Walking the talk, talking the place: Three research protocols for learning expeditions

 

Jeremy Aroles, Hélène Bussy-Socrate and François-Xavier de Vaujany

 

Managers, customers, citizens, entrepreneurs and researchers are being transformed into knowledge tourists but more rarely into ‘knowledge voyageurs’. Field trips, learning trips and learning expeditions epitomize a new trend in embodied explorations of places likely to bring learning and new knowledge with them. These transformative experience mainly consist in a set of visits to places and territories, between one day and one week, integrated into a program and narrative giving an orientation to this partly walked experience. Being ‘outside’ traditional frames and context of life and work is expected to produce something particular.

Most of the time, the visit starts at a meeting point where organizers introduce the agenda of the day. Participants are then guided to the first place where they meet the owner of the place (i.e. happiness officer, CEO or HR manager, depending on the theme of the learning expedition). Then, they move together to the next point of interest. Meanwhile, they walk, take a bus, use public transportations or follow a guide. They can get to know each other (identity, values, status, goals…) by engaging conversations and sharing similar topics. The tour typically ends on a social event. When participants engage an expedition through unfamiliar spaces, they expect to learn new insight about themselves, about other people they could meet or about the area itself. During the last decade, a number of expeditions have been organized by consulting corporations, professional organizations, associations, universities and companies. They targeted stakeholders as diverse as customers, neighbours, entrepreneurs, scientists or students. Multiple promises are made, such as networking, strategic scanning, performing a protest, acquiring new skills, etc. But what can we really expect from learning expeditions as researchers? A new fieldwork or a new method? Can scholars integrate learning expeditions into a proper research design?

In organization studies, expeditions and trips have rarely been used in research designs, except in the context of some ethnographical or auto-ethnographical approaches (Khosravi, 2010). Almost two years ago (in July 2016 with a first event in Berlin), we started to explore how learning expeditions could lead to the joint understanding and transformation of new practices related to knowledge production and knowledge diffusion in academia. Having experimented this approach in Berlin Paris, Tokyo, Copenhagen, London, we are more and more convinced that trips and learning expedition can form a proper research method combining various research protocols. We are stressing the potential of learning trips or expeditions to contribute to the creation of new corpus of data based on narratives and particularly self-narratives. In the following post, we would like to discuss how we collect stories and impressions of participants, including us, in the flow of the journey. Before, let us clarify our objective behind the new method. Our aim is threefold: collecting data; exploring open learning processes; producing and combining powerful narratives likely to transform research practices.

First, we aim to collect participants’ reflexive and narrative materials directly related to the event. Being part of the group could facilitate the understanding of emotions. For instance, during the visit or/and right after the visit, we want to explore what people felt and how they reflect upon what they lived. Materializing these reflections is a way to deeply contextualize the experience. Researchers are more likely to phenomenologically and interpretatively describe the learning process itself from the inside, especially if they also join learning expeditions.

Second, meeting participants outside traditional boundaries allow us to catch direct feedback about individual’s learning process and expected transformation at work. If completed away from the event, the protocol is likely to reveal how emotions, affects and discussions have settled into different levels of emotions and been (or not) re-explored by participants. It is a way to analyse the lived duration of the trip and visits as well as what they ‘express’ for participants (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). The idea is thus to collect longitudinal data for all the learning trips we have organized.

Finally, repeating the protocol in different territories, within the same entity (our research network RGCS) allows us to develop common but different materials… the identification of a “net of actions” (Czarniawska, 2004) or “field of events” (Hernes, 2014)). What are the regular meta-narratives coming into the story (Ricoeur, 1983)? How? What kind of temporal structures do they enact? What are the embodied practices traveling from one experience to another?

Today, we are still experimenting different protocols to complete our goals. We are working mainly on three data collection methods, which are presented in the next section. We will explain then how it is related to our broader research method (OWEE) likely to strengthen our last research objective, which consists in being transformative of research practices by means of an accumulation and meta-narrations of all OWEEs. We will conclude by exploring key stakes of the process so far.

