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How relevant are communities of practice in a network age?

A while back I blogged about the possibility of networks and blogospheres cutting into the need for communities. I believe this is happening a great deal, as now people may have a more purposeful or ideal way of achieving their needs that they were once achieving by being in a community.

NOTE: I want to stress in this post I'm referring to *pure* CoPs, ie. cross-functional group spaces to learn about a topic (*usually* comprised of people across different teams). I'm not refering to teams using CoP-like social software, like Basecamp as a group space to coordinate and communicate tasks/project.

This doesn't mean communities are no longer relevant…does it?

Sometimes we need a place of shared interest to build a communal practice, sometimes we need people to be committed members of a space to coordinate activities, some people like being part of a group, rather than on their own space, or both.

Just look at Friendfeed, it's a network, but you can also join rooms (member groups); some are feedback rooms, news rooms, topic rooms…people still like hanging out in a place (pub/coffee shop) and contributing to the pool of info in one spot, rather than scattered in a social network. If I have a question about Friendfeed functionality I will not post in my network, but I will go to their feedback room.

Actually I lie, I live in Twitter, so naturally I will first post a question to my Twitter network. But if my network don't have the time or expertise then I will ask in the Friendfeed Room where they do have the expertise and the dedication to answer any questions in their domain (room), as a respect to members.

NOTE: I demonstrated this reflex yesterday asking questions about Clearstep in Twitter rather than in the Clearstep community.

But the premise is that a community like a feedback room is less likely to get replaced over topic communities that are about building your knowledge on a topic. But again, I won't hold my breath, as we are now seeing lots of companies and services using a Twitter account for news and support. As that's where the people are at, you don't have to shift to another space to engage in something else.

Issue of shifting for context and the naturalistic feel of networks

Stowe Boyd has more on this “shift” that may be a big cognitive reason that when it comes to individual learning on a topic, networked sharing is cutting into the ease of learning over CoPs:

“Contrasting group forums with blogging is a good example in which to make the distinction between group- and individual-oriented social tools. In group forums, members of a closed group can post threads and comment on them. It is a closed model. When individuals blog in the open web, trackbacks and comments allow discussions to take place that are — in many cases — logically equivalent to forums, but since each individual blogger decides where to turn their focus, and what other blogs to comment on, bloggers are members of many groups at the same time. More importantly, the structure of blogging supports that model directly. In a group forum, you are a member of that one group, and not a member of any others: the fact that you may be a member of other groups is not explicitly supported.”

Stowe Boyd, like Dave Snowden, often refers to social tools and naturalistic approaches, ie. how they are in tune with human behaviour.

“So the groupware model of collaboration, where neatly partitioned worlds are created, and individuals are made to shift context in order to shift from one social thread to another, seems unnatural to me. The primacy of groups and group membership in old-school groupware is outmoded.

The shift to the individual changes everything, and in revolutionary ways. Moving from groupware premises to “soloware” shifts the dialog about standards and interoperability.”

This type of approach seems to be more conducive to our attention and how we naturally behave. But the one thing we do forgo is the neatness of a topic hub, compared to scattered content. What I mean is that if you network you know how to tie all the scattered content together as you blog about it and bookmark it. But for new comers, finding all content on a topic in one page is always easier.

” But the glue that connects the dots in the soloware world are standards like RSS, IM interoperability, and blog trackback conventions: standards that allow individuals to do their thing, but to allow bottom-up aggregation of their artifacts along social connections. The groups are there, but latent, implicit in the gestural relationships of crosslinking, tags, comments, and blogrolls.

“We are, first and foremost, individuals. The concept that whenever we do something it should be intentionally in the context of a specific well-defined group is outmoded, and was always an approximation of what is really going on, socially. We are involved in social relationships, and what we do with others is always social, but not necessarily part of a group, or only of one group. So, let's put aside groups, and focus on the individual. The groups will follow.”

Read more, on groups and individuals.

I also find at work that we need a social network to complement our communities. If people could discover others with like interests perhaps we'd get more communities, or, as the premise of this post, would the social network do the job.

