PhD conclusions: blogging practices of knowledge workers

This page is a draft of the conclusions of my PhD research, which is focused on describing blogging practices of knowledge workers. It summarises relevant results from the studies I did and then blogging practices across those in respect to specific parts of the framework below that I use as a view on what knowledge work entails. A shorter version of it is in this blogpost. [Update: see also final version of the dissertation]

Knowledge work framework

Ideas

The study of my personal blogging practices provides an insight of uses of weblog as a personal knowledge base that supports different activities around the weblog content: low-threshold creation of entries, flexible and personally meaningful way to organise and maintain them, opportunities to retrieve, reuse and analyse blog content and to engage with others around it. Since blogging (both reading and writing) does not require much effort it could often fit in a middle of working on something else, providing a way for keeping awareness of ideas of others, as well as capturing those and own emergent insights in a blogpost. The public nature of blogging turns into an additional motivation to document emergent ideas, taking an effort for clarifying them for others and treating the weblog as a legitimate place to share thinking in progress. Over time ideas on a topic accumulate and connections between them become more clear. Browsing through the archives when writing a new post, multiple ways to organise posts, as well as the feedback that comes from the readers turn blogging into a set of sense-making practices that I call “everyday grounded theory”. Eventually an idea is “ripe” and ready to become part of a specific task (in my own case, usually it is doing research or writing about it).

Studies of weblog conversations and networking between KM bloggers provide insights into the social nature of this process. Studies of weblog conversations illustrate how one’s own thinking over time (conversation with self) is weaved into collaborative thinking (conversations with others, those in comments to a blog post or distributed between multiple weblogs). They also show differences between bloggers in respect to using weblogs to support their thinking: patterns of connecting one’s own posts with links differ between bloggers, probably as a result of personal choices in respect to purposes of using a weblog, its content and style. Distributed and open-ended nature of interacting via weblogs conversations supports tangential conversations that explore fuzzy or unexpected ideas.

The study of networking between KM bloggers gives an insight into how “distributed sense-making networks” and “collective intelligence” work. Monitoring weblogs of people in their network bloggers maintain awareness of the ideas “flowing” through it and then join into conversations that interest them to develop those ideas further. Being person-centred weblogs allow to “cross over” between topics when reading and writing in a way difficult with group-oriented tools. Some bloggers appreciate and explicitly seek variety of perspectives within weblogs they read and in a selection of those to follow.

In the Microsoft case, employee weblogs provide a way to stay aware of the ideas of customers and colleagues, creating an opportunity for unexpected developments. In some cases weblogs are used as a personal or team knowledge bases, documenting ideas and experiences in a space where those are easy to retrieve and might benefit from the feedback of others. In addition bloggers who do not intentionally use weblogs that way report returning to old blogposts for reflection or reuse.

In sum, blogging practices of knowledge workers in respect to ideas could be described as the following:

  • Weblogs are used to maintain awareness of the ideas “out there” through reading in small bites, using weblogs of others as trusted sources and own network as a filter.
  • Weblogs provide a space for articulating and capturing ideas that might be undocumented or hidden in private collections otherwise, parking them in a trusted external repository shared with others.
  • Blogging is used for sense-making supported by writing, multiple ways to organise and assess one’s own blog posts and conversations with other bloggers.
  • When developing ideas the person-centric and open-ended nature of blogging brings unexpected insights that cross topical boundaries.
  • Over time ideas captured and organised in weblogs provide a fertile ground for reflection and reuse.

Conversations

Two studies of weblog conversations reported in this dissertation show that weblog conversations include fragments (weblog posts and comments) distributed between multiple weblogs and connected by links. Those conversations are difficult to trace and visualise. Relatively high interactivity between KM bloggers compared to the reports on weblog interactivity in the literature, suggests a relation between social context and the occurrence and character of weblog conversations.

