A CoP for Research Activities in Universities

A CoP for Research Activities in Universities

Willi Bernhard (Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland), Marco Bettoni (Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland) and Gabriele Schiller (Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-802-4.ch022
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We will explain how we faced the challenge of answering the question of how to improve overall performance in all research activities of our university, and then illustrate our findings by telling the story of how we have been answering it by means of a new kind of knowledge network called CoRe. We will explain the tools we have been developing in order to address the needs of such a CoP and finally reflect on lessons learned while establishing a CoP in a research environment.
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The Community Of Research: Core

As previously mentioned, the Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences is organized in a radically decentralized way combined with traditional hierarchical structures and functional divisions. This has led to an insufficient level of interactions between geographically distributed university members (academic staff, students) so that weak ties have become the norm. For research work one major consequence was that research activities were too much isolated in the departments, human resources were dispersed and research knowledge did not flow enough. Projects were small and less recognized, know how got easily lost and research tools’ development was too slow. Our approach for improving research performances under conditions of weak ties like these consisted in a collaborative knowledge strategy: to create and cultivate CoRe, an intra-organizational knowledge network of researchers (academic staff, students) organized as a community of practice connecting its members around the common task of stewarding research knowledge with a community-oriented approach.

The business strategy for research activities that had been given to us by the top management of the Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences - and that we wanted to implement by means of the CoRe network - had two main strategic purposes: (1) acquiring and realizing major research projects; (2) integrating teaching and research (Bernhard & Bettoni, 2007). Other universities approach the first task by hiring a large number of professional researchers and by putting them together in conventional institutes composed by one or more teams; for the second task the mainstream approach is to simply organize teaching and research activities within one department under the responsibility of one or more professors with remarkable research experience. In our case the situation was different: we did not have the financial resources for hiring a fixed staff of many researchers and we did not have heads of departments with research experience. What we had was research experience distributed over different professors, limited internal research resources within our staff and a large amount of potential external research resources distributed over a wide network of connections.

Given this situation and the mentioned obstacles we found a solution in the new concept of CoRe as a network that connects researchers from two groups: (a) from the internal staff and (b) from the external connections. The new and most challenging aspect of our concept was the way in which we designed the connection between these network members: in fact our idea – based on our constructivist view of knowledge (von Glasersfeld, 1995) - was to connect them around the common task of stewarding their research knowledge in a participative way (Bettoni, 2005).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Software: A term coined for software tools that allow extended online collaboration whereby users can interact and share data. Facebook, Flickr or Ning are examples of this.

Yellow Tool: A knowledge cooperation tool constituted by three components: (1) Yellow Pages, a collection of competence profiles in a wiki; (2) Yellow Map, a knowledge asset diagram visualizing competence profiles with a city map metaphor; (3) Yellow Talk, a moderated conversation event, for talking about the competence profiles and more informally by sharing personal details both asynchronously on a discussion board and synchronously by means of chat and phone conferences.

Web 2.0: Internet applications harnessing collective intelligence by means of an “Architecture of participation” that encourages users to add value to the application as they use it.

Knowledge Cooperation: Participative cultivation of knowledge in a voluntarily, informal social group ( Bettoni 2005 ); deals in equal parts with intellectual and social capital.

Constructivism: A psychological theory of knowledge (epistemology) which argues that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their own experiences.

Bio Teaming: A concept about how we could incorporate natural principles, based on millions of years of evolutionary experience in order to make our teamwork more effective.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation: The process by which newcomers acquire mastery of knowledge and skills through participation in the sociocultural practices of a community

Weak Ties: A term coined by Marc Granovetter, describes the situation in a social system where the ties between the participants are characterized as being rather loose and therefore weak, but nevertheless very important for social networks that are distributed over space and time.

Decentralized Structure: A structure characterized by geographical, chronological, decisional and other kinds of distribution of relevant elements or features.

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