Back to it…

An attraction of CoPs is that some people don't want their own profile or space to upkeep, and build a network (note that this is more effort intensive in a distributed network such as the blogosphere rather than a default network like Twitter), they don't have time, they'd more enjoy a quick post in a forum, and the safety that only select people will see their posting. (What I mean by this is even though your community may be public, usually only the members visit your posts, and can reply to them).

This is not to say you can't achieve this to a degree in a social network. In a network a person can connect to the same people that were in the community, only they all live in their own houses rather than a shared house. They can still blast each other questions and publish in their own space where others can subscribe.
The fact that they are separate does not prevent learning and knowledge sharing from happening. The big difference is that there is no longer an agenda, or shared interest topic, and you no longer have an output storage that is your practice.

Topic Hubs or Tag Aggregation

I think this is the main difference here, if you want to build a topic hub (a clearing house on a topic, as well as learning from each other whilst you're building your practice via conversations), you need a community, people become members of a shared space, which is a commitment to contributing to the aim.

Just the same you may employ, as Dave Snowden says, top-down stimulation and see what the network percolates.
eg. a manager asks a question, and requests people to tag their posts with a unique tag, then all answers/conversations can be aggregated. Even though this is distributed it can feel like a community, but more a collective. This example demonstrates a more on-the-fly activity, and using aggregating for output, without having to be committed members of a shared space. This is not a substitute for a community, but it is still a means for collective action. An example could be asking a question on a network like Twitter and everyone tags their answer with the same hash tag. Then we can go to this hash tag to see all the aggregated answers.

I think communities and networks are complementary (as mentioned above in my reference to Friendfeed), that's why we see both the Facebook social network and Facebook groups as extremely popular…they both have their unique purpose. And that's why most enterprise social computing platforms are doing both nowadays: Knowledge Plaza, Clearspace, Lotus Connections, Socialtext, Yammer, etc…

Anyway this post is a loose follow on from my last post and is a bit of a repeat of what I've said in a few of my previous posts, but a reprise is sometimes good as we can give it a fresh layer of paint:

km 2.0 enablers: blogs, wikis, and social networks
Networks, Communities and Aggregation

Here's a comparsion of dynamics from a past post (this is an excerpt from a now defunct Collaboration Loop blog post):

Online Communities Social Networks
Top-down Bottom-up
Place-centric People-centric
Moderator controlled User controlled
Topic driven


Centralized Context driven
Architected Self-organizing

This post is not about the definitive differences between communities and networks
(for that check out the table above, and also Nancy White and Anecdote's wonderful paper) but more so the differences from a user perspective or experience.

Anecdote's paper also includes teams dynamics. Others comparing teams and communities are Jessica Lipnack's Teams of Practice post, (teams primarily focus on performance and measurable output, but it's about time teams also focus on sharing practices) and Francois Gossieaux's Teams vs Communities post (they definitely have different motivations)


Blogosphere or Network

1. It takes work to build your blog and upkeep content (no-one will fill in the gap, if you don't post, there will be no posts)

2. I can post about any topic

3. One blog/profile is all you need
- you don't need to be a member of different places

4. Need to build an audience (subscribers, visitors, commenters)
- this is easier in a default network rather than a distributed network like the blogosphere (which Google Connect is bridging)

5. Audience is not restricted (potentially more awareness of you)

6. More visible to a broader audience
- you can also tune into lots of different topics
- greater serendipity

7. Do what you want (it's your house)

8. You have to find/build sources to network with (other bloggers/profiles)

9. Topic hubs only available by aggregating content by all bloggers on a tag/s
- this is hit and miss
- still this is not organised as a website

10. Highly emergent
- not restricted to a topic
- people from all over commenting/linking

11. No Group Think

12. Branding is more about the group than the individual


1. If I don't contribute, there are others who will, so together we can keep content fresh (it's a group effort), plus we build the CoP's shell together

2. Posts have to be on topic (domain)
- this is limiting, as I have to stay on topic, and find another community to say off-topic things
- this is the shifted space for new context issue mentioned earlier in this post by Stowe Boyd

3. Community fatigue
- how many do I have to join so I can talk about all the things I'm interested in
- some communities may have a topic I'm interested in but I don't want to join their club, and spend time relationship building
- once again the Shifted context issue

