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This study used a mixed-method design of quantitative and qualitative measures combined into one instrument and delivered via telephone interviews.

Yammer Functionality

Once you have signed up you can invite people, and/or follow people. To follow a person means every time they post a message, you can see that message in your timeline. A timeline is a real-time feed of all the posts from all the people you follow. While Yammer has a lot more functionality than outlined here, what is detailed is the main functionality that highlights Yammer’s benefits:

  1. You can read your colleague’s updates from a computer or even from your mobile phone. You can also download any files they upload. Note that your colleagues’ updates are visible to all who follow them.
  2. People who follow you, can read your posts on a computer or a mobile phone. They can also download any files you upload. Note that your updates are visible to all who follow you.
  3. You and your colleagues can send private, direct messages to each other that the others will not see. This is good for taking conversations offline.
  4. You can search the messages of all the people you follow.
  5. People can tag their posts and search for or follow all related messages that are tagged the same way.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

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Wenger (1998) highlights an obvious yet very compelling point that we are always learning and we are always participating in various communities from work groups to families. Therefore, learning is also situated in a community, therefore learning is also social (Wenger, 1998). It is logical then that the concept of communities of practice emerged from situated cognition (Brown, et al., 1989), previously discussed, and Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978), that learning is enhanced through social interaction. In fact communities of practice in the work place produce significant learning and innovation (Brown & Duguid, 1991).

Specifically, Wenger et al. describe (2002, p. 4) communities of practice (CoP) as a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession. These groups can either grow organically because of people’s interests in the same field, or they can be created with the goal of sharing and learning from each other (Wenger, et al., 2002).

Eloquently stated by Wenger (1998, p. 8): “learning is an issue of sustaining the interconnected communities of practice through which an organization knows what it knows and thus becomes effective and valuable as an organization.” Therefore, if a tool like a microblog, can help create, strengthen and sustain communities of practice it would be impacting learning and the effectiveness, or performance, of the organization. “Communities of practice are thus key to an organization’s competence and the evolution of that competence” (Wenger, 1998, p. 241). In fact, researchers state that they “have seen communities of practice improve organizational performance at companies as diverse as an international bank, a major car manufacturer, and a U.S. government agency” (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).

Wenger describes three key characteristics of communities of practice: domain, community and practice (Wenger, 2010). A domain does not equate to an area of expertise; in fact, members can have different areas of expertise within the same domain. Therefore, domain could be a field, such as education, which could have teachers, instructional designers, performance strategists all part of the same community of practice because “They value their collective competence and learn from each other…” (Wenger, 2010). Wenger (2010) goes on to elaborate in each of the three characteristics. A community is defined as a group of people who interact and learn from each other as they pursue their domain. Finally, communities of practice do in fact share a “practice”. In the example above, different people with different titles are still all practitioners in the domain of education.

“Communities develop their practice through a variety of activities. Table 3 provides a few typical examples:” (Wenger, 2010)

Table 3: Examples of CoP Activities

Problem   solving “Can we work on this design and   brainstorm some ideas; I’m stuck.”
Requests   for information “Where can I find the code to   connect to the server?”
Seeking   experience “Has anyone dealt with a   customer in this situation?”
Reusing   assets “I have a proposal for a local   area network I wrote for a client last year. I can send it to you and you can   easily tweak it for this new client.”
Coordination   and synergy “Can we combine our purchases   of solvent to achieve bulk discounts?”
Discussing   developments “What do you think of the new   CAD system? Does it really help?”
Documentation   projects “We have faced this problem   five times now. Let us write it down once and for all.”
Visits “Can we come and see your   after-school program? We need to establish one in our city.”
Mapping   knowledge and identifying gaps “Who knows what, and what are   we missing? What other groups should we connect with?”

 

Most people’s objection to participating in communities of practice is that they do not have time (Lujan & Day, 2010; McDermott, 2010), they consider participation to be something extra that they have to do, taking them away from the task at hand (Hara, 2009, p. 21). However, updating a post on a microblog, even if several times a day, can be done in a matter of minutes, and is therefore a minimal time investment. In addition, if employees found participation valuable, they would make the time. Isn’t the true goal of communities of practice to help with the task, or project at hand? Isn’t that the true just-in-time learning and performance support? It always benefits people when they can connect with another person who has experience and knowledge in a given area – there in lays the value.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Hutchins’ (1995) definition of distributed cognition, simply put, is the notion that cognition is not confined by what is inside one person’s brain. Instead, it is distributed across many things, such as other people, artifacts and the environment. Meaning, we don’t just learn in our heads, we talk to others, experience things in our environment, and use tools such as a paper and pencil to write out a math problem. A great example of distributed cognition, as described by Hutchins (1995), is the navigation of a large ship–many people and systems come together to navigate collectively. Not one person alone could navigate the ship–you really need the collective.