 

  1. Collecting narratives and reflexivity in the flow of learning expeditions: three protocols

 

Recording live and past perceptions has been a traditional way to collect data in certain fields. In ergonomics and Human Computers Interactions studies, sense-making and reflexivity processes have already been subjected to numerous methodological explorations (Cairns and Cox, 2008; McCarthy and Wright, 2005). Some methods are based on recording actors’ comments (and their coding) in the flow of their action. Others are based on ex-post comments of a video showing the actor implementing a set of gestures and actions that are ex post commented by the actor himself/herself. Philosophy has for long explored the issue of thought and body, and how thought and reflexivity are interrelated with action and agency (see e.g. Merleau-Ponty, 1945; Vygotsky, 1978). In social sciences, narrating reflexivity (e.g. with logbooks) is also at the heart of numerous protocols ranging from auto-ethnography to life stories (White, 2001; Bertaux, 2005; Dyson, 2007; Hayano, 1979; Malaurent and Avison, 2017).

In the context of learning expeditions, we offer to explore three different research protocols: (i) one based on the process of telling loudly (and recording) a thought; (ii) another on writing up a story individually and collectively (iii) a last one based on visualization and artistic expression. We expect the three methods to be related and to materialize different kinds of embodied practices and narration. In fact, telling can be more immediate than writing which can be modified. We would like to explore this distinctiveness before combining both telling and writing into a single research protocol. Some techniques have already implemented, others should be implemented and tested very soon.

 

i) Telling loudly and self-recording the trip

The first protocol is based on commenting on pictures taken by participants (including researchers) during the expedition. A selection of pictures is diplayed chronologically to summarize the trip and to ask participants to react individually. Pictures are collected through the social network Twitter or/and Instagram, as everyone is encouraged to use a single #discussion topic.

Ideally it takes place at the end of the visit, in a quiet place. We expect all participants to share feedback as a ‘counter-gift’, i.e. in exchange of being able to attend the tour for free (whereas others could charge[1]). For around 40 minutes, participants are dispatched in the room. With their smartphone, they record their thought and send the file to the lead researcher. They have been asked to look at the pictures and texts and tell what they did and felt

Discourses are transcribed word by word, and then coded at the level of the expedition in a first instance and then consolidated with all other expeditions organized. The idea is to explore and compare vocabularies, topics and narratives from one learning expedition to another.

The spoken nature of the record (tone of voice, rhythm, and emotion in the background, etc.) is also be part of the coding. Organizers and community managers are asked to participate. Their feedback is considered as well.

 

 ii) Writing individually or collectively

The next part of the protocol involves more reflexivity from participants. They are invited to write up some lines about the learning expedition. It could rely on the design described above (pictures of the expedition and line of personal tweets) or via a structured questionnaire.

In both cases, all tweets or Instagram posts produced during the learning expedition are extracted (from the hashtag of each learning expedition) and analysed. They are also expected to be part of the duration, expression and narrative interrelated with the event.

First experiments of the protocol in Milan and Paris have shown that involving participants in the process is not easy. The best thing to do may be to explain very clearly at the beginning that a small data collection will be included into the learning expedition. As the all event is organized for free, it may also be useful to remind that participating to the data collection will be part of a ‘counter-gift’.

 

iii) Visualizing what was seen and felt through art

Beyond words and spoken-language, the idea is here to rely on more visual and metaphorical modes of narration and reflexivity. Pictures, drawing, sketches, can be produced by participants during the expedition or at the end of it. All materials are then collected by organizers.

This last protocol has already been implemented two times by the RGCS: one in Berlin (July, 2016), another one in Tokyo (June, 2017). The topic was ‘visualizing hacking’. Participants were asked to take pictures of gestures, movements, routines, artifacts that embody hacking, bricolage and improvisation related to new work practices. For each event, an exhibition of all pictures, sketches and drawings was organized, one at Paris Town Hall in December 2016 (first RGCS Symposium), another one in London in a makerspace in January 2018 (second RGCS symposium).

