Tag Archives: community

Bill Snyder on Communities of Practice

18 Jul

Bill Snyder, expert on communities of practice, spoke at the Learning Organization Academy last week. My notes below. For the record, Bill co-wrote Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge.

The Engaged and Messy Nature of Knowledge and Learning

Knowledge, according to Bill, is not abstract, fixed, and unconnected from life. It’s “situated, tacit, dynamic;” “social;” and “practical.” It’s interwoven between and among people and what they’re doing and need to do, in the environment where they are. Correspondingly, learning is largely informal, is built on communication and connections—stories, conversations, experiences, coaching. It depends heavily on trust and reciprocity.

Communities of Practice Steward Messy Knowledge

The kind of knowledge and learning above aren’t that well-served by formal education. What works better are communities of practice–groups of people sharing a particular domain of knowledge who gather and talk about what they know and what they do. The emphasis is on social relationships and communication; communities of practice are heterarchical as opposed to hierarchical. There isn’t a rigid power or control structure; they grow up where people who share a particular passion feel a need to talk to each other. They’re voluntary. As such they stand in contrast to the hierarchical workplace, its emphasis on control and outcomes, and its investment in its own existence. They can be “natural” in that they occur on their own when a few people find their way together, and intentional, in that people actively develop them, though this is an art. They can be conceptualized using a three-mode framework: domain (or subject matter); community (the people); and practice (how they apply the knowledge they share).

Peripheral and Core Participation

A key feature of communities of practice is that they allow for a variety of ways to be involved. You don’t have to be an expert: peripheral participation, or lurking, is OK, and even seen positively (because it’s a way to enter into the field—consider the apprenticeship model).  Usually, though, a core group comprising 3 – 5% of the people ends up being responsible for most of the activity of the community; these people are generally experts and well-respected (though there is a role for some in that core group to focus on the organizational details who don’t therefore need to be a subject mater expert). Importantly, the community of practice allows you to shift from lurker to middle to core group and back—in fact, you can see that movement as a kind of sideways Zone of Proximal Development.

Distinction Between Communities of Practice and Project Teams

Bill makes a key distinction between communities of practice, which self-organize to shepherd the learning in a social group, and project teams, which are formed, usually by fiat, to achieve a particular end. The community of practice focuses on knowledge sharing, is voluntary, has a long-term focus, boundaries are permeable, and the nature of the group is often emergent; the team is different—it has a clear outcome in mind, it gathers information on whether it meets that goal or not, it ends, roles are kinda fixed, it reports back. The project team works well in the hierarchical workplace of course; but it’s not antithetical to the community of practice. A project team can peel off of a community and go work on a project then share outcomes with the community. Just don’t assign a discrete, short-term, actionable goal to the overall community.

Phases of Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice go through various stages: Potential (basic parts are there: topic, social group, desire to share); Coalescing (community begins to work together and build trust); Maturing (clarification of the subject, individual roles; identification of gaps in knowledge); Stewardship (focus on action and maintaining momentum, attracting new members, keeping knowledge up-to-date); Transformation (its work may be done; members may leave; it may go dormant to return later).  Bill notes that it’s important to accept the community where it is—the stewardship phase isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, for instance: a community may function perfectly well and serve its members even in the early stages.

Things to Avoid

There are some things you shouldn’t do if you want your community of practice to be successful. You can’t tell it what to do—the passion has to come from the people involved (although you can find and build on existing passions). You need the domain to be somewhat practical and problematic; if it’s too superficial—that is, only about relationships and pleasantries, it won’t work. The topic also can’t be too narrow or too broad. You have to be wary as well of problems that occur in all communities: cliques and factions, and people who “squelch” or “spoil.” And a key pitfall: “impermeable boundaries”–if people can’t move from the fringes to the core group and every stage in-between, it’s not a heterarchy anymore.

Communities of Practice Improve Performance

You might think such an ephemeral structure might not result in anything tangible, but it does—those relationships and passions drive the participants to “build, share, and apply” core practices and capabilities, increasing their capability, and all that of course translates to improved performance outcomes.

The Box, The Trellis, and the Marketplace

8 May

We invited community members to come talk about about IT Governance and help us figure out the right way to go about it in our school. As I was listening to the conversation, it occurred to me there were two ways to look at it.