The study of the Actionable Sense conversation shows that participation in weblog conversations involves choosing communication channels (weblog comments, links between weblogs or other media) and linking as a way to connect conversational fragments and to retain an overview. Resulting conversational structures combine conversations with self and others, and could branch into multiple topics or languages.

The study of conversations with self and others in the KM blogger community shows that weblog conversations do not happen all the time, but rather include bursts of interaction between bloggers. It shows that conversations with others are integrated into one’s “conversations with self”, personal narratives and thinking in the weblogs of the participants. Connections between different conversations made by a blogger in his own weblog through self-linking provide bridges between different conversations with others and may result in a mega-conversation, a network of linked posts that connects multiple participants and topics.

The study of KM blogger networking indicates that weblog conversations (especially those between weblogs) are essential for developing ideas through collective intelligence and bonding between bloggers. It suggests that blogging provide opportunities for both at the same time: a way to access and exchange information with others without personal connection as well as an interaction that is informed and embedded into a history of communication and relations between the participants. The study shows that weblog conversations might be accompanied by interaction via other communication channels, especially when there is a need for a direct interaction with a particular goal in mind or the one that requires private, confidential or vulnerable writing.

According to the results of the Microsoft study weblogs support conversations with others by providing an alternative communication channel that allows reaching external audiences (e.g. customers) faster by bypassing official channels or audiences interested in a topic, but not known in advance. They provide a way to share a personal perspective on work-related matters, provide information without fear of spamming others. Compared to other media, information in weblogs is more visible and more likely to be found.

In sum, blogging practices of knowledge workers in respect to conversations could be described as the following:

  • Weblog conversations are informed by and embedded into histories of writing in individual weblogs as well as history of interactions and relations between participating bloggers. Those contexts are not necessarily explicit and visible to everyone who participates.
  • Since weblog conversations involve communicating via comments to a specific weblog and via linking across weblogs they are fragmented and distributed over multiple weblogs. In addition, those conversations may be supplemented by interacting via other media. The distributed and fragmented nature of weblog conversations results in exposure to different audiences, crossing multiple topics, combining individual input and the power of dialogue.
  • In comparison to other tools, participation in weblog conversations requires extra effort that includes manually connecting conversational fragments by linking, and well as creating and maintaining an overview of those fragments. This effort limits the scale or frequencies of such conversations and also makes them more likely to happen within densely-knit networks of bloggers.
  • Weblogs provide a possibility for an occasional interaction rather than support constant conversations. They are not particularly suitable for goal-oriented conversations, but provide a fertile ground for exploring ideas, especially those that cross topical boundaries or where the interests of others are not known in advance.
  • Participation in weblog conversations contributes to developing ideas and relations that often cross boundaries and exclude intermediaries.

Relations

The results of the study of networking between KM bloggers show that blogging extends professional networks, connecting bloggers across topical, geographical, organisational and hierarchical boundaries with people with similar professional interests and shared values. In the process of discovering interesting others weblogs serve as attractors and filters: writing a weblog invites others who resonate with it to comment and link back, while weblogs one reads provide recommendations of potentially interesting others. Since weblogs are rather person-centred than strictly focused on a predefined topic, a blogger often writes about a variety of personally relevant issues, exposing readers to potentially new and unexpected topical areas and other bloggers within those. A weblog serves as “living portrait” of its author: by making visible the history of her thinking and interaction, personal details and cues about one’s personality and passions, it allows others to get to know her from a distance and then decide to engage further or not. The connections between bloggers grow through interacting over time, starting from conversations in blog comments and between weblogs, and then “spilling over” to other channels and meeting in person. The knowledge of each other, trust and a history of interaction then enable bloggers to collaborate to get things done together, however, joint work is usually carried out via other channels. For established relations, blogging provides a way to stay in touch without necessarily interacting directly, often complemented by use of other tools.

