all of the participants or potential participants really believed that I could really be objective and that I was really a participant and collaborator in a process that was really intended to make life better for them. I don’t that I have any concrete evidence of this assumption or and justification for suggesting this, but it is clear that even though one may state clearly, as I did, his own role and objective, the fact that a supposed outsider impacts the individuals who participate and the groups’ results at large.

I have learned many things a s result not only of doing the original project but also in this reflective wrapping around that paper. Certainly I think that the project was based on an interesting and important set of questions. However, to really sustain such a project several prerequisites must be met, and some have been discussed already.

The process must also be methodologically viable. Dr. Tammy Bennington, in response to my initial proposal, stated that the topic was “fascinating” but “methodologically challenging”. I thought that I had worked these challenges out, but the experience factor and the lacking foundation and experience in empirical research played against me as the project unfolded.

One critical suggestion here: get help early when any signs of trouble arise. I did what Mishler lamented and was so focused on the technical aspect of the project, - of getting answers to my questions in any way that I could - that I could not be reflective and recognize the problem. It did not occur to me that changing the model would have so much impact (which I still have not tried to measure, and probably won’t at this point) because, again, I was so focused on getting data. For some reason this was a challenge for me, though I acknowledge that my advisor and other faculty are quite available and wiling to help. The importance of slowing down when necessary and reflecting constantly on the process and what is happening cannot be overstated!

So, be optimistic and hopeful in embarking on such a project. Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful tool, but one should not be fooled into thinking that a positive approach to organizational issues will not have its challenges.

Returning to Sue Annis Hammond’s, The Thin Book of Apprecietive Inquiry, reveals the key to success in applying Appreciative Inquiry in organizations. The word she uses is Master, which cannot occur without practice. She reminds us that this process is “generative”, which suggests an element of reflection to make it really work. So, immersing oneself in studying the process and allowing time to reflect and practice will make applying AI much more enjoyable and productive. Even the challenges will be easier to appreciate!

I am certainly not a master, and I recognize that I missed out on much of the work required ahead of time to be fully prepared for this project. But I have also learned a great deal and hope that I can find ways to apply Appreciative Inquiry in the future. It may even be possible to try it out in smaller circles, like a family, a church group or a small group of coworkers who are willing to help work out the kinks and be a part of your own learning process.

My first experience with Appreciative Inquiry was with a group of five other individuals who provided support and an opportunity to reflect and share ideas with. Doing AI alone almost seems out of touch with the model itself. AI is about people and stories and sharing, so trying to do it alone for me, at least, may have been just too aggressive. As stated before, without a strong foundation in research and in the event that a partner is either not available, staying in close contact with others who can help with the process is vital.

I also appreciate that more now than I did before, and I hope I get to try this out again to see if I can apply the learning that I have claimed to have gained in this reflective process.

 

Chapter 4

Appreciating the Whole Experience

As summary of the whole experience. It is important to recognize the value of the whole experience, even though it may not have accomplished completely its original objectives.

 

I remember the feeling that I had after receiving the assignment to prepare a draft practicum proposal. I already recognized that coming up with an idea would be troublesome for me. I have always been much better at hearing an idea, discussing it, and improving it.

I had a concept in my mind but, despite the reading I had done and class discussions, I felt inadequately prepared to actually build a research project from scratch. I received help but the product ultimately was mine.

I was excited when the initial idea occurred to me. I felt enthused about trying out Appreciative Inquiry on my own after participating in a group effort previously. I was anxious, but looked forward to bringing something to my own workplace that I knew could be useful and have tremendous impact. I felt confident that I could get participants and that they would be enthused about participating in something that could potentially make life easier for them.

I had some trouble in the beginning and along the way. I find it difficult often to ask for help – I inherited an overdeveloped sense of independence – which tends to leave me in a position (on occasion) where I have dug a hole deeper than I am personally capable of extricating myself from. These seem like graphic terms to describe this situation, but this really is how I felt.

So, another word of caution to others: Ask for help and feedback often! Communicate challenges and think of ways to overcome them and then bounce these around with someone who can help (probably your advisor).

I also tended to rely on E-mail for communicating. Telephone calls and face to face meetings always proved to be more valuable and brought forth more insight on how the project seemed to be going. Many of the problems associated with this project can be attributed to the lack of these meetings.

Despite the challenges, the effort to apply something to an organization that could potentially bring positive change was exhilarating and hope sprung from reaching even small milestones.

Appreciative Inquiry is a potentially powerful way of helping an organization to see itself in a positive way. Encouraging people to share positive stories is more challenging than one might thing – certainly more so than I had ever anticipated. But in a world that is too often short on the positive and lacking in positive affirmation of what is right and good, the challenge is certainly worthy of taking on. My best to those who make an attempt to apply it!

In the larger scheme of things, this paper reflects my experience in the Program on Social and Organizational Learning (PSOL) and my work experience as a result. We see complexity and try to make sense of it. Ambiguity is Life! And it requires of us to at times just go with it and see what happens and at others to really work hard at it to make our interactions happy and productive. One challenge is that we don’t always get to choose how it is we respond to things. My preference may be to go with the flow while the required action is much more proactive.

But life, and work, doesn’t always afford us the luxury of reflecting. Recently, a manager became irritated with an employee who wanted to ponder over the weekend a potential job opportunity. This change would impact the employee significantly in many areas; time at work, nature of the job, etc. When it comes to preparing a paper that reflects a significant effort, one may be tempted to be satisfied with mediocrity, while another may not be willing to readily accept such work.

So, the PSOL experience and this project, have helped me to see in greater light that I may not always get to do things my way, but that I can still enjoy the journey and appreciate the experience. There may be something to be said about what the end goal is. Change takes time and effort – two commodities that are in high demand but often in very short supply. Fortunately, in the case of this paper, time sufficient to complete was afforded. At the same time, a high level of effort was still required. It’s really hard to separate these and say that if I spend the time good things will happen. It is easy for some, maybe, to think that the PSOL philosophy would lend itself to accepting mediocrity for the sake of some touchy-feely happiness that magically makes people feel more accepted.

But the reality is really far from this dream! Time and effort (another word for WORK) really make PSOL what it is. This is not about sitting around talking about feelings and then getting an A. But I think that I may have softened up to this idea more than I had anticipated over time. What I mean is that one can be so awakened by the opportunity to talk about work and organizations in ways that may not be “allowed” in the real world that one could mistakenly think that this si where the work stopped. For me, this project has helped me to see in many ways that work has just really begun. It is time to do some reflecting (there’s that Time word again). But it is really time to roll up our sleeves and get to work (remember, that’s another word for effort). I appreciate the effort required of me. It is fun to “think about stuff” and even to write about what we think. But success doesn’t automatically come from being able to articulate our thoughts – we have to be able to do something with them. I think that I am still formulating some of my thoughts, and my sleeves are rolled up a little closer to my elbows than they were previously (I was ready to end this chapter several paragraphs ago).

On that note, this project is a great success if for no other reason (though there are many others) than that I now have a greater capacity to go to work than I did before I started and since I was pushed to do a little more after attempting to give up a little too soon.

Time … and Effort!

 

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