4. Guaranteed audience

5. Audience is limited to the community, and frequent visitors (less findability)
- even though your community may be public

6. Less opportunity for serendipity
- people may not take the time to visit your community
- you don't really venture out to tune into other topics unless they are other communities

7. Need to comply to house rules/policies/etiquette

8. Instant contacts

9. Output (practice) turns the site into a topic hub

10. Mildly emergent
- others may not visit as you are within your own walls

11. Could lead to Group Think

12. Brand (you are an expert)
- people come to your house
- build a reputation network wide

Looking at these differences there are plenty of reasons why someone may prefer one environment over the other. But this will soon become a non-issue as most existing platforms are now starting to provide both.

But as I mentioned earlier, sure we will need groups to coordinate work, but when it comes to knowledge sharing on a topic for learning purposes, these types of groups are being trumped by networks. With networking we can still get the dynamic of connecting to people we trust and understand, like in a community, only we are outside the confines of a community, there are no group rules to adhere to, we don't have to always shift to another space to engage in a topic, and we can learn about any topic we like and connect to anyone we like.

Like I said, a big difference with this approach is the output (topic hub) is missing. I wonder of the success of conversing in a network to build an output page that lives elsewhere, or will people be more successful creating the document in the same space they converse in ie. a group workspace.

Anecdote have a different take based on your experience.

What sparked this post

What ignited this post is finding this discussion thread on the Facebook CP Square group, which is on the same meme as something that I mentioned in a previous post nearly a year ago based on Dave Snowden's post.

I'll re-post here:

“…perhaps people don't need to engage in CoPs anymore to fulfill their knowledge needs - they can mash-up applications and have ‘knowledge nuggets' delivered to their virtual doorstep without ever venturing out. I can't remember where I read this but someone claimed that the more connected a person is, the less he/she is likely to engage in CoPs, in this new scenario.”
“My first response…was…people would feel the need to engage *more* in order to deepen their knowledge in a particular domain, now that ‘knowledge' sources are more dispersed; however now I am actually wondering whether this is truly the case, and that a new form of networking will emerge that is much more individualistic.”

This is true, as it wasn't possible before, but I don't think it's a total annihilation of CoPs for the reasons already cited above…the most vulnerable will be those pure CoPs that are about a general sharing knowledge space…and the replacement of these will not be without a loss, as we will see less organised one-stop-shops on a topic (where you can converse)

Stowe Boyd and Dave Snowden are truly on to something here.

It's not that CoPs are not worthy, it's just that a more “individualistic” form of networking and learning has surfaced that is more conducive and natural to the flow of how humans think and learn. If we can achieve the same goal in a more simplistic and effective way, we will naturally do it, as that's being human.

Personal Growth

But it did happen to KnowledgeBoard. Once blogs came on the scene, people participated in forums less frequently, and blogged from their own soapbox about any topic, others could subscribe, trackback and comment…plus your audience is the whole web. Since you come up in Google results and on people's blogrolls it brings serendipity and discovery to an audience that would never have bumped into you in a community.

We all have that experience of reading one blog post that links to another, and then that one links to another, it keeps going, and the mean while you are also checking out the blogroll of each blog, and their earlier posts…and hours can go by…but luckily you have bookmarked these pages (even tweeted some as you can't contain your excitement), and perhaps post a blog post later on. This is personal productivity and learning in a social network ecosystem.

This serendipity and discovery process is incredibly amazing which you get in a distributed environment like a blogosphere. You bump into new things, new thoughts, new topics of interest…it's very open and unpredictable in what your future interests will hold.
eg. I started off blogging about libraries, then web tools, then KM, and now communities and networks, and soon, facilitation, complexity, narrative and decision making. Being immersed in the blogosphere has formed a path for me that I didn't conceive…who knew my next interest would be “decision making”, not me.

I'm not sure this exposure to new interests and personal growth would have happened if I lived within the confine of a few CoPs.

Bridging the Structural Holes

But it has a greater effect than on just the individual. It allows for clusters to be connected to other clusters. Sometimes in communities we get GroupThink and an EchoChamber effect, where there is not enough diversity, so the learning can become narrow, stale, and indoctrinated (for use of a better word).
Highly connected people that bridge clusters of networks lessen this effect (this is also related to the strength of weak ties), as they fill in structural holes.

