Roberts, C. (2013). Building Social Capital through Leadership Development. Journal of Leadership Education 12 (1), 54 - 73
Cynthia Roberts's study titled Building Social Capital through Leadership Development attempts to identify a positive correlation between a leadership development practice called action learning and the development of social capital. Participants of the study were engaged in a program called Leadership Development and Education (LEAD) which had been developed by a local healthcare organization. The program fit the design principles of action learning identified by Roberts, and others, as to be participant-driven engagement of real-world issues incorporating collaboration between stakeholders, but utilizing minimal expert input. The effects of action learning to the development of social capital from both an individual and organizational level are evaluated and found to be positively correlated.
Title and Research Focus
The title of the article would better be written to incorporate the study's specific focus which is the action learning process, rather than leadership development in general. McAlearney (2006) has noted leadership development programs take a variety of forms depending on the characteristics of an organization, many of which are not similar to the action learning method examined in this study. It does not follow that observations occurring in this study are broadly applicable to all forms of leadership development.
Roberts introduces research making a strong case for the value of building social capital to further healthy organizations by citing no less than seven other studies confirming her assertion. Those studies find several positives to large quantities of social capital, including benefits to both individual careers and organizations on the whole. Social capital may benefit individual careers by way of increased compensation and promotion opportunities, while organizations benefit in ways ranging from better employee retention to increased product innovation. However, the prior studies used to argue the benefits of social capital were mostly conducted no more recently than a decade prior to Roberts's own study. While unlikely, it is conceivable - particularly considering the concurrent technological changes in the interim - that workforce dynamics had changed in such a way that the value of social capital similarly has changed. The argument for the value of social capital, strong as it is, would be further strengthened by inclusion of additional research more recent to the study itself.
Participants and Length of Study
The study involved an adequate sample size of 110 individuals grouped into three cohorts. Each of the three cohorts participated in at least one level of the LEAD program, but due to economic restraints the third cohort only participated in the first level. Though the third cohort is mentioned in the study methodology, it is not immediately clear if their failure to participate in the full length of the program resulted in their being excluded from final analysis. However, the numbers presented in the included data table - presenting an N-value substantially smaller than the aforementioned cohort of 110 students - suggests that they have been excluded. Clarity is needed.
The selection of participants is not representative of the healthcare organization's staff as a whole because earlier participants were selected exclusively from managerial roles. The results of the study, therefore, may be skewed towards the perceptions of individuals who already posses a certain amount of leadership development training. Later participation was open to non-managerial positions, but as participants volunteered their involvement in the LEAD program, it is possible those volunteers were of a particular inclination towards management positions as well. Roberts does recognize the differences between cohorts in analysis, however if the goal of the study is to identify the effect of active learning on social capital as it relates to an organization on the whole, it would be worthwhile to select a sample more representative of the entire organization.
The study utilizes action learning as a method of studying leadership development to build social capital. Roberts asserts the action learning method to be most appropriate for the study, but it is unclear why it necessarily follows that an action learning method of study is best for evaluating a process that is, itself, based on action learning. It is arguable that action learning is not the best methodology for this research, primarily because in such an environment a researcher embedded within a cohort could alter the attitudes and engagement characteristics of the participants. In this way, the study's ability to reliably identify the method's effectiveness in non-scrutinized environments is diminished. For example, one might consider that if participants are in the immediate presence of a researcher who is recording their behaviors, they may be more likely to act amicably towards one another. Presumably, a key aspect of social capital is existence of amicable interactions, and so researcher participation could skew the results towards the positive. Additionally, if the researcher herself is truly engaged in the action learning activities of the program - that is to say, if she is a peer participant of the LEAD program, also engaged in the tasks set forth to participants - she is not only restricted in the amount of data and observations that can be collected due to other attention demands of the program itself, but potentially injecting her own biases and - intentionally or unintentionally - directing the interactions of her peers.
By itself, the use of action learning to investigate an action learning method of leadership development leaves something to be desired. The relatively free-flowing nature of action learning may not be best suited to the sorts of systematic data collection undergirding the most robust research. It would be reasonable to use an alternate - or in the least, additional - method of data collection to produce more substantive data. For example, it is unclear to what extent post-activity surveys were utilized. The author does indicate that for the first cohort participants self-reported, however, the format of self reporting is ambiguous. Surveys distributed immediately following activities would be able to capture much of the same information, while having other advantages. Surveys would reduce the aforementioned effect of an embedded researcher, while also increasing the quantity of observations since they could easily be distributed to every participant following each activity.
Analysis of the data was completed firstly by classifying observations as relating to collective or as relating to individual outcomes. Within each of these categories the effect on social capital was considered using a schema set forth by Putnam (2001), in which it can be considered as being either of the bonding form or the bridging form. Bonding capital is that which facilitates strong inwardly focused groups, while bridging capital extends outwards to include diverse constituencies. In this study, bonding capital and bridging capital are identified as intragroup development and intergroup/organizational group development, respectively. Though the author of the article concludes that intragroup development is strengthened by the action learning method, apparently only 7 from a sample of 58 indicated something to this effect. Similarly, with regards to intergroup/organizational development, only 21 of the 58 interviewed participants indicated positive outcomes. In both instances of intragroup and intergroup development, the numbers of positively correlated responses are relatively small. While the lack of evidence doesn't make the author's conclusion necessarily incorrect, it is nonetheless a conclusion left wanting for additional evidence.
Conclusion and Ideas for Further Study
The value of social capital is well established by the Roberts, so a study investigating the efficacy of a particular method for its development is useful. At the same time, it seems trivial to investigate if socially engaging activities (action learning) nurture social connections (social capital). Better would be to investigate other specific aspects of the action learning process which may be particularly effective in building social capital, but also transferrable to other areas of an organization. Further, at the time of Roberts's article, there was already quite an abundance of literature concerning social capital. Consequently, the study's contribution to the field, or application of existing knowledge, in a new or novel way is uncertain.
The LEAD program and the action learning processes used in the study resemble Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) as described by Dufour and Eaker (1998). PLCs are groups of educators meeting regularly to foster mutual cooperation, emotional support, and personal growth. During the past several decades, PLCs have been increasingly implemented in schools as a method of improving teaching and learning. A study investigating the social capital yields of specific practices within PLCs may prove beneficial to those schools utilizing the structure to increase organization health, teacher efficacy and student achievement.
Dufour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
McAlearney, A. S. (2006), Leadership development in healthcare: a qualitative study. J. Organiz. Behav., 27: 967–982. doi:10.1002/job.417