This presentation examines the process of a modern mission agency's transition from desktop and server based systems to social media and cloud based solutions. Mission agencies have existed since the modern 1850's and represent early implementations of globally distributed collaborative groups. They typically have a home office in the United States but the majority of their work force is distributed around the world and often works in very remote locations. This study examines the process of one mission agency working through the transition to modern social computing to create and share knowledge between its home office, missionaries, donor, and churches. Because these agencies have unique religious affiliations, they are not normally accessible to external "secular" researchers.
Modern mission agencies have existed for over 150 years. As such, they were some of the first globally distributed religious organizations of the modern area. During their history they have faced the challenge of sharing information and knowledge across the globe. While mission agencies have worked through these issues for over a century, they frequently lacked the necessary resources to implement modern information systems.
This study provides a unique glimpse into the process of one mission working through this transition including their failures and successes. The goal was to investigate the use of Web 2.0 technologies, social media, learning management systems (LMS), enterprise resource planning systems (ERP), and customer relationship management systems (CRM) within a globally distributed modern mission agency. The mission began using social systems to improve their recruiting efforts, service to missionaries, information sharing within the organization, and organizational health.
The theoretical perspectives of Pask's conversation theory, Wenger's communities of practice, and Weick's sensemaking merged to form a multilevel epistemological framework to examine the social construction of knowledge in technical systems. A multiple case study approach was used where each system was its own case. Successes and failures were examined to look for commonalities and best practices. These systems were within a single organization sharing a common cultural and technical context. This context served as a control for these factors creating a natural experiment. Structured interviews were conducted with a wide range of individuals across all levels of the organization to collect data on the implementation and usage of these systems.
This research produced three significant contributions: a new definition of these systems, an integrated framework based on a constructivist epistemology, and the documentation of this process in a mission agency.
As a first step in the process it was necessary to define the phenomenon. This resulted in a new definition of social computing systems focusing on fundamental elements which are common to social media, learning management systems (LMS), enterprise resource planning systems (ERP), and customer relationship management systems (CRM). By looking at the commonalities across these systems the research was able to draw conclusions about these systems as a whole.
The combination of three perspectives on the social construction of knowledge provided not only a valuable lens for this phenomenon but also the potential for investigating other intra-organizational phenomenon. Conversation theory focused on the individual level, communities of practice focused on the group level, and sensemaking focused on the organizational level. When combined they provided a philosophically consistent framework for explaining the process of individuals and groups creating and sharing knowledge across and within departments in a single organization. By using multiple perspectives that share a common epistemological framework, this perspective was able to investigate the phenomenon at the individual, group, and organizational levels.
Finally, this study documents this process within a single mission agency. Because the researcher had worked with this organization previously, the organization provided broad access to systems and personnel. This provided a unique opportunity to investigate these systems in a type of organization that would normally be closed to outside investigators.