Tuesday, June 01, 2004

A Foreigner in the Invisible College

This past weekend, I went to a conference in Quebec City. I say “went to” rather than “attended” because I actually didn’t attend anything but a few breakfast buffets and the banquet; it was Claire’s conference.

While the conference sessions were lost on me, I was able to knowledgably observe the academic information behaviour our readings so nicely elucidated. The conference was for the Society for Prevention Research (SPR) and about a thousand people were in attendance. SPR is only about 12 years old and it started as a group of 16 people who had very similar interests and felt confined by the traditional episteme of clinical psychology so they started their own communication circle. Ultimately, this small “community of practice” (1998) or “invisible college” (1972) has become quite popular. The role of the first 16 members, however, is still pronounced. They are still the “core” group that maintains the social contacts. It seemed that everyone at the conference was somehow academically or professionally related to one of the 16. While Crawford (1971) noticed a similar process in the field of sleep research, it should be noted that her work resonates with the work of Milgram (1969) and the recent work of Gladwell (2000).

The conference banquet was quite an interesting affair. I ended up sitting beside the conference chair (Ray Peters) simply because he had been Claire’s supervisor in graduate school and I’ve sat on his deck a number of times drinking beer. Sitting across from me was an elderly Scandinavian fellow: Dan Olweus. I knew the name; Dan is perhaps the most famous researcher on bullying in the world. During the 1970s the Norwegian implemented his program in every school in the nation. According to legend, he was then able to use Sweden as his control group.

Despite the research backgrounds of Ray and Dan, our conversation seemed to centre on bibliometrics. In particular, they were both concerned about the exploding amount of information prevalent in the field of prevention research (see Cronin, 1982). Even the SPR conference no longer seemed to be effective as an information dissemination vehicle. Ray even recounted a bibliographic emergency he had experience in the past year. As part of a national centre of excellence he had been asked to pull together the most important papers in behaviour research from Canadians over the past five years. These papers would then serve as the basis for contributions to some federally sponsored encyclopaedia of community researcher. After talking to a science librarian, he got his list of highly cited papers. Unfortunately, he had never read any of the papers or heard of any of the authors since they were all from pulp like JAMA or Lancet!

For dinner on Saturday we went into the old village for mussels with some new-found friends. I ended up hanging out with Cameron, another tag along. Cameron is a community psychologist but does most of his work with the dissemination of best practices into the field. It was a shock to find someone who actually recognized that information science has nothing to do with computers. Cam told me that it takes about 30-years for best practices to make it from the psychology research to the offices of general practitioners despite the best attempts of consumer health information providers (see Baker, Spang, & Gogolowski, 1998; Baker, Wilson, & Kars, 1997). It seems that we haven’t actually progressed that far from the efforts of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. In the nineteenth century they too struggled with the readability and dissemination of useful information (Weiss, 1991).

My own participation in Quebec City activities was severely hampered because I was in the process of writing a proposal for a conference. I had only very recently found out about the conference and I needed to submit something to Gloria so she could provide a faculty nomination letter. While the experience was a stressful one, I at least have something that may serve as the kernel for my dissertation. It focuses primarily on the information practices of small- and medium-businesses (SME). Diffusion theory may have an important role. Accordingly, I’m now going to ramble on for a bit about diffusion theory and SMEs.


There are a variety of concepts in diffusion theory (Rogers, 1983). My goal is to skim the buzzwords of diffusion and make some attempt to integrate them into my ideas for SMEs.

Communication: Rogers seems to take a very Dervinesque (Dervin & Nilan, 1986) approach to communication and information i.e., reduction of uncertainty and shared construction of meaning. The communication for SMEs may take place through formal or informal channels. There is a tension, however, between their use of informal information and stated preference for codified documentation and hard copies (Compas Inc., 2001; Key small business statistics, 2003).

Uncertainty: Rogers discusses uncertainty in a rather positivist manner i.e., change in probabilities. What the analysis seems to lack, however, is any discussion of cognitive authority (P. Wilson, 1983). This sort of thing would seem to be a no-brainer given his constructivist stance on information. Perhaps it gets covered with his discussion of change agents. There is also the role of ignoring or “blunting” (Miller & Mangan, 1983; T. D. Wilson, 1997) information based on particular world-views (Chatman, 2000; Pendleton & Chatman, 1998). There is certainly room to explore uncertainty in SMEs.