Here's an excerpt from a past post:

“People who interact daily come to know many of the same things, and are in that sense informationally redundant. In contrast, people who do not interact will often know many things that the other does not know.”

“The property of having ties to people who are not in the same social circles with each other is called betweenness or “structural holes”. A person rich in structural holes has many ties, and the people they are tied to are not tied to each other.”

At the moment I'm reading Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody, and he talks about a study related to “bridging capital” on p229. One of the conclusions was that most good ideas in the study came from “Connector” type people, those who bridge groups, as these people were exposed to more diverse ideas and ways of thinking. Whereas people that hung round in the same group and didn't really connect with other clusters seemed to have an echo chamber effect, and that the ideas were not strategically beneficial for the company at large, they could not see beyond their own group (how they fit into the big picture, how they effect and are effected by other groups).

Current experience

And I'm certainly feeling this stifling or GroupThink is happening in a few LinkedIn KM groups I have visited for the first time in the last month, as they still talk about KM practices as they were done 10 years ago. The blogosphere (networks) is more cutting edge, it's more interdisciplinary, it has made clear that KM is entering a new stage where new social tools are enabling new methods in achieving the original aims of KM.

Another thing is that there are so many groups/communities on topics I like, some of late are LinkedIn groups, Clearstep, Facebook groups, Ning, etc…
I know I should find a group with people I care about, but these people are already blogging, so it's easier for me to just stick to networks. The other thing, is I don't have the time to be a member of lots of communities, but being in a network is effortless (again Stowe Boyd's context shift and naturalistic points).

NOTE: Are we generally moving from a topic web to a type web, where all topics exist in the one place eg. YouTube, Get Satisfaction, delicious, Flickr, Twitter, Scribd.

A good start is finding blog aggregators on a topic (people blogging from their own space and re-syndicated on a page), like Social Media Today, Content Management Connection, Communities and Networks Connection, ScienceBlogs, or even some group blogs like The AppGap, and The FastForward blog…these all ease the discovery process for newbies.

What's special about Ning is that when you create a Ning, you are creating a community space that you can network in, and also create groups. So basically you are creating your own topic based Facebook. Nonetheless, even though you can network, you are still coming together in a community, and can even branch off into groups.

NOTE: You can network within a community, but a network is not a community

For example there is a Ning on story based techniques, there is a Ning for cognitive edge practioners, there is a Ning for Social Learning…you still get the benefit of networking, but you are still within the walls of a topic/agenda, which makes it a community…also someone created that space, making you a member.

To compare, if you want to know about story based techniques you can search blogs, bookmarks, tags and work your way…subscribing to blogs, checking out blogrolls, etc.. Or you could come across a topic community like on Ning.

Back to what sparked this post

Anyway, the CP Square thread on Facebook had lots of responses. I hope people don't mind (privacy issues) that I'm making the Facebook wall transparent.

Some responses to Dave Snowden's statement

Bronwyn Stuckey (Indiana) wrote on September 7, 2007 at 3:19pm
“Dave Snowden recently said to Etienne Wenger “If knowledge management had had the tools we have today it would not have needed communities of practice” (I paraphrase).”

I'll just note here that Dave uses a Ning community for his Cognitive Edge practioners.
I'm not trying to be smart here, I'm just thinking that he has found a use for a community, even though, and I agree, that it's less becoming the norm as a way to learn about a topic…groups are giving way to networks and buddy lists view of the world.

David John Snowden (London) replied to Warren's poston September 7, 2007 at 10:12pm
“It was meant as a factual statement not a provocation
Most of the tools used in CoP are over formal and over structured. You can achieve more or less all that you can achieve with technology through the unstructured associations and links that social computing provides.”

This is exactly was Stowe Boyd said by referring to groups based on gestural relationships or linking and tagging.

Derek Chirnside (Canterbury) wroteon September 7, 2007 at 10:31pm
“I think CoP's exist in spite of clunky tools. CoP's (in my assessment) are an observable social interaction/entry - it's not whether they are ‘needed' or not, they just are - or are not - according to the context, nurture, conditions . . .”

