Harman, Kerry and Boud, David and Rooney, Donna and Solomon, Nicky and Leontios, Maria
Co-producing knowledge: negotiating the political.
In: Journal of Vocational Education & Training 5th Conference, 16-18 July 2003, Greenwich, London.
This paper takes its cue from Stronach and MacLure (1997) and hopes to be more problem-generating than problem-solving. We do not want to set down a ‘how to do collaborative research’, but instead explore the methodological and political complexities of doing collaborative research with industry partners. In doing this we want to draw attention to the uncertainties and messy ‘business’ of collaborative research. We are particularly interested in exploring the political tensions around the co-production of knowledge and we ask ‘how might we use research methodologies that incorporate uncertainty and disruption while at the same time remaining credible and legitimate to our research partners and academics?’ We recognise that a ‘methodology of disappointment’, where the ‘comforts of certainty’ are abandoned (Stronach & MacLure, 1997), may not have the same appeal to our industry partners as it does within our research team. And not always do academics enjoy uncertainty! We explore these themes and questions by taking a reflexive look at our own research practice in a collaborative research project that is currently underway in Australia.
Government views on the relationship between research and economic activity are driving changes in research funding arrangements in Australia (Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson MP, 2002). The increase in collaborative research partnerships between universities and industry, as well as an increasing pressure on universities to view their work in commercial terms are evidence of these changes. In these performative times we are told we need to be ‘entrepreneurs’ (Gallagher, 2000) and the commodification of education requires that researchers learn how to play a new game. But does playing the game mean we need to automatically ‘tow the corporate line’ in collaborative partnerships with industry? Stronach and MacLure (1997) suggest that ‘it may be possible to envisage new concepts and practices of research that do not simply surrender to…the general demands of performativity’ (Stronach & MacLure, 1997, p. 100). Luke (1995) writes about a ‘pragmatic politics of the postmodern’ and recommends that it is time to start ‘getting our hands dirty’. Scheeres & Solomon (2000) point out that one way of doing this is to recognise the research methodology as ‘a site of contention’ where a number of different positions can be taken up by researchers. We are interested in this paper in exploring the ways knowledge is being co-produced in the ‘Uncovering Learning’ project and the contested nature of this knowledge production. We adopt an understanding of power, where we are more interested in the way power relations have been negotiated in the project and the spaces this has opened up, rather than assuming that industry is all-powerful. But before exploring the ‘sites of struggle’ of the project and the spaces that have been opened up, we take a closer look at collaborations in the ‘Uncovering Learning’ project.
The ‘Uncovering Learning’ project involves many layers of collaborative partnerships. The project is a three-year Australian Research Council funded project which is part of the strategic partnerships with industry – research and training (SPIRT) program. The project involves a research partnership between the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and the Department of Education and Training (DET), a state government department. DET and UTS are working collaboratively to explore the significance of everyday learning at work. The workplace being studied is TAFE NSW, the state government provider of vocational education and training in NSW. But rather than focusing on TAFE as an educational institution our interest in this project is on TAFE as a workplace. TAFE is a large organisation and employs approximately 35,000 people in NSW.
As well as the partnership between UTS and DET, the research team present as another layer of collaboration. The research team could be described as a ‘cross-boundary’ group, as members come from both inside and outside of TAFE, as well as across various disciplines including adult education, applied linguistics, psychology and organisational behaviour. The team is made up of two senior researchers from UTS, a DET representative who works in the Professional Development Network at TAFE, a research associate and a doctoral student. The research interests of the team members vary and this has contributed to the opening up of project questions and connections beyond the focus of just one discipline. In this sense, we (the research team) could be thought of as the embodiment of the theoretical and knowledge worlds we are studying in the project.
The research team is working collaboratively with four workgroups in TAFE and this illustrates yet another layer of collaboration. The four workgroups that we are working with in the project come from diverse occupational areas and diverse hierarchical levels across two institutes in TAFE. One group are senior level managers in an institute, another are trade teachers, another group works in a human resources unit performing mainly administrative functions and the final group provide business related training in the workplace. While these are the most obvious collaborations, there are many other layers of collaboration connected with the project. For example collaborations between the research team and: the Faculty of Education at UTS; the Research Office; and the Australian Research Council. There are also layers within layers of collaboration, for example the two senior researchers in the project are the academic supervisors of the PhD student.
The contemporary research context and the interrelated layering and multiplicities associated with collaborative partnerships begin to ‘flag’ the political complexities of doing collaborative research. These are foregrounded when we ask: What’s in it for UTS? What’s in it for TAFE? What are the interests of each of the members of the research team? What do the Professional Development Network want from this? What are the interests of each of the workgroup members who are collaborating on the project? The ‘political’ refers to both the macro politics of government policy and the local politics of research teams and workgroups and the alignments between these. We will explore the political complexities of collaborative partnerships further by focusing on some of the ‘sites of struggle’ in the ‘Uncovering Learning’ project.
