Beyond information: factors in participation in networks of practice, a case study of web management in UK Higher Education


Purpose To explore the pattern and significance of cross-organizational ties in an emergent professional field, web production in UK Higher Education. Methodology/Approach The research is based on in-depth interviews with 21 practitioners and analysis of activity in cross-organizational spaces, such as an online community and a series of annual practitioner conferences on the web in HE (1997-). Findings The cross organizational spaces have support and symbolic roles as well as informational ones. They have overlapping but different membership and agendas. Key factors that govern individual participation and so the shape of cross-organizational spaces are differential involvement in technical innovation, degree of organizational embedding or marginality, differences in organizational position and role, orientation towards centralisation or decentralisation and orientation towards marketing or IT. There is some sense of occupational community among web managers, but within that also diversity and a significant fracture line between marketing and IT perspectives on the role. This may explain the lack of formal professionalization. As a more natural boundary practice between organizations than marketing, IT has more public visibility, possibly influencing the course jurisdictional struggles over who should control the web. Research limitations/implications As a heavily contextualised study, its detail reflects particular features of HE in the UK at one period as well as specific aspects of the web as a technology. Nevertheless, underlying factors which seem to influence participation and non-participation in cross-organizational networks may be generalisable to many occupations, particularly where knowledge is rapidly changing. Practical implications Some suggestions about how cross-organizational knowledge sharing is most effectively supported can be derived from the analysis. IT is a natural focus for cooperation, but there is a risk of this masking the importance of other professional practices. Efforts at formal professionalization may be devisive because people have different professional ambitions and there are individual and organizational benefits in not professionalizing the role formally. New practitioners may be the most active in using extra-organizational networks to assist them to become more embedded locally. Old hands, though they have high prestige and centrality, may increasingly take their own path away from the community. Aspects of local roles such as involvement in innovation or decentralist strategies favour participation in cross-organizational networks. Originality/value of paper Most studies of knowledge sharing have focussed on the factors which influence it within an organization, yet cross-organizational sharing is also of importance, even for established professions as the boundaries of organizations become more open. For new occupations cross-organizational ties may be a critical resource, and not only for sharing information or support, but for making sense of what the job is about at the deepest level. The research is also original in analysing a relatively little researched occupational group, those producing web sites for a living. It will be relevant to those interested in online and people centred information seeking, in professionalization and occupational identity

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