In any organization, it is the collective driving it forward. Even though there may be individual contributors, no one person alone can help a company, for example, meet its revenue goals. Again, it has to be the collective. It is the “informal communication channels that make work proceed smoothly, synchronized among a group of workers without the need for direct verbal communication” (Norman, 1993, p. 153). In Norman’s (1993) examples this non-verbal communication is observed in person. However, with today’s knowledge workforce being distributed across many locations, observation takes on different forms, like reading Yammer posts. In addition, in many cases, the work doesn’t have to be as closely synchronized as employees would need to be to operate a ship. Yet, at the end of the day, the work product is still that of the collective.

Microblogs offer just this capability: the possibility of “observing” each other’s actions without actually being there, without working closely together. In fact answering the question: “What are you working on?” produces work activity update posts in real time during the day. “…knowing and context are irreducibly co-constituted, and learning is fundamentally connected with and constitutive of the contextual particulars through which it occurs (S. A. Barab & Kirshner, 2001; Cobb & Yackel, 1996)” (Sasha A Barab & Plucker, 2002).

Distributed cognition provides a framework, or lens through which to analyze cognition that focuses (unit of analysis) on the system, rather than the individual (Hutchins, 1995). Cognition is not just distributed within (Minsky, 1986) but also between learners and the objects they use to solve problems (Schwartz, 2008). Therefore, when researching microblogs, focus will be placed on the interaction between individuals and the tool as well as between individuals and other individuals.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Theories

As mentioned previously, microblogs offer something that is not normally easy to acquire, information as to what employees are doing real time through status updates. Therefore, the link between microblogs and performance support, learning and ultimately, performance improvement becomes clear. It follows that the theories influencing this research include situated cognition which considers learning and performance improvement in context, and distributed cognition, which also focuses on context and encourages a view of microblogs as a system, and finally communities of practice which can account for the groups that may emerge through microblogging.

Situated Cognition

Learning is an ongoing, real time process, as opposed to separate events (Moon, 2004, p. 11). Situated cognition theory, as described by Brown et al. (1989, pp. 32-42), explains that knowing is inseparable from doing. Skills are acquired through continuous authentic activity in authentic contexts and by communicating with peers and experts about those activities in those contexts (Herrington & Oliver, 1995). Microblogs offer the ability for employees to communicate with peers while participating in authentic activity, their daily work.

Lave and Wenger (1991) propose that the most accounts of learning ignore its social nature. Yet researchers agree that knowledge is the result of collaborative construction in a situated cognition environment (Ahmad, 2009; Bransford, Vye, Kinzer, & Risko, 1990). Everything human beings conceive of and think about is adapted to the environment, that is, situated, because what people perceive, how they conceive of what they are doing (or working on) and the physical activity of working on it, all develop together (Clancy, 1997). “In situated cognition, knowledge is created or negotiated through the interactions of the individual with others and the environment. Individuals acquire knowledge through activities rather than obtaining information in discreet packages organized by instructors or a system” (Ahmad, 2009). Tyre and von Hippel (1997, p. 71) found that “traditional, decontextualized theories of adaptive learning and of collaboration could be improved by taking into account that learning occurs through people interacting in context.” It follows that through continuous, authentic, situated, collaborative activity, people can improve their performance (Brown, et al., 1989).

As microblogs help uncover what people are doing, their day-to-day tasks, and provide this visibility into what others in the organization are doing. People can use it to create opportunities for informal connections and collaboration with others in ways we did not have the ability to do previously. Using a tool like a microblog, where one can read the updates of colleagues real time, one may be able to create connectedness and engagement leading to sharing and ultimately just-in-time, or point-of-need learning—a performance support environment that uses people as conduits versus the technology-centered performance support and knowledge management systems of yesterday. “Learning is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs” (Cross, 2007, p. 15).