Diffusion: Innovation, communicated through Channels, over Time, among Social System. Diffusion certainly seems to act in SMEs. Innovations, however, are often construed to be artefacts or specific (i.e., explicit) frameworks or methodologies. SMEs have channels (e.g., clients, suppliers, etc. (Compas Inc., 2001)), and a Social System. The informal network may have important ramifications on the hows and whys of communication and choice of channel. The notion of time is an interesting one. Time isn’t necessarily a discrete thing in business. Time seems to flow much more quickly under extreme duress such as the cash flow crises experienced by small firms. Grant’s (via Bakhtin) notion of the chronotope may provide a way into this argument.

Hardware vs. Software: The software of SMEs is pretty easy: people, norms, etc. The norms of SMEs may be different than expected due to the preponderance of family owned firms or the roles of charismatic and entrepreneurial leaders. Perhaps in SMEs we see a conflation of public and personal roles that complicates traditional notions of “social systems” (Goffman, [1959] 2002). In my discussion it becomes difficult to distinguish between software (the social practices of an innovation) and hardware (the innovation). Are hiring methodologies and practices software or hardware?

Innovative Evaluation Information: So this term is supposed to refer to reduction in uncertainty about the expected consequences of an innovation. I suppose it is supposed to distinguish between the normal chatter of daily information and diffusion information. There seems to be a tension here between the close relationship required for constructing cognitive authority and the novelty of information coming from a weak tie (Granovetter, 2003 [1973]). I’m not sure where to go.

Innovations: Relative Advantage, Compatibility, Complexity, Trialability, Observability: Each of these notions for evaluating innovations is well baked into various sales methodologies. Basically, the idea is to show that an innovation offers benefit and is easy to implement. In the case of SMEs evaluating IT decisions, however, word of mouth seems to be the most important factor (Child, 2003) in making decisions. Prototypes (trialability and observability) are also frequently mentioned factors.

Heterophily vs. Homophily: I would assume that most SMEs are fairly heterophilous things given the role of family connections and charismatic leaders. There is, however, some tension here with the nature of information flow. SMEs prefer knowledge from informal sources but if they are all Heterophilous, is every tie weak? How do trusted relationships get established or is that important? Since there is often strong leadership, is the authority or example of that individual sufficient? Perhaps Simmel has something to say (Simmel, 2003 [1922]).

Innovation-Decision Process: Knowledge, Persuasion, Decision, Implementation, Confirmation. Lucky for us, knowledge is important in the decision process. Knowledge—like information—is not, however, a static entity. Kanfer et al. describe knowledge as socially situated information (Kanfer et al., 2000). Conflated with the constructivist perception of information, it seems that Rogers’s notion of knowledge is a bit suspect. It still has to account for the aforementioned factors of cognitive authority and blunting. Persuasion is a similarly interesting notion. How can persuasion float free from our Dervinesque definition of information as a socially constructed result of communication? The decision, implementation, confirmation process seems to be straight forward but I still struggle with “decision”. What is knowledge or information if it doesn’t result in any sort of decision or action?

Innovation Decision: Optional, Collective, Authority, Contingent: In SMEs, every decision is optional and there are few collective or authority innovation decisions. I suppose that government mandated hiring procedures could be constructed as authority decisions and there is also the consideration of the leader within the organization for organization acceptance of the innovation. Contingency is an interesting concept because every adoption decision is contingent on other factors, opportunities, and affordances. Given the lack of formalized procedures in SMEs, these contingent factors may become more important. Notions of bricolage (MacKenzie, 2003) or “heterogenous engineering” (Law, 1987), for example, are always contingent.

Adoption vs. Rejection: I’m not sure if this binary of adoption or rejection is completely appropriate. Doesn’t rejection necessarily mean adoption of an alternative even if it is just the status quo? Nature abhors a vacuum.

Adopter Categories: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards. These categories have been made famous in the business literature by Geoffrey Moore (1999). I have to wonder if SMEs are always early adopters or laggards given the decision-making processes perhaps due to a preference for “gut feel” decisions over formal procedures.

