I recently finished reading Digital Habitats: Stewarding technology for communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith. It’s a gem of a book in large part because of the three authors’ deep expertise in communities-of-practice. But they are also models, in my mind, of what it means to be reflective practitioners. There is much how-to in this book, but the how-too is deeply rooted in why and context.
The book is largely designed to aid practitioners who are the technology stewards for the communities-of-practice they serve. It is filled with very practical tips for stewardship, from selecting or matching the right technologies for the community’s needs, to taking the pulse of the community’s readiness to adopt new technologies, and to managing the change process.
One of the highlights of the book for me is the discussion on the different orientations that communities tend to use for learning together.
Communities learn together in different ways: some meet regularly, some converse online, some work together, some share documents, some develop deep bonds and some are driven by the mission they serve. We say that these communities have different orientations toward the process of learning together. An orientation is a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community. – From Digital Habits, p. 69
The authors then go on to define and describe nine different orientations (and these are not mutually exclusive): meetings; open-ended conversations; projects; content; access to expertise; relationships; individual participation; community cultivation; and serving a context (e.g., inside a single organization, cross-organization, public mission, etc.). For each orientation, the authors define community activities that are clues to the orientation; “signs of life” indicating the orientation is healthy; key success factors; questions to consider; and technology implications.
Outside of the attention to detail paid to unpacking these orientations, what I am struck by is how useful these orientations are in providing a language for “what we are seeing” — in the sense of ethnographic observation. One of the challenges that we all deal with in defining how work (or shared interest) activities really get done is in respecting the social, nonlinear, complex, situated nature of the actual practice of these activities. Through these nine orientations, the Digital Habitat authors provide a very workable language for helping to better understand communities-of-practice as the really are, and then to translate that understanding into solutions to ensure the “signs of life” within the community are strong.