Panel Paper: Communities of Practice and Workforce Transition in Public Administration

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 2:25 PM
3016 Adams (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Eric Boyer and Gordon Kingsley, Georgia Institute of Technology

Proposal Summary

The purpose of the proposed report is to address an emerging policy problem in public and nonprofit management: how to improve human capital and workforce development in state and local governments amidst outsourcing and retirements.

Research Purpose

State and local governments have long been faced by the pressures to downsize and outsource their functions, with contracting and consultants contributing to more and more areas of public administration.  On top of this pressure, the Silver Tsunami is expected to hit state and local governments in the coming decade, with up to 75% of the existing workforce transitioning out of government by 2025. 

The objective of our study is improved knowledge retention for state and local governments by identifying and supporting knowledge exchanges that foster employee expertise and productivity.  The knowledge exchanges in this study are those that 1) involve knowledge-sharing within the informal dimensions of organizations (outside formal responsibilities or reporting protocols), 2) cut across silo’s and geographical boundaries within the agency, 3) address knowledge needs related to a shrinking and transitioning workforce, and 4) mobilize employees around topics of shared concern.  

 Study’s Context

The state-level transportation department under investigation exemplifies some of the most pressing knowledge needs of state and local governments today.  For example, in the early 1990s the transportation agency only contracted out 5% of their engineering design work.  By 2006 the portfolio of contractor work had climbed to 60% of all engineering design projects.  Furthermore, they are accommodating massive retirements.  The human resources department, along with our research team, selected technical teams in the areas of Geographic Information Systems, Engineering Design, Roundabout Design, and Environmental Procedures for the study. 

 Research Approach

Data collection involves surveys with more than 250 managers involved in these teams, semi-structured interviews with twenty-five administrators, ongoing focus groups and workshops with each of the teams, and onsite observation. 

Drawing from design methodologies described Miles and Huberman (1994), we diagram the structures and dynamics of the knowledge exchanges identified through the survey data, in respect to conceptual definitions of communities of practice from the literature.  Semi-structured interviews have been transcribed and coded, and are being analyzed with NVivo to assess key knowledge sources. 

Our overall analysis will seek patterns and variation in knowledge sharing across the groups, and identify techniques (such as I.T.-based platforms for knowledge sharing like Microsoft Sharepoint, or project debriefings) that reduce the costs of sharing knowledge among the groups. 

Projected Results

The primary result of our proposed report will be the development of an evidence-based framework for identifying and classifying knowledge exchanges in state and local governments, drawing from primary data collection and social science theories, to prepare public leaders for the dramatic human resource transitions facing their organizations.  This framework can help government leaders to better understand the efforts already underway in their office (i.e., to identify existing knowledge exchanges and communities of practice), and the supporting strategies identified (such as Sharepoint platforms, and trainings) will provide concrete practices they can draw from to support them.