Facilitating Communities of Practice in the Network Era

Two days ago I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to attend a workshop at UCT facilitated by Nancy White (1), who co-wrote Digital habitats: stewarding technology for communities (2) with Etienne Wenger and John David Smith. Presentation slides from the workshop can be downloaded / viewed here. Unfortunately, I could only stay for the morning session, so my notes are  incomplete and they may be incorrect. If you attended the workshop and would like to extend these notes, please add your comments below.

The workshop started with the Human Spectrogram, “a group face to face exercise to help surface similarities and differences in a group, help people to get to know each other and to do something together that is active. Other knowledge sharing toolkits can be found here.
Communities collectively accept responsibility for the behaviour of others in the community
Community is about purpose and specifically, shared purpose
Reciprocity is very important in communities, although not necessarily with the same person who shared with you
Leading / facilitating CoP will often require improvisation / innovation
“Community indicator = sign of life: asking questions / showing something that delves deeper into what the community is or wants to be. It can vary by community, and should be reflective of the community
Use of metaphor can be evocative. If you’re too explicit, you can turn people off because they may think they know what you’re talking about, and therefore miss what you actually want them to do / think about. Whereas, using something that’s open to interpretation, or more abstract will stimulate discussion or reflection in the community.
Invitation to participate is essential. Invites can be in different forms:
  • Discovery (can be serendipitous)
  • Explicit invitation (this can take multiple forms)
Game mechanics (Amy Jo Kim) → games stimulate interest and engagement with content (3) (4) (I explored this idea a little bit last year when I was thinking about the use of gaming in physiotherapy)

Websites are not communities, people are communities
Howard Rheingold’s book “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier” is a good exploration of online communities
How do you stop communities from fragmenting?
Facilitating online and offline communities is always evolving because the environment is always changing
A “CoP” perspective is not the same as defining if something is a CoP. CPD is an appropriate framework to explore communities:
  • Community (a group of people who can be named)
  • Practice (intent, talking about something in order to do it better
  • Domain (what we care about, shared interest, purpose)
Don’t change all 3 of the above at once, for fear of destabilising the CoP
CoP is not a binary thing. It can exist on continuum between is and isn’t
Small groups are adaptable, don’t have to negotiate (as much) in order to change, can be flexible
Institutional(?) / online interfaces are not usually designed for small groups, multiple small groups can scale out to large groups.
  • Me (individual): individual, identity, interest, trajectory, consciousness, confidence level, risk tolerance, styles, emotion
  • We (community): bounded, members who you know, group identity, shared interest, human centred, distinct power/trust dynamics, forward movement, strong blocking, statis, attention to maintenance, language
  • Many (networks): boundaryless, fuzzy, intersecting interests, “object centred sociality” (Jyri Engstrom), flows around blocks, less cohesion, distributed power/trust, change
People trust people around the content they produce. Blogs and referral systems can establish relationships around “objects” / content. This can be scary for people who are used to creating relationships around personal interactions. This has implications for how we use content to attract and engage with people. Communities are not about curating or archiving content, but for providing channels for sharing content and facilitating relationships.
There is a difference between a network and a community, and depending on your objectives, you may have to make a conscious decision about which one you want to develop towards. Networks of Practice is a concept used to explore the areas where network theory and CoP intersect (5).
  • Network – a lot of people know a lot of people, but they don’t all know each other. There are loose ties (link downloads article PDF) (Granovetter), it can scale beyond your ability to facilitate the group
  • Community – you know people more intimately, there is meaningful connection (but can also be present in networks)
Blogging and communities – Lilia Efimova
Dunbar’s number = 150 (how many stable social relationships we can manage)
People have to actively engage of their own accord without the community being “done to them”
Are we inward-facing or outward-facing in our department? Who are we looking to connect with / influence?
Legitimate peripheral participation i.e. lurking in online groups. Are they part of a network or a community? It can be argued either way. This is a big part of online social networks → community or network?
  1. Interview with Nancy White by George Siemens for the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications
  2. Online companion to Digital Habitats:  Stewarding technology for communities
  3. Stuart, B. (2006). How game mechanics can make your app more fun – a blog post looking at some of Amy Jo Kim’s work
  4. Putting the fun in functional – presentation by Amy Jo Kim on Slideshare
  5. Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice
  6. Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory, 1, 201-233 (link downloads PDF)

1 thought on “Facilitating Communities of Practice in the Network Era”

  1. Ha, I finally circled back around. Thanks so much for taking these notes. I’m going to link them into the workshop wiki (there is also one for the afternoon.) Tony is getting the photos up on Flickr as well. It was terrific meeting you. Don’t forget John Parboosingh’s work!

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