For the record, IT Governance refers to a structured process for campus-wide decision-making about IT policies and services. Like what your LMS is, or how long you should wait before your desktop computer is refreshed, or whether your department or a central unit pays for your copy of Chem Draw Ultra 12.0. When governance works, everyone knows what the campus IT policies are and how decisions are made, and everyone feels she or he can have input into the decision-making process. Even if a particular decision didn’t go your way, you at least know the reasoning behind the decision.

IT Governance as a Box

When you first hear of things like “governance” or “committees” or “organizational structures,” you might tend to think of them as restrictive, top-down organs of control. Your lizard brain throws up images perhaps of misty, star-chamber-like, inscrutable rooms and byzantine processes issuing strange unilateral edicts that are action-oriented and constraining, and focus on products, stress “implementation” and “projects,” and use mysterious jargon that makes you feel like there’s something you’re supposed to know but you don’t.  Things that seem safely removed from the more organic ebb and flow of your daily life, yet there’s a nagging anxiety in the back of your mind that the decisions might sort of pop up at the 11th hour and disrupt what you’re working on—you might discover, that is, that a new presentation software became the campus standard the night before you’re set teach using your well-tried PowerPoint deck, and it no longer works, and now you look crazy in front of your class, etc.

This dread vision is what you might call IT Governance as product-oriented instead of people-oriented. As a system that limits decision-making for efficiency’s sake to a few people, doesn’t include everyone, doesn’t allow for a lot of input, and doesn’t really seek to understand what people do on a daily basis and what their needs are. It’s not about helping people grow; on the other hand, it constrains, no matter how well-intentioned it is, as a box might. I have to admit such an image popped up in my own head at one point, but there’s another way to view IT Governance.

IT Governance as a Trellis

As part of our conversation, we looked at such other IT Governance processes as were easily available on the web. Some systems of decision-making out there are (as you might suspect) amazingly complex; some are less so. Significantly, though, many have features that do not fix the star chamber model. For example, Western Carolina University calls IT Governance an ongoing conversation, that “will occur not just within the governance meeting structure.” Salem State University’s IT Governance web site takes the time to explain the various “sources” of project ideas, which can come through formal channels or even “casual conversation between department heads” (and hopefully other people, too . . . ). The University of Texas at Austin lists the six cardinal values imbued in their governance process, and “transparency” and “communication” top the list.

A conversation? Something that allows for sharing of ideas between equals, that could happen in a formal setting, or in an informal setting? Among anyone? Emphasis on the messy beginnings of new ideas, lurking on the edges of existing projects, that might come from anywhere? Unabashed promotion of communication and transparency? This all suggests a desire to admit a constant stream of destabilizing novelty (or what I call an Information Sluice)! The opposite of the bureaucratic sublime. That’s a governance process that includes people as they are, in their actual walks of life, and invites their input. That’s a governance process that has change and growth built into it, a structure like a trellis, that allows for a plant to bloom in the new, vertical dimension. Not a black box.

IT Governance as a Marketplace

My local community is headed in this direction, too. When we talked about what we want to achieve with our IT Governance structure, the primary idea expressed was “more communication.” “We don’t know what’s going on,” “there needs to be a better way to talk to each other than email,” and “we need people who can serve as nimble liaisons negotiating agreement between areas of disciplinary knowledge and areas of technical knowledge,” were the kinds of things we said.

And we decided that to help with this communication we need a “marketplace,” or an easy way to know what everyone else is doing and see what solutions and problems other people are creating and dealing with. So that we can better build on and integrate our various local initiatives, instead of creating new, parallel, redundant, isolated projects. Such a marketplace, we thought, should be easy to search and easy to add to.

This marketplace sounds a bit like the kind of “ideation platform” or “idea stock market” I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Sounds a bit like the Internet itself, in fact, used as a metaphor of facile connectedness, of grass-roots, horizontal, non-bureaucratic engagement, with low-threshold entry requirements, applied retroactively unto the world itself, the child teaching the parent.

IT Governance as Email Fixer

Just a thought about email, which we thought was the kind of thing IT Governance could help us change. I think it’s a commonplace that our current use of email is less than satisfying, seeing that it is co-opted by everyone for every kind of communication: official institutional pronouncements, lightweight invitations to lunch, your mom to check in on you, your department to remind you about an upcoming talk, to let you know your water bill payment went through, to ask you to come to the PTA meeting that night, to share the project management charter, to ask your boss for time off, to tell you to check in for your flight, not to mention the inundation of unsolicited business-related emails, spam, etc. There’s so much crazy stuff in there opening the inbox is like our own personal version of Fibber McGee’s hall closet gag.