 

  1. Possible integration into a broader research method: OWEE

 

What would strengthen and extend the potential for such protocol is its capacity to be replicated simultaneously within more global self-reflexivity exercises under a broader research design. We started to work on such a research design one year ago. We called it Open Walked Event-Based Experimentations (OWEE).

OWEE is a particular type of field trip or learning expedition focusing on the exploration of new work practices and managerial innovations in the context of third places and collaborative spaces visited over one or three days. We organized learning expeditions around topics such as the collaborative economy, new places for entrepreneurship and innovation, future of work, artistic innovations. All were an opportunity to explore and make visible new work practices in the context of a specific city and territory.

All OWEEs follow four criteria (de Vaujany and Vitaud, 2017).

First, they are opened to various sets of stakeholders: academics, entrepreneurs, managers, artists, activists, students and politicians. The event is expected to foster collaborations between and beyond the group. There is no selection process. It is a ‘first-come-first-served’ event. People can register for free via Eventbrite where they can download their ticket. The community manager is in charge of collecting subscriptions. The event is shared in various networks; this increases our likelihood to attract diverse communities.

Second, the expedition is walked. Participants do not use a car or a bus, but mainly walk between each site (or sometimes use public transportations together). Walking through public or semi-public spaces is expected to create more ties between walkers and to be more performative for those following this iconography through social media (e.g. the tweets and the pictures they contain).

Third, OWEE is event-based in the sense that it is designed in such a way that it creates a curiosity, the sensation that things will be partly unpredictable. Everything planed or not is likely to happen. Fragility is felt off site and on line, and reinforced by the openness of the event.

Fourth, OWEE is a work in progress method. Bricolage and improvisations are authorized during events, both about the method itself and the content of the expedition. One third of the program is empty and will be filled and co-produced by participants themselves in the flow of the walk. Through emails, phone calls to friends, etc., participants generate new ideas, suggest new places to visit at the last minute … which is also a great way to produce collaborations.

 

  1. Key stakes of the OWEE experimentation

 

Beyond self-reflexive protocols presented in the first section and then the OWEE design, what is our scientific contribution?

We would like to produce both new temporalities and new temporal structures for research practices, i.e. the co-production of knowledge by academics, entrepreneurs, managers, activists, students and artists over one to three days. We believe it is likely to be the repetition and connection of events that may lead to a transformation of the research field itself. From the perspective of participants (mainly), OWEE, its reflexivity and narrative phases could become a broad meta-narrative. The co-designed method itself could be strengthened by becoming a ‘common’ (Ostrom and Hess, 2007).

Citizen science and open science are major social movements today. All citizens can become researchers or can contribute to scientific explorations. Science, whatever the field (economics, management, organization studies, anthropology, chemistry, History, computer science,…) is all the more likely to be at the heart of the city and to serve truly the city as it becomes physically open to it.  Science is more likely to be part of all social, economic, technological and political movements as it also becomes a movement (in all senses we can give to this idea) itself.

We believe that OWEE, among many other initiatives, is likely to become one of these movements. But moving for the sake of it is not enough. It needs to be part of a broader, powerful narration and set of narrations. Let’s work together on it…

HELP! Find here a describing our research protocol based on learning expeditions :

Revise, comment, modify, enrich it & add your name in the contributor area. We will test the protocol you will co-design with us in our next expeditions

 

References

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Czarniawska, B. (2004). On time, space, and action nets. Organization, 11(6), 773-791.

de Vaujany, FX. & Vitaud, L. (2017).Towards more integrative research practices: introducing Open Walked Event-based Experimentations, LSE Impact Blog, August, 30th

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[1] Participants are normally charged to attend a learning expedition if it is organised by a private organization.