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The True Power of Working Out Loud #WOL #WOLweek

Blimey. That was some year!! I’ve had no time to blog as I’ve been thrashing away under the workload of a research masters (MRes). It’s been a full-on year, but I’m happy to say that I’ve passed, and I’ve learned tons in the process.

My dissertation was a bit of a pragmatic choice. As you know, I’ve been following/advocating Working Out Loud for a while and since we’d covered discourse analysis on the MRes, I thought I’d put the two together. So that’s how I came to do ‘An Investigation into the Phenomenon and Discourse of Working Out Loud’.

During this, I was asked if I’d like to join a ‘random’ Working Out Loud Circle (a small peer support group that follows the principles of Working Out Loud as you work towards a personal/professional goal). However, the random circle proved difficult to get going as people couldn’t commit when it came down to it. Not to worry, this is where serendipity kicked in as I noticed Sue Beckingham was talking about Working Out Loud in one of her presentations. So I asked Sue if she’d like to join and see what she thought of the circle format, to which she promptly agreed and, even better, she managed to persuade a colleague, Hala Mansour to join me and Robyn Santa Maria in forming a WOL circle. Despite scheduling difficulties that come with life-in-general the circle quickly became a supportive environment in which to develop and work towards our goals. The circle prompted the following blog posts from my fellow conspirators:

The Soft/human Side of Working Out Loud!

A virtual cup of tea.

Reflecting on #WOL.

They pretty much give you a flavor of what Working Out Loud and being in a circle is all about, full of warmth, kindness and general bonhomie. And this is why the findings from my discourse analysis are so depressing. Let me explain.

It’s so depressing.

In my research I used the concept of discourse as put forward by Michel Foucault. That is, discourse is the production of knowledge through language. Foucault contends that we can only have knowledge of things when ‘things’ have meaning, and meaning is constructed within discourse. Akin to a body of knowledge, or system of representation, a discourse consists of groups of related statements that cohere in some way to produce meanings and these meanings have real world effects. It’s discourse that produces the objects of our knowledge, such as Working Out Loud. Moreover, discourse governs the way in which an object can and cannot be talked about and what’s more, it puts forward a particular version as being ‘true’. Conceding that knowledge is produced through discourse leads to the realization that discourse involves relations of power. What counts as knowledge, and how is this determined?

Foucault further argues that discourse not only constructs objects, but it also constructs subjects. That is, discourses create subject positions that individuals can accordingly take up, effectively specifying ways of seeing and being in the world. Such a conception has implications for individual agency. Foucault argues that institutional discourses prevail over human agency. He considers institutional discourses to always bear power, and that the production of knowledge can never be separated from institutional discourses and their practices, which serve to control professional practices and defend them from alternative expressions of power.

OK. Now that I’ve (hopefully) explained that head wreck, let me tell you what my analysis revealed.

It revealed that the discourse of Working Out Loud is constructed by uniting a discourse of social business and a discourse of personal development/self-actualization. In what seems to be a direct appeal to one’s humanity, the word ‘help’ appears, like a rash, across both discourses. By conflating different meanings of the word help, or intentions of who or what is being helped, it means that the primary subject position created in the Working Out Loud discourse effectively aligns individuals’ personal development/self-actualization with the realization of business goals. In this analysis, it seems that Working Out Loud represents an expression of what Foucault calls biopower. Although Foucault coined the term in relation to how modern states control subjects through the subjugation of bodies, some contemporary scholars are starting to identify biopower as a form of workforce control. They contend that the everyday life qualities of individuals are increasingly being indexed to the needs of the organization and that this essentially amounts to a form of self-exploitation. This is strong stuff, and to understand it you need to see the historical relationship between capital and labour and the evolution of techniques of control within the workplace.

In the classic studies by Weber and Marx, the de-humanizing aspect of work is a defining element because it was thought that the qualities that make us human weren’t required in the productive process. Now, as work processes have become more focused on the customer and value-added productivity is derived from personal and social aspects of the workforce, organizations no longer need command and control methods to constrain or separate individuals from non-work aspects of their life. Rather, biopower is the new order of the day because it seeks to capture individuals as they already exist and utilize our whole selves, or ‘life itself’ in the service of work.

I told you it was depressing. Mind you, having said that, I still can’t help but like Working Out Loud, after all it contains the very best of human nature, it’s a crying shame that it’s being used against you in these neoliberal times. The upshot is that I’m now more attuned than ever to power and politics and to contemporary methods of control in society. Consequently, I’m wondering about the big picture and what I can do about it. I’m also wondering how others develop critical sensibilities and what they propose to do about it, or is that what we think they can do about it. 🙂

Although it was quite an effort, and despite it being a thoroughly depressing analysis, I enjoyed this research project. I must’ve been crazy taking a topic that doesn’t significantly figure yet in the literature and combining it with a difficult methodology. Any way, moving on, for my PhD I’m going to work on a project that focuses on how professionals in the finance sector learn to make, or recognize, ethical decisions in times of rapid and complex change (Brexit). That’s sure to be another big learning adventure, and I’ll just have to see to what extent it’s possible to Work Out Loud.