Email is a social problem as well as a technological problem. One where we have to talk to each other and agree on the parts to fix and try things out and adjust those things and ask ourselves to honor new conventions of behavior and give ourselves feedback on how we’re doing and so forth: pieces both mechanical and behavioral, individual and communal. Now if IT Governance can help that to be fixed (as we seem to think it can), that’s a different kind of governance. That’s not about circumscribing behavior. That’s a way to identify and heal problems that go deeper and broader than technology, that’s a meta-view on the way we live life and talk to each other, that’s about finding well-being together wherever we can, that’s about community, that’s about getting issues out into the open, that’s about being vulnerable and trusting each other, that’s the kind of thing that makes life worth living. That’s the kind of IT Governance we need.

The Sluice

4 May

There’s a thing I’ve found that a lot of people want in their lives but don’t have. Today I’m calling it the information sluice. Other times I’ve called it an epistemological entry vector and other, even sillier, names.

The idea is that in an age of change you need lots of data about your environment and your options, and these data have to be a kind of stream or flow rich in nutrients that is both constantly regenerating but also getting processed, evaluated, the good stuff noted, and pulled out, and built upon. Like an oyster filtering specks of food out of the ocean or a classic newspaper clipping service on a massive scale. Or the baleen of all the whales together, or some kind of moisture collector system perched on outcrops of rock in a romantic desert on the planet Dune, or, in my new way of looking at it, as if it were a sluice.

You can pan for gold painstakingly in the stream alone with your hole-y overalls and your one little pan that doubles as your complete set of table china, and you can might pick up a little gold dust. That’s the analog grammarian’s way of prospecting, maybe.

But you can also build a living channel to direct a big onrush of water to slowly wash the hillside away and you can create some filters in that sluice to net the fish, as it were. Put a weir in your sluice. And you can have some people watching and tending and regulating the flow and adjusting the filters, or the stakes in the weir, learning which size mesh to use, etc. That’s the Corpus Linguistics gold mining method. That’s gold prospecting at volume.

The bad part of this sluice metaphor is of course that in the real world this kind of mining destroys the earth. The good part of the metaphor, though, is that there’s a flow and it’s constant and refreshing and it generates a lot of dirt, but wondrous good stuff, if you tend it, and you’re attentive in your tending, comes out of that dirt. And you wouldn’t get that wondrous goodness by just sitting around camping or watching TV or panning in the old way, staying on the surface, that is. And of course this is not real earth we’re talking about but rather the hillside is of ideas, an inexhaustible mound, and the gold is not gold but the invaluable, discomfitting idea, the game changer, the second idea that adheres to a first and makes a connection, etc.

A workplace with a sluice has a group–or everyone–involved in the process of gathering and sorting and sharing info. This gathering could be conducting primary research, it could be reading other people’s research, it could be reading blogs, it could be site visits and talking to people, it could be taking notes at community meetings, it could be listening to feedback when you give a talk. It’s probably a smorgasbord that combines formal and informal kinds of knowing across disciplines, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, and mixing now and then, because the good ideas are not going to be in the places you’d expect. You have to look where you don’t want to look. The ideas that change the way you think about things aren’t going to pop up comfortably pre-categorized within an existing system. They’ll misbelong, like jokers in the card deck, and they’ll have been discarded or ignored by people playing according to Hoyle.

A key part of all this is the conversation between the sluice-tenders. For one, no one person can filter as much as three or four or five, so more learn faster over all than their individual parts, if they share. For two, the other people serve as the necessary feedback on your own filtering: confirming whether your mesh is set correctly, etc. For three, it’s more fun when you learn with other people. This conversation and sharing requirement is important to talk about, because it’s hard. It’s relatively easy to have a one-person sluice. But it’s hard to build it up between several people, and it requires more investment in communication and willingness-to-be-affected-by-others than I think most people expect to make except in their personal relationships, if even there.

Which may explain why it it seems most people don’t experience work as a sluice-tending, weir-adjusting, gold-gathering process. Some people seem to want anything but a flow of new, possibly discomfiting data (although they probably wouldn’t mind if someone else managed the data and delivered them in safely wrapped packages like a lamb chop from the butcher’s). They are happy to simply camp by the creek (and maybe not even prospect at all). But many people do want the sluice, and often they feel alone in the wilderness, intuiting that there’s a limit to their pan-prospecting, but not knowing where to find the partners to aid in the construction of the torrent (and maybe even a little afraid of that torrent themselves).