KM bloggers report not only about establishing personal relations with others as a result of blogging, but also non-personal ones, when another blogger is viewed as a trusted information source. Weblogs provide opportunities for both: a way to access and exchange information with others without personal connection, as well as a space to engage with others personally, building relations through creating affinity, demonstrating commitment and negotiating attention of others.

The study of employee blogging at Microsoft illustrates how weblogs contribute to maintaining one’s own reputation, finding others inside and outside of the organisation though exposing own interests or developing trusted relations as a result of being open and passionate. It also shows how the company’s public image is changed when bloggers personally engage with others outside organisational boundaries.

In sum, blogging practices of knowledge workers in respect to relations could be described as the following:

  • Personal nature of blogging plays an important role in establishing professional connections. Weblogs are often treated as online representations of their authors, living business cards.
  • Weblogs are used for establishing and maintaining both, personal relations with other bloggers and informational relations that involve treating other bloggers as trusted information source without engaging in person.
  • In both cases it is “connecting through content“, where the person-centric nature of blogging plays an important role in establishing trust (either in blogger as a person or as an information source) and connecting across boundaries.
  • Networking via weblogs is enabled by publishing and interaction. Publishing allows efficient broadcasting on a variety of topics to often unknown audiences and is essential for being present as a blogger, getting to know others and making informed choices about engaging with them, and as a low-key way to stay in touch. While bloggers do not actively interact all the time, it is the conversations between them over time that help to establish personal bonds that eventually enable getting things done together.
  • While personal relations are often initially established via blogging, over time multiple channels come into play to monitor others and to interact with them.

Tasks

In my own case using the weblog to work directly on the core tasks, doing research and reporting about it, is an exception rather than a rule; however blogging supports those indirectly. In a case of research writing it not only creates the need to connect multiple fragments into a bigger whole, but also helps working on it, turning ideas into a product. It supports writing by providing inspiration, content to reuse, and opportunities to structure an argument and discuss it with an audience before it becomes part of a final product.

The study of networking between KM bloggers illustrates that blogging enables working together with other bloggers by creating opportunities for informed choices about with whom to collaborate and by building shared understanding and trust. When it comes to doing the work itself or reporting about it, a weblog is not necessarily the tool to choose since such work requires a different mode of writing and interaction, and might not benefit from being visible in a weblog.

The results of the Microsoft study illustrate that in some cases blogging becomes part of the work (when it is a part of a job description, has specially allocated time and judged during performance appraisals) or the focus of specific tasks (when bloggers start working on Microsoft blogging products). However, more commonly it is serves as an optional instrument for working on tasks that involve documentation, communication or relationship building. Blogging could be chosen for it intentionally (e.g. to promote a product in a product weblog), used ad-hoc (a question related to the current task is asked in a weblog) or brought into play in retrospect (using previously documented ideas for a report or article). In addition, blogging contributes to working on specific tasks indirectly, by changing the flow of information and knowledge in the company and outside of it: creating opportunities for unexpected connections across boundaries, allowing efficient direct communication and providing access to ideas.

In sum, blogging practices of knowledge workers in respect to working on specific tasks could be described as the following:

  • The open-ended and public nature of weblogs does not necessarily makes them a good tool to work directly on tasks, so in most cases weblogs are used for enabling work, rather than doing it. Weblogs influence one’s work indirectly when they are used for developing ideas, engaging in conversations and establishing relations that might be needed in the future:
    • documented ideas might be reused and reworked, accelerating working on tasks;
    • relations with others make it possible to engage them when needed;
    • conversations result in unexpected ideas and relations that can turn into new projects or contribute to the on-going ones.
  • Blogging might became more closely integrated with one’s work when it requires working on tasks that match the medium, for example, those that require documenting potentially useful ideas, relationship building or communicating to a broad audience.
  • While in some cases blogging might become the required way to perform one’s work or a focus of it, in most cases it is added to a pool of various tools one can use to work on a task. Knowledge workers choose to use blogging as an instrument when it works for them and do it intentionally, ad-hoc or in retrospect.