Andy Roberts (London) replied to Warren's poston September 8, 2007 at 1:03am
“I interpret COP as observable social phenomena like Derek, so the question about ‘needing' them is moot. What concerns me is that in the distributed technology enabled world we can now make deliberate choices as to how transparent the ties and communications are.

Is Dave perhaps hinting that organisations can now reap the same informational benefits from a semi-transparent network of individual communications and temporary nodes that before required a fully open many-to-many community with a formally subscribed membership?

I think ( or at least hope ) that the real practice based communities will find ways to protect themselves from being undermined by person-centric networks with their secret backchannels and disenfranchising power curves.”

Can anyone elaborate on what Andy is saying here?

Joitske Hulsebosch replied to Andy's poston September 8, 2007 at 3:20am
“…The interesting question raised by Dave Snowden has, in my opinion, more to do with what changes in this social phenomena because of the new tools and technologies and ways of connecting and exchanging information that's offered by these technologies.”

“…I do believe that with a new mindset of open exchange of collaboration and openness in sharing what you are doing, the aspect of belonging may become less important, but I'm not sure. People may not need a certain level of trust before they share ideas and information in an online forum. Moving in and out of communities of practice may also increase velocity as people do not have a life long practice, but may change with changing jobs, interests etc…”

Bronwyn Stuckey (Indiana) replied to Joitske's poston September 10, 2007 at 12:28am
“Cop for me is not a thing but an ethos, a culture - a way of behaving and being responsible for more than your own learning.…So while I do think some tools will help people take responsibility for each others learning and to build community I don't think it is necessarily the critical issue.”

“Take FACEBOOK - while many of us network, join groups and hook up - how much is it really about community for the majority? Even the SNA tools put the profile member in the middle of the network. This space is about linking individuals - well at least how it seems for me right now.”

This is the whole premise, are networks enough when it comes to shared learning?

Nancy White (Seattle, WA) wrote on September 10, 2007 at 4:03pm
“…I SUSPECT (I don't know) that Dave is talking about the sort of fadish focus on CoPs and CoP software, rather than the intrinsic value of learning from and with each other”

I agree here, the premise is networks as a new enabler on the block in achieving learning…an individuals network approach over a group space.

Frances Bell (Uni. Salford) replied to Bronwyn's poston September 11, 2007 at 4:52am
“…we are setting up an online network for a face to face women's network at my place of work. We discussed how people could be in the group but not share their slightly edgy network of friends' behaviours with work colleagues. We came up with the idea of having a closed group for the work network (where members could message each other and participate in discussions like this but private from passers by) but only using friend option for people who we would have friended anyway.”

So perhaps privacy is a key driver for a community.

Also the fact that in a group setting you have rules of engagement, you get to choose who you trust to share your information with…

David John Snowden (London) replied to Nancy's post on September 12, 2007 at 3:56am
“Nancy is pretty close. I would certainly argue that CoP application software packages have been a complete waste of time and damage real communities. Social computing offers more capability. Hence my general view that we could have done with today's technology ten years so.”

I asked a similar question a while back about whether KM would of existed if social computing was around 10 years ago?

Dave continues onto another topic of which I have blogged a lot about lately:

“I would also (to take the issue on) argue that attempts to create CoP through formal process and control are also a mistake. If a community has value it will form and the technology now allows that. Control and censorship are not appropriate. You might need that in a formal document repository or lessons learnt database (where a degree of validity is required) and those might link to communities. But the idea of a formally controlled and structured environment is I think (and thankfully) at an end.”

This post has been on the topic of sharing, learning and discovering…as opposed to tasks and organising. But I'll just include an example of group spaces for tasks as our contrast.
A bunch of bloggers or social networkers who read each others stuff need to organise an event or perform a task. If these guys were on Facebook (social network) they would come together by creating an event or group page, if they were bloggers they may come together using a group task tool like Basecamp or even a simple Google Group.

End thought

I'm not going to conclude or offer a summary, in the end more tools to choose from and ways to approach learning can only be a good thing. The choice is up to you, it's all part of your journey and learning.

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