A journey comprised of three paths is the metaphor through which I:
i) reflect and report on my involvement with four New Zealand primary school Boards of Trustees (BOTs) investigating the emancipatory potential that applications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) may have on their governance processes,
ii) analyse appreciative inquiry through application(s) of critical theory, with specific reference to the investigation above so as to deepen understanding of the research method, and
iii) reflect on my personal development, as achieved through my engagement with participants and the research process.
Stemming from an interest in improving school governance I was keen to identify current use of ICTs by BOTs and to work with them to identify potential applications. Appreciative inquiry with its focus on enhancing existing positive organisational attributes seemed to provide an appropriate structure for my investigation. At the back of my mind however, a concern was formulating: Does this method of research deliver the benefits the literature espouses? What influence would the positive orientation have on the research process and on the power dynamics within the research environment? Complementary streams of critical thinking and reflexivity were invoked to assist my analysis.
Applications of ICTs which may appear ‘helpful’ to BOT governance processes are identified in this report. However, uncritical uptake of these applications may not necessarily be consistent with the emancipatory intentions I aspire to. Framed within Habermas’ theory of communicative action, the potential colonisation of the BOT lifeworld by the system is considered. Domesticating influences may potentially constrain democratic processes at local school and societal levels.
The participatory action research process undertaken facilitated a deepened understanding of governance for all involved. Identification of time and funding constraints indicates BOTs may be prevented from reaching their true potential. Attempts to enhance governance through additional applications of ICTs will be of minimal effect unless efforts are made to better understand and resource the governance efforts of Trustees. Purported empowerment of the community as mandated in the Education Act 1989 comes with a heavy cost, for schools and individuals. Care must be taken to ensure that ‘efficiency’ gains are not made at the expense of democratic processes.
Critical analysis of appreciative inquiry as a research method highlights the influences of power and language use within the research process. Appreciative inquiry should be seen as a process for, rather than a master of change. The contribution of appreciative inquiry to organisational and personal transformation may be drawn from the ontological basis of the approach rather than from the technicalities of a specific form of implementation. I suggest the focus on what is ‘good’ be made more complex, to recognise that appreciation may also mean ‘to know, to be conscious of, to take full and sufficient account of’. Application of an enhanced definition of appreciation has deepened my understanding of not only the situation under investigation but also the research process itself. Through my enhanced concept of ‘appreciation’ embedded and sometimes obscured influences were highlighted, better understood, and at times transformed to serve the emancipatory aspirations of participants.
In keeping with the reflexivity mandated by my commitment to critical theory and action research, I applied this enhanced definition of appreciation to my personal development during my engagement with participants and the research process. My struggles to apply my chosen social constructionist and critical theory lenses to this work are evident in my
attempts to work with the largely functionalist literature in this field and the influence of my undergraduate education. Recognising the theoretical and personal developments I gained as I travelled the three paths of my PhD journey, the scene is now set for me to challenge the predominance of functionalist, mechanistic metaphors which dominate organisational literature. In doing so, I seek an alternative approach to understanding organisational activity; and a new vocabulary through which I might extend my understanding, and negotiate new and emancipatory meaning(s) with others.