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Unlocking the potential of learning communities in academic and business contexts: Australian and Chinese case studies

posted on 2023-05-26, 01:16 authored by Yang YangYang Yang
The term 'learning community' is one that has been broadly or narrowly defined depending on its context. It is now widely used in a range of settings, from schools and universities, to business work places, by many researchers (see, for example, Brown & Duguid, 1991; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010; Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011). While the term has slipped into common - often idiosyncratic - usage a review of the literature highlights how the meaning of learning community has evolved over time, reinforcing the need to investigate more rigorously how practitioners in different contexts understand their situation as a learning community. As understood commonly now a 'learning community' is more than just a group of people who simply work together in the same space, but what are its essential features and how are these perceived by those involved? This study addressed the broad question: how do practitioners in Australia and China perceive their work places as 'learning communities'? It sought to do so by examining six criteria of a successful learning community synthesised and operationalised from the literature. These criteria were (i) the perceptions of shared mission, vision, values and goals; (ii) the demonstration of commitment to continuous improvement; (iii) initiatives that develop and sustain a collaborative culture and collective enquiry; (iv) feelings of supportive and shared leadership; (v) perceived freedom of group membership and; (vi) the descriptions of proximity and mutual engagement. Data collection methods included a mix of qualitative and quantitative techniques consisting of document analysis, a questionnaire and a face-to-face interview with volunteers. A total sample number of 70 participants was recruited opportunistically and purposefully (Burns, 2000) from two known university academic departments in Australia (AU) and China (CU), and two business organisations in Australia (AB) and China (CB). The sample frame was not intended to represent the whole population of academic or business stakeholders in the two countries. However, for the scope of this study this sample gave valuable insights into the degree of 'learning community' perceptions of stakeholders in two universities and two business organisations that are not examined by other learning community studies. The unique data in this study attempted to fill a significant gap in the literature, where learning community studies have focused primarily on single cases, by exploring learning communities that operate in two universities and two businesses in Australia and China respectively. This allowed a two-by-two comparison of ways in which learning communities operate in cross-cultural and interdisciplinary institutions by addressing how practitioners construct meaning about team work, common tasks, sharing and flexibility of role relationships. A greater understanding of different stakeholders' perceptions could impact where, why, and how the learning community concept will be utilised within their institutions. Among the important findings from the study was that the role of national culture, reflecting historic-socio-political influences, was central in understanding respondents' perceptions of the six constituent elements listed previously. On the other hand, there were cross-cultural and interdisciplinary similarities in the way stakeholders reported their perceptions of their working environment as a learning community, which reflected many interconnected issues inherent in the data. These data suggested that a more nuanced picture of 'learning community' needs to be taken into account when looking at particular instances or assertions about the operation of a learning community. This study will be of interest to researchers, practitioners working at the interface of Education, Management, and Organisational Development, and especially those interested in the work lives of academics or employees, policy development and implementation. More generally, the study will allow those who have utilised the term 'learning community' to describe and talk about their own workplaces to consider more critically the essence of what they are seeing.


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