There is pressure on researchers to produce output-driven knowledge in the contemporary research context (Usher, 2000). The research contract between UTS and DET provides an example of the type of output-driven knowledge that is required in partnership arrangements. For example, the contract states that UTS will provide their industry partner with the following research outcomes:
• Improved recognition of the learning to be found in the organisation, to the benefit of both the organisation and individual employees.
• Improved understanding by key personnel in the organisations of the ways in which organisational culture and procedures encourage or inhibit learning, and the issues which need to be resolved in developing the learning organisation.
• Improved learning systems and learning strategies in the organisation that will more effectively facilitate learning embedded in practice.
But rather than providing just a straight ‘outcomes’ focus for the project we have attempted to reconcile the performative contractual obligations with our own research interests and desires. In this sense, the methodology of the project becomes a ‘site of struggle’. Various ‘openings’ have been created in the project to move it beyond a performative focus. One way we have done this is by disrupting conventional educational discourses of learning. Stronach and MacLure suggest that rather than providing certainty through educational research that a better strategy might be ‘…to see how far it can get by failing to deliver simple truths’ (1997, p. 6). While they are referring to commissioned research for the development of educational policy by government, we can see that this is also a useful way for approaching industry contracted research in the field of workplace learning. While contemporary adult learning discourses such as lifelong learning and situated learning have contributed to breaking down the old binaries between work and learning, these discourses do not challenge performative notions of what counts as learning in organisations. We are interested in mobilising the meanings of ‘learning’ and opening up different ways of thinking about learning at work.
The above discussion suggests a unified purpose within the research team, however, the cross-boundary nature of the research team has meant a multiplicity of interests and desires. We have different ideas on what the project should be doing and what we want out of the project. But rather than adopting a research methodology based on consensus, with unified research goals and objectives, we have tried to open-up space in the project for a multiplicity of voices, identities, meanings and narratives (Rooney, Boud, Harman, Leontios, & Solomon, 2003). Having said this, we have still followed the established model of research where researchers: enter the workplace, collect data, analyse the data, and report the findings to our research partner, academic communities and other relevant agencies. But within this structure we have disrupted and made space for different voices. For example there have been different ways of analysing and making sense of the data we have collected. One version adopted an interpretive approach and examined the ‘who we learn from at work’ (Boud & Middleton). Another focused on the discourses of learning and explored the ‘naming of learning at work’ (Boud & Solomon, 2003). Still others used a communities of practice framework (Leontios, Boud, Harman, & Rooney, 2003).
There are many examples from the project of the contested nature of co-produced knowledge. Some of these are referred to in other papers from the project (Rooney et al., 2003; Solomon, Boud, Leontios, & Staron, 2001) while many just do not get written up. Some project stories remain unwritten and only circulate in oral accounts. This is yet another instance of negotiating the political, where some things just can’t be written.
While wanting to disrupt and challenge, there is also the recognition that the members of the research team have ‘business’ interests. For example, the academics are in the business of research where there is a need for ongoing contracts with industry partners, and this is less likely when you are using a ‘methodology of disappointment’! The tensions around ‘disrupting’, ‘contesting’ and ‘resisting closure’ in the ‘Uncovering Learning’ project were foregrounded in the project during feedback sessions with the workgroups. After conducting initial interviews with members from each of the workgroups, feedback sessions were organised to move the project into its second stage, where we would be working with each of the workgroups on a ‘learning’ project. A document was prepared which we presented to the workgroups, not as a document of ‘facts’, but more as a trigger for conversations about their learning. In this sense it was a document that raised questions rather than provide simple truths. It was around this time that dissatisfaction was expressed by some of the workgroups about the project. They felt it was vague and lacked direction. The hybridity and looseness of the project needed to be ‘tightened up’ for us to establish legitimacy with the workgroups. We made a strategic decision to present a coherent story to each of the workgroups in an effort to seduce.
It is important to recognise that when we talk about collaborative partnerships as sites of struggle it is not as simple as drawing an academy/industry divide. Further complexity is added when we take into consideration that one of the ‘we’ writing this paper is also an employee of the partner organisation and representative of the industry partner on the research team. There are struggles around managing the outcomes focus required by your employer while not wanting to restrict the ‘intellectual freedom’ of project team members.
Overall, our reflexive tales point to the political nature of collaborative research. Collaborative partnerships connect multiple stakeholders with different accountabilities. The ‘multiplicities’ within collaborative research produce messiness and uncertainty, but with this ‘messiness’ there is also regulation. This account of the project draws our attention to the tensions around ‘messiness’, hybrid methodologies and regulation, and these tensions provide yet another layer of political complexity.
While the messy research of our collaborative partnership may produce discomfort, for both industry partners and academics, we suggest they are productive. Our hybrid methodology/s have enabled the opening-up of spaces in the research project and the production of knowledge about learning, and researching learning at work. Our reflexivity has enabled us to explore the tensions around co-producing knowledge. We have found these practices ‘useful’ in our performative research context.
Actions (login required)