Becoming a Network Organization: An Extended Research Proposal


Online education is growing at a staggering rate. Adult professional continuing education is one of the largest drivers of this growth. And in an economic downturn, enrollments in adult education in general trend upward. Today, we are seeing this factor amplifying even further the growth of online learning (Guess, 2008). How can today’s distance learning organization best respond to this growth?

Higher education distance education today consists of a variety of organizational models from for-profit institutions dedicated to online learning to traditional bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities with varying levels of commitment to distance education offerings. (For the purposes of this paper, I am focusing on learning institutions based in the United States.) Arising from this spectrum of organizational models and missions is a wide variety of mechanisms for organizing both internally and among organizations. Woudstra and Adria (2003) detail the differences between a hierarchical organization and a networked organization, with the hierarchical organization seeing the executives and managers as the loci of control, and the networked organization seeing the loci of control distributed fairly equally among the individuals in the organization. Scott (2003) also refers to the hierarchical and network models as the rational-legal and open systems model, respectively. Woudstra and Adria (2003) further maintain that traditional academic institutions operate more like a networked organization, while distance learning entities have traditionally been modeled after industrial-era production models, with the product being educational materials served at a distance, and thus have employed a stricter hierarchical structure. They challenge distance education to morph to the network organizational model to meet the persistent and growing distance learning demands of an increasingly technologically-enabled society. “It is towards the ideal of a committed, decentralized, and dynamic community of scholars and students that the network distance-education organization is progressing” (Woudstra & Aria, 2003).

Distance education organizations can, with careful planning, make this transition from a hierarchical, or top-down, structure to a more networked, bottom-up, or more accurately “inside-out” structure. Careful analysis and planning will ensure that suggested approaches are feasible and best meet the needs of the organization. An analysis of existing information seeking behavior (Borgatti, 2003) and social network analysis (Fairbanks, 2009) will help identify the strengths and weaknesses in the organization’s internal communications and collaboration. In particular, any identified inefficiencies can help inform appropriate interventions and software design decisions.

What potential advantages can the network or open systems organizational model offer to the distance learning organization? The needs of the primary audience – students and potential students – necessitate it. Students are looking for connection, quality, accessibility, and economy in their learning opportunities. Higher education must find ways of meeting these needs efficiently and in a scalable way. No longer is it sufficient to rely on the old production models; procedural, technological, and (most difficult) structural/cultural changes are necessary. Hanna (2007) suggests that distance learning “changes from being the product of an ‘industrial process of mass distribution of knowledge’ to becoming a process whereby learners’ needs for knowledge are addressed through customized and highly personal strategies that are initiated by the learner with assistance from and in consultation with the teacher.” Existing learning theories are in line with the direction that distance education is taking, and emerging theory is even arising out of new forms of learning enabled by modern technology:

Constructivist learning theory engages students in a process of active involvement in learning activities, constructing their own understanding of the learning objectives. Distance education has historically focused more on rote learning and the “banking” model of education, and this has been a source of much criticism. This is changing in today’s distance education with the types of learning activities that are now made possible by online delivery (Evans & Nation, 2007).

Connectivism is a fairly new learning theory which describes learning as a networked process taking place in an increasingly connected learning environment – useful to think about when considering the network organization. Established learning theories such as behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism largely describe internal learning processes and “do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology). They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations” (Siemens, 2008).

Another emerging learning theory is social- and cognitive-connectedness schemata (SCCS) theory. SCCS theory is similar to connectivism, except that it more fully acknowledges established research affirming the tenets of cognitivism and constructivism, a sort of “best of both worlds” approach that may be most useful to serious learning professionals. Both connectivism and SCCS take into account the new ways that students learn, while also giving us insights into organizational learning.

Whatever learning theory we espouse or give credence to, most distance learning professionals understand the concept of transactional distance, and seek to minimize it in order to maximize the potential for learning. Technologies that enable learner-learner interaction and new mechanisms for learner-content and learner-instructor interaction must be implemented wisely. These changes are not for the meek and represent the need for an emerging culture in higher education: the entrepreneurial culture (Hanna, 2007).

Woudstra and Aria (2003) suggest questions for further research that might help a distance learning organization think strategically about the need for organizational changes. One question (in several parts) that this research proposal will focus on is: “…what is really different about the network organization? What boundaries have shifted? What boundaries remain the same? How will virtual organizing affect the nature of the network? Will the distinctions blur between competition and cooperation among network participants?” Woudstra and Aria (2003) suggest that “entrepreneurial initiative and innovation should be natural and expected in the network organization,” while this may not necessarily be the case within the hierarchical, rational-legal structure of the traditional distance learning institution. Boundary shifts in the new distance learning organization have the potential to be revolutionary and will require serious consideration. New partnerships can be forged among institutions, allowing collaboration and sharing of resources and ideas. Open educational resources (OER) alliances are examples of these types of partnerships. At the same time, the distance learning organization must decide on its core mission and branding in order to determine what to protect and keep proprietary. Making this strategic distinction is a core idea of “Wikinomics” as proposed by Tapscott and Williams (2006). Virtual organizing will be a core tenet of this new network model, both within the organization and among organizations connected both formally and informally. “It is towards the ideal of a committed, decentralized, and dynamic community of scholars and students that the network distance-education organization is progressing” (Woudstra & Aria, 2003). Distinctions will likely blur between cooperation and competition, not only among organizations, but among individuals in the organization: “within hierarchies, communication and exchange is shaped by concerns with career mobility – in this sense, exchange is bound up with consideration of personal advancement” whereas fewer barriers to communication and exchange exist in the networked organization.