But I suspect that sluices are on the way. I talk too much about what age it is. I’ve said it’s the Age of the Gums, the Age of the System. I’ll do it again and predict that this will be the Age of the Sluice. In a recent post I noted the trend in the business community to see people’s ideas as a thing to cultivate and grow and tend and respect, as a forester loves a forest of pine–that’s a pro-sluice mentality. At an IT Governance meeting on campus the other day I was delighted to hear a broad-based outcry for a kind of “marketplace of ideas,” through which everyone could know what everyone else was doing–that’s a pro-sluice idea, too (I’ll blog on this particular event later).

Before I leave you, three additional thoughts.

1. It’s Recursive. A weird thing about this sluice — when it really works, what comes out of it changes the people using it, and changes how it works itself. Or you might say, the person-sluice hybrid evolves. On a simple level you can see that happening when people adjust the filter mesh for better results. But this kind of double-loop learning has infinite possibilities for spiraling evolution into unknowable complexities. So we have to see the sluice as a thing to some degree turned back upon itself and always in the process of becoming something else. What would that something else be? A sluice that evolves into a sluice of sluices, a meta-sluice? A sluice that fills the mound of ideas back up, that discovers, evaluates and creates? A sluice that takes away its need to be there, like self-absorbing stitches? I am not sure. Let’s find out.

2. This is what all those smart people do. You know those Ted talkers and Steve Jobses, people who are always popping up with wisdom and new ideas and opening your mind to something–they have found a way to have a flow of ideas pouring through, they are looking for good ones, and when they find them they hold them and start to layer others on as they come in. Doing it makes you better at doing it. This is how they are able to keep generating their Ted talks.

3. Having ideas is an artistic skill. Alan Kay says learning to have great ideas is a mastery skill like any other, like playing an instrument, say, and if you put in 4 – 5K hours, you’ll get there (this from a NITLE talk I summarized in a recent post). As he said, “A good idea is really improbable, but you won’t have any if you filter too early.” The trick is learning to adjust the filter and increasing the probability by accelerating the flow. The fine arts reference is meaningful–artists know all about this sluice idea. What does a painter do, sit around waiting for an idea to pop up and only then get out her paints (the gold-panning method)? Or does she paint a lot and consistently and every day, and discover in her flow and volume the nuggets that become the elemental matter of her personal periodical table? Ask Stephen King or Anthony Trollope: it’s the second option.

4. In another way the sluice is a replacement of school. Your formal education is kind of like a sluice that someone else filters, pointed at you. You wake up every day and have ideas dumped on you; isn’t that the general experience? That’s bad in ways–as in it’s a kind of teacher-centric focus on content that the progressive pedagogy movement has decried for a long time–but in others it’s not bad. Having the intuition or habit of what a flow of ideas is, learning to feel a passionate need for that flow, sense that that flow is related to your personal growth, that’s all good. For many these feelings are lost when they shift to work, and they desperately want to replace them, and I think that’s a salutary impulse. The trick is, of course, to see also that you need to be the sluice-tender, not just the passive recipient, because the thing you’re changing is your way of knowing, not the cumulative amount of knowing you do.

About Faculty-Student Interaction

22 Sep

We’ve been talking about Faculty-Student Interaction on my campus lately. It’s one of the key criteria of the success of a learning institution, it’s about whether your students and faculty talk to each other, and it’s hard to get right.

For our discussions we read Cotten and Wilsons’ “Student–faculty interactions: Dynamics and determinants,” in Higher Education, 51, 2006, which includes a good overview of the literature and describes a qualitative assessment of faculty-student interaction on a campus that I think is pretty representative.

Here’s a stream of thought influenced in part by Cotten and Wilson and in part by my own observations.

First of all, the research generally says that more student-faculty interaction is better–for student learning, development, self-worth, persistence, and other things. It also says that this interaction can come in lots of ways: it can be formal, informal, in-class, out-of-class, social, academic, accidental, planned, one-on-one, in a group, etc.