Context

The study of blogging PhD ideas shows how discovering added value of blogging results in making it part of work through changing working practices to integrate blogging, blogging during working ours and bringing it during a performance appraisal. However, it also illustrates how one could be “locked” into specific weblog technology because of integrating blogging and work and how blogging confronts hierarchical relations and existing practices (such as blind peer review). Blogging also challenged my personal practices of dealing with information: in my case the network expansion and access to abundant, divergent and potentially useful information as a result of blogging resulted in information overload and withdrawal from blogging. The study also shows an interrelation between personal and social in blogging: I articulate the challenges of serving own needs vs. those of others when blogging and the difficulties that arise around ownership and attribution of ideas developed through collective intelligence.

Studies of KM bloggers give an insight into the effort that goes into choosing and managing tools to communicate with other bloggers, as well learning the limits and possibilities of weblog technologies and developing practices of dealing with those (e.g. creating summaries to deal with lack of conversation tracking tools or trusting the network to bring important ideas back). Studies of blogging conversations illustrate the challenges of mapping connected fragments across weblogs: while we used tools developed especially for this research to make sense of what is going on, bloggers have to find a way to do so without having an access to those.

The study of networking between KM bloggers gives insight into their practices relevant to managing the specifics of weblog-mediated networking. As bloggers networks expand and expose them to more people, they manage this exposure by limiting the number of new contacts or degree of engagement with others, making choices not to engage personally with everyone and selective reading of weblogs. Treating weblogs as their online representation, living and persistent at the same time, bloggers make choices about their own public images, resolving conflicts between different perspectives and needs of different audiences.

The Microsoft case illustrates how blogging by employees of a company, often started by personal initiative and supported by personal investment, can easily become beneficial from a business perspective, raising expectations of work-related value or concerns about risks. For example, visibility of a blogger, her work and expertise, may result in undesired communication overhead, time spent dealing with high reader expectations or with taking care of negative effects inside and outside of the organisation. As a result blogging turns into an arena of negotiations and interplays between personal and organisational interests and concerns when making choices. Based on the results of the study I suggest a set of facets to position a weblog on a scale between a private affair (e.g. a diary published for family and friends) and strictly work-related instrument (e.g. weblog as a way to collect team progress reports) referring to factors that shape a weblog (its location, uses, content and style), the authority making decisions (regarding starting a weblog, specific blogging episodes and technology used) and integration of blogging with work (affiliation with company, impact, including into job description, time used for blogging and content ownership).

In sum, blogging practices of knowledge workers in respect to context could be described as the following:

  • Blogging on professionally interesting topics often results in a degree of integration with work, even when started without such an intention. In business settings blogging is neither purely individual nor business-driven – the choices that shape a particular weblog are multifaceted and weblogs of individual knowledge workers are positioned on various places between the extremes.
  • Bloggers have to deal with the effects of visibility that comes as a result of blogging. While visibility might be a driving force for blogging and a reason for many positive effects it brings (e.g. ideas and people being found) it also comes with challenges of dealing with expansion of networks and information overload, changes in power distribution when crossing hierarchical or organisational boundaries, raised expectations and making mistakes in public.
  • Given that blogging is shaped by and useful in different contexts that often result in incomparable requirements, bloggers have to make choices and draw the boundaries deciding if they blog for themselves or others, do it for connecting with peers or a business gain, or how personal their work-related weblog should be.
  • Blogging is creating microcontent, but the value of it is in the connections and patterns across those fragments over time. It is also efficient in exposing a blogger to a great number of ideas and people across various boundaries. So, learning to deal with fragmentation and abundance is part of blogging practices.
  • Choosing, managing and ‘working around’ tools is part of blogging. Next to making choices about the technology set-up for their weblogs when starting, bloggers constantly deal with making choices about media to engage with others. Various tools used for that purpose require the effort of maintaining contacts across them and learning how to maximise their potential and account for limitations.