The beginnings of a theory of participation

After several days of being immersed in my research data I am starting to see patterns appearing around the use of wikis in Small to Medium Enterprises.

One of the repeated findings in my study was the user's awareness that the wiki was only going to be valuable if everybody was participating. They spoke of an awareness that a solo effort was a waste of time and effort.

Below is my first try at mapping the interactions between these concepts and uses the actual labels used by the participants in the study. There is minimal theory in this framework. Each link is based on evidence in the data. I share it because I am interested in feedback, both from practitioners and academics. Not just on the model itself, but also if people have seen similar frameworks published. I'm sure I cannot be the only one seeing these interactions in the wild?

The key for my study seems to hinge around group participation in the wiki. This participation generates both tangible and intangible benefits which can boost trust and encourage further spontaneous participation which was the hallmark of all the successful wiki implementations in the study.

Many people currently talking about Enterprise 2.0, including Andrew McAfee himself, mention the process of evolution where both the functions and even the tools themselves are modified or replaced over time to best suit the needs of the business. Often the idea of success or failure is based on the notion of participation. For example, Safe-Fail can be useful to detect the success or failure of systems based on the concept that participation in these systems is an emergent behaviour of a complex system, so it is unreasonable to be able to predict beforehand which tools will gain participation simply by comparing software features with business requirements.

I am interested in three areas surrounding this:
  1. What drives an employee to use or not use a tool?
  2. What part does the culture of the organisation play in this process?
  3. What can be done to kick start a successful adoption?
I hope you will be kind enough to take a few minutes to consider these questions, the model and how these factors might be improved based on your theories.

Post a Comment


Anonymous said…
I'm not sure I understand the meaning in the directions of the arrows.

Is it your hypothesis that participation is based on soft benefits, which is based on trust, which is based on collaboration, etc?

Stuart French said…
It's a good question Matt.

The arrows indicate "Contributes to".

So the soft-benefits of participation (ie: finding helpful and timely information, learning who an expert is, developing relationships with key users, knowing what is going on outside your sphere on accountability, etc) seems to contribute to the level of trust in the group. This can be either trust in the validity of the content, or trust they others will gain a benefit from their work. This seems to contribute to spontaneous participation and growth. A lack of trust within the group or company seems to inhibit spontaneous use and the only participation is mandated through workflows or specific management directives. Some of this leaks over to the intangible side, but not enough to allow the wiki to grow substantially outside the original department.
Anonymous said…
Hi Stuart,

I read your post earlier this morning, and went away to have a think. Seeing your post on actKM, let me give you a couple of pieces of feedback.

(a) I like it. It has a simplicity and I think a pretty accurate split between the complex and structured domain.

(b) By "leadership" do you mean top-level leadership, or a "leader" who takes charge of the wiki? Is "organizing" or "ownership" perhaps more appropriate?

(c) Is "culture" really the only bridging factor? I could make a case for "management" being a bridge between "soft benefits" and "hard benefits"...

But good on you for putting this out there. I think it's a thought-provoking piece.
Stuart French said…
Thanks Stephen,

I intentionally used the term leadership because it was regularly mentioned by some the participants.
It tended to be used generally and often without context. In this way, some used it as an implicit way of saying "Somebody needs to stand up and lead". Most times this was local, sometimes at a corporate level, but not necessarily referring to an official management role. This was especially apparent at companies where there was low trust and no clear mandate to use the wiki, therefore the wiki tended to work in small integrated teams where local trust was high, but failed to transition to the wider corporation.

In terms of other spanners, I will have to think more about that. I am using the term culture from a complexity theory viewpoint. The two main cultural facets that stood out were:
Successful companies: Spontaneous and collaborative traits and norms.
Companies with local success only: Strong structures, tight control of information flows, fairly hierarchical management structures.

As such, Culture by this definition would include management interactions both with the tools (via KPIs, Guidelines, etc) and the people (via C&C).

Thanks for getting involved and helping me think it through.
Anonymous said…
@Stuart: I also agree with your comment on leadership equating to management, particularly as a prerequisite to the organisational sphere and success.

You could also further expand this to thought-leaders and champions as a vehicle or bridging factor back into the formal leadership structure as @stephen suggests.

I've noted this later factor in my own improvements to this theory insofar as participation leads to a shared understanding of the benefits which, in turn, is embedded into the culture.

Really interesting post and theory Stuart.

I'm working on my masters thesis on the use of idea markets in corporate settings. Of course, wiki's are not idea markets, but they both fit under the Enterprise 2.0 hat (McAfee).

A specialist in this field is Danish Company Nosco, and I've had the chance to work on a few projects for them now.

What I've seen so far is that;

-Leadership participation leads to higher levels of adoption -if done right. It has to be "authentic", though.

-Many user tell us that they want a tangible success story - Proof of the systems benefits- this will drive their adoption of the system in the future.

- Furthermore, idea markets have the convenience of a reward (prizes) for system use, but users are more motivated by the recognition of their peers for their ideas and ability to predict what ideas will be popular.

-We see network effects. Much like the Google Report on prediction markets, we see that physical proximity and personal network does play a part.

I hope this is of use to you.

Stuart French said…
Good points Kristoffer,

I have people talking about stories in my data but I didn't code them as such. I will review it again and see what I find. Testimonies of both successes and failures are always good tools to spur and shape growth. It will be interesting to see if it was the successful companies that used stories or not.

Interestingly, the idea of rewards was brought up, both times by the companies that only had local success. I'm not sure if the use of incentives flows from a cultural bias that is also not conducive to wiki growth (precursor factor), or whether this was simply an idea that most people would reach for when a tool like this isn't being taken up by the general population (resultant factor). Have to think about that too.

I appreciate the feedback and ideas. Very helpful.

@magia3e, I like the way you have inverted the two domains in your updated model, however the change from Complex Domain to Personal Domain shifts the model away from the data somewhat, which I am trying desperately not to do.

My goal in putting this model together is first to take a poke at possible links between the observed factors to suggest a causal network at play, and second to see if others had competing theories that would counter any of these relationships.

Your model is more focused on a meta-theory for adoption rather than a description of observed evidence around participation. I would like to develop it more with you after Christmas once the research side of it is out of the way.
Patrick Lambe said…
What would happen if the complex and structured domains were layers above/below each other instead of being side by side with "crossover" points?
Stuart French said…
Thanks Patrick,

It's comments like that, that make sharing this stuff raw worthwhile.

A layered theory is a good way to overcome the objections to the seperated domains presentation.

When I first drew this out, I had the concept in my head similar to physical and spiritual dimensions overlapping. Where the Org Structure including the tangibles of explicit processes, financial systems, etc representing the physical dimensions and the social and intangibles (ie: personal tacit knowledge and distributed cognition) representing the spiritual dimensions.

Looking at your idea now I'm wondering why I didn't think of it myself.
Anonymous said…
Stuart - Have you done anything more with this? I don't recall anything new from the blog since this posting. I've been pondering it for a while.
Stuart French said…
Hi Jack,

I have developed this a little further in my Masters Thesis, however I can't release that until I publish from it.

Life has been pretty hectic with work, conference speaking and preparation for an ERP rollout since finishing (I actually graduate in two days time). I have kept my musings mainly on Twitter (@DeltaKnowledge) rather than this blog, where I like to present more thought through positions.

Now things are starting to slow down a little I will continue this work as I publish the findings of my research.

Stay tuned!