||In the era of knowledge economy, more and more people view online communities of practice (CoPs) as wellspring of precious knowledge. Interestingly, many researchers support the notion that CoPs must develop over time; they are not designed or made but grown, however, there is no systematic theory of online community development (Matzat, 2003). Furthermore, when changes with time are specialized concerned, several questions regarding CoPs development remain unanswered. Since online CoPs are formed by groups of people, existing group development models may provide valuable lens for us to understand the driving forces behind. Nevertheless, drawn on the autotrophic and open system of online CoPs, there exist several differences between traditional groups and online CoPs, such as self-select membership, high member fluidity, impossible to know all members in a large member base, unlimited life spans, and no given tasks have to complete. Furthermore, some defects in prior group development studies are also identified. |
To answer the research question and avoid problems identified in prior group development studies, this study plans to conduct a longitudinal exploratory study on three online CoPs lasting at least three years by overcoming the defects of unreal subjects such as experimental student groups or arranged tasks. Besides, three years of longitudinal study may prevent from the bias drawn from single snapshot and limited life span. Furthermore, we decide to adopt the ecological perspective for several reasons: First, the evolutionary process is akin to the central theme of ecological theory. Therefore the mechanisms of change can be suitably inferred from ecological perspective. Moreover, the ecological perspective is more holistic and macroscopic, and accordingly the problem of high individual member fluidity can be easily tackled. Second, many ecological concepts are used in numerous CoPs-related literatures to describe CoPs. In addition, being immersed in some CoPs for several years, we found that members usually use some ecological terms to describe their CoPs or other members. Third, several studies indicated that the ecological approach provides a powerful framework for understanding complex human social issues. We view each CoP as an ecosystem because ecosystem is the lowest level in the ecological hierarchy that is complete with all the necessary components for function and survival over the long term.
This research also adopts the multiple case study approach. Firstly, online CoPs are categorized based on group member interaction statistics. Three categories of online CoPs are identified and three online CoP belonging to these three categories, respectively, are selected as representative cases. Every six months the aggregated data of targeted online CoPs are treating as the unit of analysis. The whole 'lives' of online CoPs under study are analyzed, by the way to avoid the problems of zero-history groups and drawn bias conclusion from observation of groups over different time periods. We attempted to detect and analyze the changes of community structures in the ecosystem using social network analysis tools. Moreover, since quantitative data may fail to capture some interaction modes, this study employs content analysis and semi-structural interviews as complementary vehicles to gain insights into the detailed evolutionary process.
Finally, this dissertation follows Yin's (1994) analytic strategy of descriptive framework, and thus uses the metaphor of an ecosystem to integrate and organize sets of dimensions in relation to the evolutionary process of online CoPs. Drawn on Odum’s (1971, 1983, 1993) model of ecosystem, this study proposes a descriptive framework based on ecosystem ecology and network analysis. There are primarily three components: organisms, energy, and nutrients; three types of connections: interactive network, keystone structure, and roles distribution. There are also five categories of constraints on the ecosystem functioning. They serve as dimensions of describing changes within an ecosystem over time. Further, these changes are interpreted from ecological perspectives, where insights into the mechanism governing the development process are generated to postulate the development model of online CoPs.