(version of september the 6th; it should be revised soon)

A Strengthened Community of Practice: Online Problem-solving and Base of Knowledge-base building by the Inspectors of the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CSST)

1996-1999

Executive Summary

SUMMARY

INTRODUCTION

DESCRIPTION OF THE WORKPLACE AND HISTORY OF THE INSPECTORS' FORUM

MANDATE AND OBJECTIVES OF THE CASE STUDY

THEORICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS

WORK HYPOTHESES, ATTRIBUTES AND PROPERTIES OF DISCUSSION FORUMS

QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE DISCUSSION FORUM AND THE KNOWLEDGE BASE "INFORMATION EN PRÉVENTION ET INSPECTION"

CONCLUSION

APPENDICES

INTRODUCTION

 

The context: the setting of a new organizational culture

 

This joint project, subsidized by the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence and the Bureau des technologies d’apprentissage (BTA) has been led by the members of Équipe TACT of the Faculté des sciences de l’éducation de l’université Laval, with the support of the Centre francophone d’informatisation des organisations (CEFRIO) and the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail du Québec (CSST). The workplace of the CSST inspection and prevention service, in particular its discussion forum and its related knowledge base, appeared to have developed an innovative online practice of collaborative knowledge building. A few years earlier and like other services, the prevention and the inspection have found themselves at the centre of a vast cultural reorganization. Within a few years, the practice of the prevention and inspection’s interveners has been considerably transformed. A neeed for cooperation and collaboration then appeared between interveners themselves and the organizational clientele: businessmen and workers. The CSST has elaborated, planned and applied, together with its employees, enforceable strategies to make sure that this organisation could better exploit its knowledge and expertise fund in conformity with its new objectives: 1)- managing a law and its regulations that prioritize a customer-based approach supported and facilitated by a better communication between various institutional interveners, businessmen and workers; 2)- managing a more "organic" organisation by setting up cooperation and collaboration networks inside as well as outside; 3)- managing a more dynamical and efficient work organisation implementing a new workplace supported by networked computers.

Summary

 

DESCRIPTION OF THE WORKPLACE AND HISTORY OF THE INSPECTORS' FORUM

 

The description of a workplace

 

The virtual workplace of the prevention interveners is made of four major blocks: a discussion forum and three knowledge bases. The main tool remains the discussion forum called " L’Appel à tous". The knowledge bases, on their part, are places of memory where the information judged relevant to the accomplishment of roles and responsibilities handed down to the actors are recorded. For the purpose of the study, we have not considered the " domaines questionnés" and the "Banque de connaissances en prévention et en inspection". The first one is just an indexed and classified clone of the discussion forum. The second is practically ex situ to the processes of problem solving generated by the discussion forum. However, we have retained the knowledge base entitled "Information en prévention et inspection" because it extends, in some extent, the interaction produced in the discussion forum.

 

History of a networked discussion forum

 

Efficiency and simplicity are the two main attributes that have guided the decision-makers, in 1996, at the time of the implementation of the discussion forum. It started up as a support to the main actors involved in the promotion, support and prevention of health and security at work. Already, in 1997, the analysis of the forum showed relevant statistics. 154 questions had been asked on a range of various subjects. Each question had received 2,3 responses and 10,5 days were required to end a discussion. Consequently, an added value came on top of the prevention and inspection service. However, this new public communication and exchange network was confined to a defined group of workers. In 1999, 228 people were empowered to ask and answer questions and 718 had access to the forum in a reading mode.

Summary

MANDATE AND OBJECTIVES OF THE CASE STUDY

 

This case study lies within a larger problem issue, to identify the best networked practices for the benefit of all. A series of interrogations have guided us: How does the CSST work on a network? How did it developed its distributed expertise? What are the benefits? How does it solve, online, complex and varied problems? How does it keep track of its strategic innovation? Do we perceive limits and constrains?

Summary

 

THEORICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS

 

The notion community of practice has its origins in the works of John Seely Brown when he published, in the early 1990s, his research on photocopiers repairmen at Xerox. One of his acknowledgments was that strategic information, the one carrying, on the short term, knowledge building, was communicated ex situ in an informal way to the traditional sequential and linear training methods. This photocopier or fountain syndrome, associated to the transfer of the tacit knowledge of professional practice, was also investigated by some educators. Lave and Wenger have underlined, at that same period, all the importance of legitimate peripheral participation, that is, the one allowing the acquisition of a relevant knowledge (knowledge, abilities, attitudes) by a beginner as he enters a group where not only he is accepted but where he is also given tasks and responsibilities according to his capacities. The whole situationist movement, developed during the last decade, has emphasised the significant context of a real work situation as being a powerful lever to knowledge building. This situated learning approach very well fitted the one favouring problem-based learning and anchored instruction. This is where originated the comprehensive investigation done by Wenger in the middle of the 90s. Practice, as learning and working intimately linked to the processes of creating meaning, and negotiation through cooperation and collaboration. In the field of organisational management, Davenport and Prusak continued to explore this avenue by referring themselves to the knowledge management movement. An organisation becomes collectively intelligent when it is able to network, daily, all actors of a defined practice, so that they co-produce innovation and efficient problem solving within determined schedule. Trough the cyberspace, a community of practice differs from a community of interest. One is more appropriate for sharing problem solving strategies and the other for exchanging views on a common subject. In the case of the CSST, both are present. On one hand, the prevention and inspection staff belongs to a community of interest by their cultural insights. On the other hand, these actors are also forming a community of practice through their own pratice and the problem solving strategies that they are communicating and sharing between them.