Norms. Mentioned with respect to Chatman’s Theory of Normative Behaviour.

Opinion Leadership. This seems to be an important issue for SMEs. Perhaps opinion leadership is highly related to cognitive authority. It may have something to do with the role of the leader in the organization. Maybe this is an area that I should explore.

Change Agent. A change agent inherently demonstrates opinion leadership. How does this work for SMEs that may be inherently heterophilous in nature and have such fractured group norms and worldviews? It’s a tricky problem. I’m somehow reminded of Chatman’s life in the round (Chatman, 1999) where people purposely shun information based on their roles and expectation. Perhaps this explains SMEs preference on word of mouth for making technology decisions.

Information Overload. This is a big problem for SMEs: there is just too much information. Some areas, however, are unaddressed. Of particularly note is information for making hiring decisions. So we have organizations relying on their weak ties and invisible colleges as a means of processing and filtering information but they then have difficulty processing information of a highly subjective nature. I guess hiring is a subjective and costly decision that can impose some change in affect. This change, then, effects information behaviour (Kuhlthau?).

Aide. Is an aide a poser? Do they lack the required cognitive authority?

Inauthentic Professionalism. Aides may possess inauthentic professionalism. This may represent a sort of negative cognitive authority or perhaps some type of cultural inoculation that limits information transfer and decision making capabilities.

Research Tradition. ?

Criticisms: Pro-innovation Bias, Individual-Blame Bias, Recall Problem, Issue of Equality. While there is considerable potential commentary on these criticisms, I’m interested in the recall problem. Recall is related to people’s abilities to actually remember how they actually adopted a technology. Can this same criticism be levelled at Dervin’s Micro-Moment Timeline methodology? Discussions concerning flashbulb memory may be relevant (e.g., McCloskey, Wible, & Cohen, 1988).

Basic Research vs. Applied Research, Development, Commercialization. Research may not be relevant to SMEs. Instead, they may be in a continuous process of problem solving or bricolage. These processes may then be developed and commercialized by “research” may be too formal a term for what actually goes on.

Discontinuance: Replacement, Disenchantment: Innovations are replaced becomes something better comes along or because people stop using the innovation due to the loss of authority. In this, we perhaps see the concept of relative cognitive authority. If something loses cognitive authority, it no longer gets used. If something else comes along with greater authority, the original entity gets replaced. Does this concept similarly apply to information and documents? Is there a tie here to reader response?

Communication Channel: Interpersonal vs. Media: Interpersonal sources seem to be most important for SMEs but media may play a general awareness raising role… which is exactly what Rogers stated.

Rate of Adoption: The rate of adoption may be dependent on a variety of factors given the structure of the organization. A highly formal or “tightly coupled” organization may have considerably difficulty incorporating new information or innovations because there aren’t the affordances for the information. Does this work? Can organizations be set up to afford information? Is it a process of organizational frameworks and a contingency of worldviews and social types?

Diffusion Effect. As the diffusion spreads, it becomes easier for organizations to adopt it. With information, there is a tension between the potential utility of the innovation and the inherent risks. Common information in not novel information and it lacks value so why adopt it? The problem comes from ways of assessing the “value” of information given the supply. Information doesn’t necessarily play well by neoclassical economic rules. Maybe endogenic theory could help (Langlois, 2001).

Overadoption. See above.

Polymorphism. This term relates to the number of innovations represented by a particular change agent. A polymorphic change agent represents a variety of innovations. Again, we see the tension between specialists and generalists that is so evident in SMEs. Are monomorphic specialists or polymorphic generalists and bricoleurs more important to SMEs?

Monomorphism. See above.

Communication Network. See above.

Interconnectedness. Again, how do we related the number of ties and the interconnectedness of small organizations to information flow. What is the role of gatekeepers (Marshall, 1997; Metoyer-Duran, 1993a, 1993b)? How do documents flow around?

Communication Proximity. See above.

**Too tired… will continue later.

Desirable Consequences.

Undesirable Consequences.

Direct Consequences.

Indirect Consequences.

Anticipated Consequences.

Unanticipated Consequences.

Form, Function, Meaning.

Stable Equilibrium.

Dynamic Equilibrium.



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