But the literature also says it happens surprisingly rarely. Why? Well, a lot of factors come to mind. Faculty and student time, the way campus space is designed (faculty and students have their own ghettos, if you will); the difference in age and activity (faculty are at “work” and students are learning and living and having fun); even differences in, um, feedback styles. Cotten and Wilson note that faculty are trained to find fault and eliminate it, while students often need just the opposite–validation.

To my mind a little bit of fear is involved, too. Many teachers seem have a deep-seated fear of having their personal life overrun by needy, informal, chaotic students asking for extensions, calling them by their first names at 3 AM, and generally acting 18. Cotten and Wilson point out students have a fear as well, of feeling obliged by a closer relationship to do more, take more responsibility, of being afraid to let the professor down. You can see each fear as the shadow of the other; in both cases people worried about the unpredictable effect of these mysterious new relationships on their work and life.

Of course these fears both assume extreme cases. You can probably hang out with students a little bit more without suddenly having them stalk you, and you could talk a little bit to a professor about their research now and then without feeling like they would show up in your dorm room if you slept late one day.

Cotten and Wilson also share what I think is a key idea–that what’s really behind improved interaction is simply a better sense of community. It does seem that people in a community do better–maybe because they have more opportunities to understand what’s expected, more room to explore how to be themselves, more room to grow into and try on new ideas and roles, something more lasting than grades and keg parties to invest in, a feeling people care about them, a feeling they are part of something bigger. But of course you can’t have a community made of ships passing in the night. (On a side note, when you start to think about community, you also realize that there are a lot of other ships passing in the nocturnal sea of our campuses. Shouldn’t we be talking about faculty-staff and student-staff interaction? Staff-parent interaction? Faculty-visitor interaction? Interactions with grad students? Etc.)

What’s sad for me about limited student-faculty interaction is that we’re missing an opportunity to let people discover their own personal path to learning by seeing how other people do it. When you think about it, the intrinsic motivation to learn–that desire to discover, learn, understand, share, improve the world, solve problems–that reason why faculty like their subjects, are drawn to research and scholarship and teaching–that wonderful motivating spark–is a deeply personal, simple, humane, human essence. That’s what we’re tying to help students find in themselves, but that’s not really communicated well in formal instruction–that’s the kind of thing that you see when someone lets their guard down, inside the Actor’s Studio, if you will, at ease in their lab, or being reflective over lunch. Situations where you don’t need to be right or official, but just yourself. If we don’t have good faculty-student interaction, students won’t get a lot of chance to see this in their faculty; if they figure it out on their own, it’ll be as it were in spite of school, not because of it.

So that’s the trouble. The solution is likely (as usual) a smörgåsbord of options. A lot of great programs exist already to improve interaction. Mentor programs, have class over for dinner programs. Take a faculty member out to lunch, Anthropology Department candle pin bowling night, etc. These are great. Even little things like reminding faculty to “act like you care about the students” or nudging students to “ask your professor about their research” help a lot, too.

As I reflect off the top of my head on additional possible things we could do, I come up with four, which I array for you free of charge, as my concluding device:

  • Share space. Let your campus space be a big studio where faculty, students, and staff are interminged in their various moments of work and play. Build buildings and networks of buildings that are not designed for any one thing–be it study, teaching, living, or research, but that allow them all. Let the Reggio Emilia idea of the environment as the “third teacher” influence the way you work together. Even let faculty live on campus! I know, crazy.
  • Eat together. You probably can’t have the magic ceiling and floating candles, but you probably have some of the other attributes of the Harry Potter dining hall experience in the big cafeterias on your campus. Why not make it so no classes or meetings or work may happen from 12 – 2 and then require people to all repair to the cafeteria? Make the food free. Add some announcements. Summer camp effect.
  • Advisory Committees. I’m a big fan of the personal advisory committee made of people outside your context (I should blog on this). It’s like peer review for your life. One boss and a colleague or two from your small sphere is not enough feedback or breadth of input for your serious and meaningful plans and personal improvement. The advisory committee could work for faculty-student interaction: imagine if each student were required to sit on the advisory committee of a faculty member not in their major, understand their research, give them suggestions on their challenges, contribute feedback on their activities, tell people about how great they are. Wouldn’t that feel neat? Call it an adopt-a-faculty member program.
  • Co-labor. This is of course rather basic, but it’s probably the best way to improve faculty-student interaction, at least of my four: give your faculty and students some task they need to do together, something they can’t do on their own, with a shared goal, and hold them mutually accountable. They will know each other fast.