Does Collective Learning = Organizational Exploitation? #change11

I had a really interesting comment from Allison Littlejohn in reaction to the Week 4 #change11 MOOC discussion on Collective Learning we are having this week. In her examples about collective learning in organizations or the workplace (or even academia), they all involve crowdsourcing or wisdom of crowds or greater learning by the collective than individually. That is wonderful for the development of large ideas or to solve seemingly inflexible problems, but what happens in the process to the individual?

Sure, the individual can relish in the personal learning, the sense of being part of something much larger, and the experience. However, who owns the product, or the solution? Whose value increases as a result of all that individual work? Yes, the organization or the corporation or the government. Perhaps the shareholders or owners or leadership? Ultimately, the collective benefits those who control it, while the individual components to the collective get swept up into the final product with the individual having little to tangibly show for the efforts. Without a vested interest on the individual level, the collective could probably not be effective.

Now, I have worked in nonprofits and academic institutions for years, and believe in the mission and vision of those organizations where I spend much of my time. I know that when I contribute to the collective, some aspect of society (and not shareholders) get the value of those efforts. However, can’t collective learning be leveraged to exploit the individual members by not giving them credit, or reward, or acknowledgment for their contributions? Can “doing thing for the common good” be said for the benefit of the few, and not necessarily of the many? Thinking in the context of WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?), what is my WIIFM for participating in any formal or organized collective learning experience, if I will not in some way benefit from all my efforts?

Outside of my personal and informal reasons for engaging in collective learning, what is my WIIFM for doing it when others will leverage (exploit?) the results? I am not asking this in a greedy or selfish way, but there is only so much time and energy, and I have to wonder how easily (cf. hegemony) it is to work together, with only a few reaping the significant benefits. Are individuals exploited under the guise of corporate or organizational collective learning?

Goodness, I am now wondering about a potential connection between collective learning and critical management studies!

10 thoughts on “Does Collective Learning = Organizational Exploitation? #change11

  1. Interesting question. (Saw your tweet and was drawn to you post).

    I’m wondering if the WIIFM is something around professional identity. I’m kinda going back to Etienne Wenger and his work on communities of practice. If I am a novice practitioner, my engagement in the “collective” builds my expertise and social standing as a member of the profession. This dynamic still certainly holds true for me even though I have 30 years in business and a handful in academia; the more I engage (consume, contribute), the more I continually develop my professional identity and expertise.

    And that is transportable. Not that I’d ever leave my current gig, but my expertise is – well, MY expertise.

    1. @Jeff Merrell – Thanks for the feedback.

      Good point on this one. While that may be the case within organizations, does that mean that I can or should be selective when I put myself out there to continue to develop my professional identity, if there were some collective learning that were being promoted? In other words, will this mean that if there are not people who can see or otherwise appreciate your contribution, then your professional identity will not be increased?

      I can’t help but wonder how keeping knowledge to myself (not sharing with the collective) will maintain a potential card in my hand. I maintain some power if I keep things to myself, though once I share I have nothing left to offer (and thus am not needed in a challenging economy).

      Your community of practice example would help level the participants into a community, though I am not sure if collective learning, as per Allison’s work, requires or otherwise promotes a community.

      BTW, have you seen this work in formal or professional situations?


  2. Jeffery, you bring up some good points. As a teacher, my concern is not solely in the output of the collective, but in the specific growth of the individual in the collective. Has the individual “consumed” pertinent information? Has the individual been able to digest the information and build from it? Can they contribute back to the collective? I see the collective as one tool of many that can be used for personal growth. As for output, you bring up a good point that the individual can be overlooked in a collective.

    Thank you, because you have helped me see another puzzle piece of collective learning. Are you concerned about the collective output or the individual’s growth through the process?

    1. @Robert Maxwell – Thank you for your comment.

      You know, Robert, you raised another issue for me, namely that those who may be involved in some aspect of collective learning need to trust others involved in the experience. If I do not trust those collectively working with me, why should I share? Furthermore, if I do not buy-in to the objective, why should I put any of my attention or efforts into this?

      I have been involved in teaching and learning for a long time, and can’t help but wonder how this aspect of team or group development, in team or group projects, can lead to all sorts of problems of mistrust, misaligned objectives, and witholding knowledge to maintain power.


  3. Me again. This time I wanted to pick up on a statement in one of your comments. You say I can’t help but wonder how keeping knowledge to myself (not sharing with the collective) will maintain a potential card in my hand. but our underlying contention is that withholding knowledge won’t make you more valuable (because you still have a card to play). Rather, it potentially makes you less valuable because you are not seen as part of the potential solution to a challenge. The assumption is that no one person offers the answer, but rather, that the contribution of many is required to push forward toward a solution. If you withhold knowledge, someone else will come along and contribute in your place.

    1. @Colin-
      Good point; and while I agree in many ways with you (thus, why we are talking about this publicly online!), but how about the sense that a person who always has something else to offer (holds some education and such back) could not also be seen as a person who strategically shares what is needed when it is needed, rather than may be seen as having nothing else to offer?
      Yes, I am playing the role of the advocatus diaboli!

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