References: Fleming, P. (2014). Review Article: When ‘life itself’ goes to work: Reviewing shifts in organizational life through the lens of biopower. Human Relations, 6 7(7), pp. 875-901. doi: 10.1177/0018726713508142.

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Networks: a many splendid thing #WOLweek

Haven’t blogged in a while. Haven’t blogged regularly for quite a while. Well, here’s hoping things are gonna change, especially as I’m sold on the idea of working as openly and as transparently as possible, because that’s how work gets done in networks. Besides, in relation to blogging about our work, there’s a bit of momentum gathering amongst my newfound network of peers at the Open University. Plus, it’s International Work Out Loud Week  #WOLweek and I’m looking forward to re-connecting with a few fellow advocates and starting back up our little Work Out Loud Circle. So no excuses!!

Interesting to note that the initiative of my new peer network was prompted by a presentation from Sheila MacNeill, who happens to be a solid member of my learning network and a good friend of mine. Also interesting to note is that Sheila’s presentation on Openness relates to the context of research and higher education, whereas within the context of Work Out Loud, similar discussion around openness and transparency relates to a more corporate or professional learning context.

I think these two things say a lot about where I’m at the moment in my learning journey, and maybe point to its future direction. As you might be aware, I’ve spent the last year or two roaming around the web, looking, listening and learning. Because I’ve been pretty much resident on the web, learning in the network (or is that networks), and because I’ve not really belonged to an identifiable real-world context, I don’t see the boundaries that other people might see. I guess that’s how I came to propose researching ‘something’ that relates to professionals learning in open networks. Hopefully, such a perspective means that I can bring together ideas from across sectors (or is that networks) and work across traditional boundaries to help professionals learn in an increasingly networked future.

Mind you, having said that, you might think that having this experience and perspective is great, but it’s not been without its surprises. Since arriving at the OU, I’ve discovered that my take on learning in networks is not the only one. When I think about networked learning I’ve hitherto only considered the ego or the personal learning network with the individual in full charge – determining their own learning, not that this could be designed for by others, and not that it could take place within organizational structures. A bit of an eye-opener.

Any way, we shall see where my inquiries take me. As always, it’s interesting to engage in the conversations out on the web but it’s also interesting to re-engage with the research literature again.

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Developing the ‘vitamin habit’ for learning.

Lordy, Lord. I’m all over the place in terms of my learning at the moment. In the last 6 months I’ve not only relocated but I’ve also swapped from a lifetime of using a Windows PC to using a Mac. Why I added this extra complication is beyond me. It’s like trying to master a second language. Anyway, all my previous habits and routines are well and truly shot. It’s not just learning. I haven’t taken a vitamin pill on a regular basis for months. Before, I used to plonk them out on the kitchen table every day as I was making breakfast and I didn’t bat an eyelid over it. Now, it’s an effort to remember them at all.

So now, I’m making a more conscious effort to learn how to develop habits: habits in general, restore old habits and adopt some new prize learning ones into the bargain. I need to re-establish the ‘vitamin habit’ for learning!!

The ‘vitamin habit’ for learning.
The ‘vitamin habit’ for learning.

I have two plans of attack. One, I’ve signed up for Stanford professor, BJ Fogg’s ‘Tiny Habits’ workshop, a 5-day method that’s simple, effective and fun – apparently. The idea is, you pick 3 new habits and fix them to an ‘anchor’, that is something you do already, and proceed from there. Do your ‘Tiny Habits’ each day and respond to a daily email. That’s it. A new session starts each Monday, if you’re interested.

The other plan, the more macro of the two, is that I’ve joined a Work Out Loud Circle #WOLCircle. They’re about developing habits in order to achieve a personal goal.

small groups of people learning to work in an open, generous, connected way so they can each accomplish a personal goal.

Work Out Loud Circles offer a structure/method along with peer support and mutual accountability. They’re kind of like a mini, focused PLN. I’m currently in week 2 of a 12 week Guided Mastery programme. So far, it’s looking good.

I haven’t completely lost the learning habit. It’s just a bit wobbly, that’s all. I’ve been participating in Jane Hart’s workshop about how to encourage and support personal learning in organizations. It seems that there’s a growing realization that learners are becoming increasingly autonomous as the adopt new technologies and discover that they’re free to determine their own learning. Alongside this are economic imperatives that require organizations to seek out more effective knowledge systems so they can keep abreast of developments and innovate quickly, and all the while looking to reduce cost. Consequently, organisations are increasingly looking to individuals to take responsibility for their own learning, to learn continuously and to feed this back to the workplace and the performance of the business. It’s here, as Jacob Morgan points out, that the ‘learning worker’ comes in to play. It’s no longer enough to be a ‘knowledge worker’.

Knowledge is a commodity, to be the smartest person in the room all you need is a smartphone. What is far more valuable than knowledge is the ability to learn new things and apply those learnings to new scenarios and environments. This is what the employee of the future needs to focus on, “learning to learn.”

On which note, I’ll leave you and I’ll urge you to get the ‘vitamin habit’ for learning and learning to learn.

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