Research Methodology

This is a complex research proposal that asks a multi-layered question. As such, a mix of research methodologies and data sources will need to be employed in order to draw up a comprehensive conclusion and recommendation.

An internal organizational survey can determine the skills levels and attitudes of staff, in order to gauge the organization’s “entrepreneurial initiative and innovation” capabilities. One-on-one interviews with staff can give more nuanced information about attitudes. If the organization’s capabilities are found lacking, measures may be recommended including training, encouragement by management, restructuring or new hiring.

The current strategic priorities of the organization can be determined through interviews with management and administration. These strategic priorities can then be bench-marked against those of other, similar organizations in order to determine where priorities overlap and where perhaps there is duplication of effort. Strategic alliances may be recommended including existing and proposed frameworks, and similarly, refinement of organizational priorities may be recommended.

What is it that the students want? How about the faculty? What about partner institutions, government agencies and corporations with a stake in the distance learning organization’s future? It may be that many of the communications technologies (e.g. Web 2.0 technologies) that this research identifies as useful to meeting the organizational priorities are the same technologies that teachers and students are seeking as part of their teaching and learning experiences, and also enhance existing strategic partnerships with other entities or enable new ones. In this way the organization has the potential to facilitate the “ideal of a committed, decentralized, and dynamic community of scholars and students.” A current survey of faculty, students, and partner organizations will help support this facet of the research.

The ultimate goal of this research will be to determine what type of network solution makes the most sense for the organization. Undoubtedly a discussion of economy and efficiency will be a central starting point, as will a discussion of organizational mission. A consideration of the merits of open educational resources (OERs) may rightly enter the discussion early on. Higher education usually has some form of outreach as part of its core mission. Making educational resources freely available online fits this mission; potential learners and community members stand to benefit tremendously from freely available knowledge. The economics of making educational resources findable, usable and accessible (a crucial part of involvement with OER) makes economic sense in terms of the internal workings of the organization, particularly for a mature organization with a large body of existing resources (of course, for a budding distance learning organization, thinking about organizing resources up front also makes sense). In terms of the personalized learning espoused by Hanna (2007), findable OERs provide learners the opportunity to self-select learning modules to meet individual needs; the learner can then decide if the benefit of interaction with instructors and fellow students, and the potential of earned academic credentials, is worth the cost. In this sense OERs can be looked at as a marketing tool. In summary, the systematic organization of organizational educational resources will increase efficiency within the organization, make for a satisfying learning experience for learners as well as drawing in potential learners, and will satisfy the organizational mission of outreach (Downes, 2007; Inglis, 2003).

Fitting in with the consideration above for how to organize the educational resources (the products of the distance learning organization) comes the consideration of how to organize the people of the organization. IBM social networking professional Andrew Fairbanks, in a presentation given at the Penn State Outreach Day of Connection in January 2009 (on a day which also saw the launch of the Outreach Intranet), stressed that the ability to collaborate an build networks and relationships, and to do so quickly, are critical skills in today’s workplace. Fairbanks (2009), Borgatti (2003) and Wu et al. (2009) all stress the importance of being able to easily find and identify experts within the organization, a task which is much more easily accomplished when all individuals have “profiles” on an organizational social networked and are “tagged” or categorized with their areas of expertise. Wu et al. (2009) support the notion of everyone being on equal footing in such a social network, with equal access to everyone else, since their findings show that information coming down a chain of command (as in a hierarchy) is delivered inefficiently. Borgatti (2003) and Fairbanks (2009) also both support the notion that once members of the organization are introduced to the technology and are prompted to start using it, it will quickly gain momentum as employees are able to easily see its usefulness and will wonder how they ever lived without it. In addition, with the organizational mission of producing well-rounded citizens capable of making valuable contributions to the workforce, staff and faculty will gain a greater understanding of the tools that students will be using, and will be exemplars for using them responsibly and effectively. In this same vein, Thompson and Irele (2003) state that “the global educational context is changing rapidly. Programs, institutions, and societies need to make significant decisions as to how they wish to influence or shape these changes and/or be shaped by them.”


This research proposal is aimed at making recommendations to a single higher distance education organization as it seeks to remain (or become) well-positioned in a market that is increasingly competitive. Open educational resources (OER) and open source software solutions are increasingly being viewed as essential parts of viable businesses, allowing collaboration and distribution of resources while still preserving core proprietary business elements (and thus competition) (Tapscott & Williams, 2006). In addition, academia has traditionally operated in a more networked, collaborative manner (Woudstra & Aria, 2003). The convergence of business & academic organizational models in this collaborative sense meshes perfectly with the positioning of distance education as both an academic and a business endeavor.

This proposal also challenges the educational technologists who will be holding a prime spot at the table in the pursuit of a solution. These educational technology leaders must be able to think critically in order to make recommendations on possible solutions, and must understand the implications of those solutions: “…if educational technologists are to achieve the e-transformation that they aspire to, they need to do more than inform each other about individual case studies and small-scale experiments. They need to broaden their base, work more closely with reform minded decision makers and form research partnerships with educational, training and funding agencies. They need to conduct metasurveys and provide an evidence based practical advice on how educational technology can achieve systemic improvements in access, economy, efficiency, effectiveness, quality and impact, how to mainstream their adoption and how to ensure their sustainability” (Latchem, 2006).

This research will help a single existing organization to move forward into a new collaborative and more efficient way of operating. In addition, many of the findings of this research will be applicable to many in the distance education field, as well as many looking to get in. Those parts of the findings can be published in an open, peer-reviewed journal, such as the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.


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