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Microblogs are used primarily to communicate. Public microblogs, such as Twitter, can be a powerful channel for things like breaking news (Greenhow, 2009). However, these tools can have many other uses that stem from that communication. One example that emerged early on is the notion that public microblogs can be a powerful marketing and branding tool (Dunn, 2010). Therefore, they can also be used to advertise employment, and, conversely, look for a job (Kibbe, 2009). Zappos.com and many other companies use a public microblog to communicate with their customers and offer customer service. At conferences, during presentations, many participants use a public microblog to share their thoughts about the presentation and in some cases, their updates are projected to participants at the conference while it is taking place (Ebner, 2009). Yes, people have found a plethora of ways to use microblogs.

It is only fairly recently that people started wondering about microblogs’ educational value. For example, microblogs have been examined in an academic environment and results have shown that usage fostered informal learning (Ebner, Lienhardt, Rohs, & Meyer, 2010). Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009) describe their use of Twitter, a public microblog, to encourage free-flowing, just-in-time interactions and how those interactions enhance social presence in online courses. They clearly see the instructional value of a microblog but how do students feel about social media and social networking? Batchelder (2010) answered this question and found that, among other things, students developed confidence in their abilities to find the information they needed, experienced self-actualization and personal growth, they became committed to lifelong learning and saw value through finding solutions via collaboration and keeping in touch with a support group. The hypothesis is that microblogs can be used this way during the work day, in an informal manner day in and day out (instead of just in conjunction with coursework) and will achieve similar results.

Corporate testimonials have also emerged that tout internal microblogs, like Yammer, as a tool that can be used for learning (Lupfer, 2010). Indeed, microblogs can also be a peer support tool, such as, when used for asking questions of the people that follow you (Greenhow, 2009). A study that primarily focused on user acceptance of internal corporate microblogs, uncovered that among a variety of communication needs, active users also use it to ask questions and solve problems (Zhang, Qu, & Hansen, 2010, p. 3). The following categories as can be seen across the bottom of the chart emerged in Zhang, Qu, & Hansen’s study and they are overall consistent with many of the categories that emerged in this research.

Figure 1: Different Groups’ Benefit Perception of Yammer

Earlier research conducted on regular blogging, not microblogging, showed a lot of overlap in the categories that emerged between Jackson, Yates, & Orlikowski’s study (2007, p. 5), and this research, that explained why people blog.

Table 1: Types of Reported Benefits of Blogging

The first study that asked: “whether this new social medium can be harnessed to make our work more productive?” examined the use and value of microblogging in a fortune 500 firm revealed that Yammer helps people: (Zhang, Qu, Cody, & Wu, 2010, p. 7)

  1. Find out what others are working on
  2. Reach out to ask questions
  3. Find people who share similar interests
  4. Learn more about internal company news such as events or product releases
  5. Learning information about industry trends and news
  6. Make people’s work more visible to others

The list above is ordered from the most common use to the least common and we can see that finding out what others are working on is number one value and yet making my work visible to others is the least common. In the content coding analysis, researchers found that the largest portion of the messages are about internal or external news and less than 16% are about individuals talking about their current work. Interesting that most participants also said they often found information relevant to them. Again, overall, there is a lot of synergy in the categories that emerged from this study on why people use Yammer with this research, see Figure 2 (Zhang, Qu, Cody, et al., 2010, p. 7). The researchers cited here conducted a very thorough analysis of Yammer use, both with interviews and by analyzing actual messages exchanged on Yammer.

Figure 2: Yammer Helps Me… Survey

The intent of this research was to focus broadly across many different organizations in various industries and with sizes ranging from 5 employees to over 200,000 employees. While this limits the depth of this analysis within each organization, it does attempt to highlight what findings are consistent across these organizations and uncover best practices. The hypothesis in this research focuses on Yammer’s ability to connect people and through those people, provide assistance on-the-job.

Researchers, Zhao, Rosson, Matthews, & Moran (2011), reported that microblogging benefited work collaboration in project teams because team members could provide short updates on what they were accomplishing as they worked, this additional real-time collaboration, caused the teams to be much more in synch. For Zhao, Rosson, Matthews, & Moran (2011), audience size was restricted by putting project team members into a Yammer group and it showed that raised awareness between team members had a positive effect on collaboration and enabled timely feedback and expertise sharing with a restricted audience—the project team members.

