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Communities of Practice

October 31, 2006

I was an observer in a debate recently on the question of whether a community of practice had to be self-organising, or if it could be directed. My own view is that communities can evolve, but cannot be designed top down. Of course you can stimulate and direct evolution. However a CoP “Roll out” plan always gets me worried. The original work on this was done by Wenger and in the debate he was being criticised for basing his theory on the endpoint of a process that had taken years to evolve.

I think it is correct to say that Wenger and others in their initial work study the outcome of an evolutionary process. The Boeing and other groups had arisen naturally and were self-organising. However it is also true to say that they started that way. The danger I think was when people could a description of the end point and tried to turn it into a consultancy recipe. Now this is a characteristic of management science, which bases itself on retrospective coherence. What most of the consultants, facilitators etc missed was that you can not replicate the end point of an evolutionary process, but you can stimulate similar starting conditions. That stimulation can be as simple as making the tools available, or providing some initial stimulation or sponsorship.

There are to my mind two disastrous approaches:

1 – Creating an organisational template for communities of practice, with a full roll out plan, dedicated staff etc. etc. This is the classic engineering approach which assumes that there must be a top down, designable RIGHT answer. In practice different communities work in different ways and in different ways at different times. A list serve may be good enough, maybe Grove or similar to get started. A point may arise where you need a taxonomy, formal roles, start up processes etc. but that is expensive and requires a lot of energy to give it any chance of working. Better to create the right ecology in which different types of collaboration can take place, and then consolidate successful experiments when (and only if) they or the organisation can benefit from formalism.

2 – Taking a paternalistic (or maternalistic approach) in which people are held to be children or kids needing help or assistance. This to my mind often goes with consultants to take up therapeutic techniches (in narrative Appreciative Inquiry is one) and move them sideways into organisations. Such approaches were designed for situations where the Therapist takes a dominant role (which is why some consultants like them) and assumes that the recipients are in need of therapy. Most of the time they are not – its the management and consultants who need it not their subjects/victims.

My own view, itself derived from complexity theory is that you need to create an environment in which people can play with multiple tools, moving some of the results to a formal environment, when and if needed. With the growth of social computing and familiarity with those tools this easy to achieve.

This is called clustering (putting together different informal communities) or swarming (creating an attractor mechanism and seeing what comes). Formal communities need to have a cycle of destruction and rebirth built into them otherwise they will be come a force of conservatism. I wrote this up in Complex Acts of Knowing and in a more popular form under the title Just in Time KM.

The first of those articles includes some original research in IBM (which we checked out elsewhere) which showed that the ratio of informal communities to formal communities was 1:10K or put another way if you half the number of staff then you can assume that is the capacity for self-organising spontaneous CoPs that you can expect.

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