Summary

WORK HYPOTHESES, ATTRIBUTES AND PROPERTIES OF DISCUSSION FORUMS

 

Our working hypothesis are based on five points describing the benefits generated by a community of practice using a discussion forum in an asynchronous way: 1) an increased flexibility in terms of information sharing and the time devoted to learning and work; 2) an experimentation of the negotiation required to solve problems by the means of cooperation and collaboration; 3) a continuous co-learning and co-expertise cycle between peers by the means of interaction generated by participants; 4) some knowledge, values and work ethics building leading to the creation of a distributed collective intelligence; 5) the conservation and archival of problems solving accumulated within a collective memory space.

Summary

 

QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE DISCUSSION FORUM AND THE KNOWLEDGE BASE "INFORMATION EN PRÉVENTION ET INSPECTION"

 

Family picture

 

From 1998 to 1999, some 90 persons participated annually to the CSST prevention and inspection forum. 250 questions have been asked and 450 answers have been transmitted during these 24 months of networked activities. 11.37 days, on average, were required to end a discussion. Each question received an average of 1,75 answers. As for it, the knowledge base " Information en prévention et inspection" registered a sustained growth from year to year: 24 documents presented in 1996, 45 in 1997, 52 in 1998 and 79 in 1999. During these four years, 41 persons presented no less than 200 publications on a voluntary basis. In both cases, it was participants working in the field (i.e. regional directors, foremen and inspectors) that were the main actors. Their participation adds up to 70 percent for the discussion forum and 63,5 percent for the knowledge base. Technological tools were appropriated by those responsible daily for promoting, supporting and preventing health and security at work. Among 21 regional directions, some outstanding, in particular Saguenay-Lac St-Jean, Côte-Nord, Richelieu-Salaberry, Montreal 2, Longueil et Yamaska. The administrative centre of Montreal, as well as the registered office of Quebec have generated an important amount of questions, responses and presented documents. In the discussion forum, of all the management and supporting staff of the administrative centre, the librarians are the most involved.

 

A dropping plan?

 

When comparing 1998 to 1999, in relation to questions asked and transmitted answers, we may say that, statistically, the communication and exchange activities between peers have decreased. However, the relatively stable and identical degree of participation during these two years invalidates this acknowledgement. In fact, the interaction simply matured. Only problematic cases, contentious issues, or extraordinary problematics provoked an " Appel à tous". An abundance of explicit and tacit knowledge is already accumulated within the "domaines questionnés", a clone of the discussion forum, or within the knowledge base "Information en prévention et inspection". Several complex and varied problematics have been accumulated, classed, indexed, analysed, and presented within an active and durable memory.

 

Online problem solving

 

From the interviews conducted potential benefits (see section 4) on some common attributes to problem solving are the following: the sharing of factual and oriented information, the acquisition of new expertise and new competencies, the transversality of experiences, the enlarged distribution of knowledge and procedural knowledge, the search for excellence. The evidence is to the effect that there was an efficient sharing of factual and oriented information according to the nature of demands (administrative request, search for technical solutions adapted to the re-entry of a worker, request from employers interested to improve the health and security of their employees, request to prevent accident in workplaces, inquiry on cases where someone is exposed to danger or resulting from an accident that caused serious injuries or death). In several cases, just-in-time forms of co-learning, co-expertise and co-construction of knowledge combined to on-the-job problem solving activities were identified. By displaying a particular problematic, co-workers, by their questioning, called upon their peers’ tacit knowledge. That knowledge contributed to their capacity to solve the problems they encountered. These assets also hide dividends associated to the search for excellence, to the transversality of experience, and to a strong and recognized distribution of knowledge within that organization.

 

An active, durable and identity memory

 

Through the years, a memory was built. Besides the "domaines questionnés", the knowledge base "Information en prévention et inspection" also fills the archival and conservation service. From 1996 to 1999, voluntary participation was encouraged and the content of that knowledge base increased while diversifying itself. It suited more and more activities covered by the prevention and inspection service. It is becoming a real good old hand of information judged relevant for other peers by participants involved themselves in analogous or similar work routine.

Summary

 

CONCLUSION

 

That virtual collaborative workplace of the prevention and inspection service generated tangible dividend for the CSST and for all participants involved in its mandate and mission. The sharing of factual and oriented information, the co-learning, co-expertise, co-construction of knowledge, the transversality of experiences, the distribution of knowledge, the building of memory places associated to identity and durability were used by the organisation and by the interveners ready to develop their engagement in solving online varied and complex problems. There is one inescapable however. Co-workers relationships remain personalized, even though they present strong collective connotations in terms of finality and accomplishments. Technological tools are perceived, up to a certain point, as accessory. Most actors are aware of belonging to a knowledge-building community in a diffuse way, even if they succeed in monopolizing the usufruct. Despite this flat to the key, this case study shows that it is possible to work and learn online for the benefit of the organisation and its members.

Summary