This research does not restrict the audience size and in fact, this researcher postulates that the more people are using the system, the more opportunities there will be for people to reach out and help each other.

The study that focused on microblogging within teams found these types of examples (Zhao, et al., 2011, p. 3), which are consistent with many of the examples participants mentioned in these findings as well, see Table 2. However, notice the chart depicting how much people posted in each category. Project work activity statuses seems to be far more prevalent but only when people posted messages within the project group. They posted far less outside of that group to all their colleagues, which is consistent with this research as well.

Table 2: Categories of Microblog Posts

One of the important benefits of Yammer mentioned by previous researchers is that barriers to participation have plummeted because microblogging is, among other things, a low-cost operation, both in terms of time and cognitive load (McFedries, 2007; Zhang, Qu, Cody, et al., 2010). This too was consistent with the findings in this study.

While a lot of the studies mentioned above are similar from various aspects to this one, none of them focused on examining the potential of employees using microblogs to answer questions and uncover what a person is working on real time and therefore be able to provide learning opportunities and performance support in the workplace—all this by engaging the communities that internal microblogs foster.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

“EPSS are primarily applicable in the workplace to promote learning and offer immediate performance guidance” (Ahmad, 2009, p. 8). Researchers agree that performance support systems can help improve communication and, ultimately, performance (Ahmad, 2009; Bayram & Crossman, 1997; Chang, 2007; Gamson, 1994; Marion, 2002; Raybould, 1995). Nguyen and Klein (2008) showed that participants using an electronic performance support system performed significantly better than those receiving formal training. It makes sense that aided task performance yields better results than unaided (Frank Nguyen, Klein, & Sullivan, 2005; van Schaik, Barker, & Famakinwa, 2007). The most effective performance support is context specific and provides assistance with a given task in a given situation (Tessmer & Richey, 1997).

In this researcher’s experience, the hardest aspect of designing a truly effective electronic performance support system is ascertaining when each employee is working on which task—in other words, the information needed to serve up the right kind of support. With the use of microblogs and consistently answering the question: What are you working on? Peers can easily read what people are working on and when and offer their support. Questions posted on a microblog are more straightforward in terms of performance support but only if they are answered in a timely fashion.

In addition, the perceived most effective aspect of an EPSS is the advisory, job-oriented or problem solving components (Chang, 2004). In fact, packaging and bringing expert knowledge to users is a key goal in creating an EPSS (Hile, Campbell, & Ghobary, 1994). Perhaps this is why EPSS generally focus on bringing content to users as opposed to connecting people to more seasoned colleagues, or experts. However, a microblog can bring not just content to employees when they need it but it can actually connect them to the expert to talk to. Performance support systems have not fundamentally been viewed as systems that can bring people, not just content together. Ultimately, a performance support system can be used as a cognitive tool for employees in organizations (Wild, 2000).

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Peter Henschel, former director of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), said (Cross, 2007, p. xiii): “People are learning all the time, in varied settings and often most effectively in the context of work itself. ‘Training’ ─ formal learning of all kinds ─ channels some important learning but doesn’t carry the heaviest load. The workhorse of the knowledge economy has been, and continues to be, informal learning (p. xiiip. xiii).” Cross (2007) defines informal learning as any learning that takes place outside of the classroom, which he considers formal learning. Cross (2007, p. 243) explains that study results vary, but findings still show that the majority, anywhere from 70 to 90 percent, of learning in organizations takes place informally. Yet, corporations spend 80% of their training budget on formal training and only 20% on informal (p. 17). Deepak (Dick) Sethi, the CEO of Organic Leadership, said (Cross, 2007): “Informal learning is effective because it is personal, just-in-time, customized, and the learner is motivated and open to receiving it. It also has greater credibility and relevance” (p. 17). Yammer is in fact used during and throughout the work day, in the context of work itself, so, if, as a person is working, and they can use a microblog to receive information they can learn from that is relevant to what they are working on, then this could be a really powerful informal learning tool. People are more likely to engage when content is relevant to them (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 83)

Sargeant, et al. (2006) conducted a study that focused on high-scoring physicians. Results showed that a fundamental component of success was informal learning opportunities, especially through working with patients, and working with and having discussions with colleagues. Similarly in a study that examined how nurses become competent practitioners, informal learning strategies proved to be key (Sharoff, 2006).

