Tag Archives: communities of practice

From Digital Habitats: Communities and different orientations of learning

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.


LEED: The success case worth mining for insight

Worth the review: The Green Building Impact Report.

I’ve just begun a read of this, but am already seeing this as an exemplar case study in large-scale, cross-organizational change. We need a LEED effort for food…for transportation…

What is most fascinating to me (and I need to dive into this further) is the fact that the LEED effort has strong links to a particular profession (or set of related professions) — architecture and the building professions.

One of the things we look at in organizational change is the impact of communities of practice, or networks of practice — those people who share a common language and way of thinking that is associated with a profession. That common ground and interest connects them in a way that is productive, and once there is a change afoot, this community can become a catalyst for it or a barrier to it. So — what makes it work? And why has it worked for architects and builders, but not for — say — automotive engineers? Or farmers?

If I had to hypothesize, I am sure it is the combination of several factors (the structure of the architecture and building industry is not the same as the auto industry or farming, for example).

But underneath this is the question that everyone seems to want to get at. We’ve got lots of parts of industries that “get it” and are moving toward more sustainable practices. What does it take to get real traction, in the sense the kind of productivity and results produced by LEED certification?

Lessons from the BOP: Communties, practice and building markets

I’m continuing to reflect on parts of C.K. Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid — in particular those aspects which resonate with my interest in organizational learning and knowledge management. One example involves the development of Self Help Groups (SHGs), a key ingredient in the success of microfinance efforts in India.

Prahalad describes the experience of the Bank of Mandura, which built a market for microlending by developing SHGs as the “consumer” for the microloans. SHGs are groups of 20 individuals from a single village or community that take on loan obligations; its members work together to ensure the obligations are met and that capital is used to improve local community conditions. The Bank of Mandura benefits because it delegates some risk management duties to the SHG; SHG participants benefit by gaining access to capital and a community of support.

But what is interesting is how the the development of this market is described as essentially a learning problem. In the book, Prahalad details how the bank realized that the success of this model depended on the SHGs first learning how to save; then how to invest savings; and finally about leadership and governance. All of this learning must occur before the first loan is made. Without a foundation of understanding savings, community, trust, and the practical aspects of governance — the loans would fail and the system falls apart.

And the learning strategy is based entirely on learning-by-doing. There are individuals who help the groups organize and who (undoubtedly) share expertise. But this is not a strategy based on setting up a what might look like a traditional corporate education or consumer education approach. To me, it seems more akin to communities of practice, especially in the sense described by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid.

There’s an insight here. Brown and Duguid talk about the importance of practice (how people actual do something) vs. process (a idealized version of what is supposed to be done). The essence of their argument, I think, is about the importance of understanding the social nature of developing real practices, and the time required for practices to develop. Brown and Duguid also suggest that social networks — communities of practice, networks of practice — are key to this development of new practices.

Is this, then, an approach to cultivating new markets? It is less about message and more about practice. In the Bank of Mandura case, there was simply no method to develop message around brand or image or product differentiation (no real advertising media available). For the market to develop, Mandura helped lay the foundation for a new set of practices to evolve (savings, governance, community building) and spread through a network of like-minded communities.

Take this lesson out of the BOP context. Can it apply to addressing consumer behaviors that impact global climate change in developed countries? Addressing sustainable food and agricultural practices?