The use of a microblog itself is an informal experience. While some people post updates once a day, others update it every time they change tasks. The question is: can a glance at a status message about work activities help us learn and even perform better? Will questions posted in the moment of need, just in time, be answered fast enough to provide real value?

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to examine whether the use of microblogs can be used to provide performance support and therefore foster informal learning leading to performance improvement and communities of practice.

Research Questions

Therefore the research questions are the following:

  1. Does using a microblog in the workplace allow employees to become more aware of what each other is doing?
  2. Does the reading of status messages posted on a microblog lead to employees learning something new or receiving assistances with their jobs?
  3. Will the use of microblogs result in people feeling like they are part of communities where they can reach out to each other for assistance?

Significance of the Research

Microblogs have not yet been studied across a variety of organizations in different industries with employee numbers that span from 5 to over 200,000, for their ability to increase learning and performance, or their ability to foster communities of practice and manage knowledge in and for an organization. Results of this study could advise many organizations that are unsure of social media and think microblogs are disruptive because they distract employees, to reconsider these powerful new tools that can help us all stay connected in a productive manner. Results of this study also uncovered best practices. In addition, developers of microblogs may consider knowledge management systems as they further develop these powerful tools.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Often, members of an organization come across a task with which they need assistance. However, even more often they don’t know who to ask for on-the-job advice and guidance—who around them may be able to help. Since knowledge workers come and go from job to job, organization to organization, each individual has a plethora of experience that their current colleagues are not aware of. Therefore, frequently people are not even aware of who in an organization can help them. Even more challenging is that frequently people don’t know enough to even know what to ask, or when to ask for help. Therefore, it becomes important that organizations focus on connecting people to each other in a meaningful way so that they can share knowledge and learn from each other. “In the Information Age, companies must create, disseminate, and effectively use knowledge within their organization in order to maintain market share” (Hara, 2009, p. 1).

While the notion of receiving “just in time” information and performance support leading to increased learning and performance improvement is accepted by many organizations, implementing informal, just-in-time learning and performance support continues to be a challenge in practical application, as noted in this researcher’s experience. While there are many reasons for this, two key reasons are:

  1. What a knowledge workers is doing at any given moment, and therefore what kind of learning and performance support would be most appropriate and when is very difficult to uncover real time.
  2. It is difficult, in this day and age of everything having to be done “yesterday”, for members of any organization to stop and take the time to connect, leverage each other’s knowledge and experience, and therefore learn from one another.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

Organizations make significant investments in creating training content. However, in this researcher’s experience of nearly 20 years in learning and learning technologies mostly in a corporate environment, and observed through an unpublished study, when given the opportunity to informally ask an expert or learn through formal training, a vast majority of people will chose to ask an expert. Social media tools like microblogs have emerged that can assist organizations in connecting people just when they need it.

A microblogging service allows users to post short “status updates” via an instant messaging-type tool on users’ desktops, through a web page, or through a cell phone. As an example, Twitter is a popular microblog that anyone and everyone has access to. This research focuses on Yammer, because it is a microblogging platform used by organizations that is secure—meaning that only people within the organization have access to it. Yammer asks the following question: “What are you working on?” People in an organization can sign up to “follow” each other to submit and read these short updates in just a few seconds.

In a work setting, such as that of a training consulting firm, a consultant may find out that someone is “designing a new curriculum for advanced pharmaceutical representatives”. This consultant may read such an update from a colleague she would not normally reach out to. However, upon reading such an update the consultant may contact this colleague to learn more because she may be doing something similar. This could open up an opportunity to brainstorm, learn and share. As people continue to use the microblog, they read each other’s updates and reach out to help. “Imagine a world where everyone was constantly learning, a world where what you wondered was more interesting than what you knew, and curiosity counted for more than certain knowledge (Locke, Levine, Searls, & Weinberger, 2000, p. 183).” Maybe the colleague has a great research paper or framework they are using as part of their engagement that the consultant could learn from and maybe even use in her current project. This is an example of something that can provide the consultant performance support, informal learning and maybe even enhanced performance, and ironically, she may have never become aware of it otherwise. Therefore microblogs can be the ultimate performance support and informal learning tool: Proving support when employees don’t even know they need it, and offering a network of people, a community of practice, to reach out to when they do know they need it.

This is a section of a research study, to read more, go to the Table of Contents.

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