Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 21 Jun 10 14:21
According to Etienne Wenger, "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." (http://www.ewenger.com/theory/index.htm) These communities have emerged where, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communities_of_practice), "practitioners of craft and skill-based activities met to share experiences and insights," and have been observed "among Yucatán midwives, native tailors, navy quartermasters and meat cutters...as well as insurance claims processors." Many of us are members of one or more such community. Most communities of practice, especially now, exist online or have a strong online component - hence the idea of "digital habitats" where the transactional life of a community is enabled and facilitated online. The book _Digital Habitats_ acknowledges a specific role within these communities, that of technology steward, defined by the authors as "people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs, and enough experience with technology to take leadership in addressing those needs. Stewardship typically includes selecting and configuring technology, as well as supporting its use in the practice of the community." The book could be seen as a manual or guide for the theory and practice of technology stewardship, anchored throughout with real-world examples. We're honored to have the authors of _Digital Habitats_ - Nancy White, John D. Smith, and Etienne Wenger - joining us to discuss the book and its subjects for the next two weeks. They've put together a ~15 minute audio introduction, which you can find here: http://technologyforcommunities.com/2010/06/inkwell-vue-digital-habitat-conver sations/ Nancy White (aka <choco> on the Well) of Full Circle Associates is a longtime member of the WELL and cohost of the Virtual Communities conference here. Nancy brings over 25 years of communications, technology and leadership skills in her work supporting collaboration, learning and communications in the NGO, non profit and business sectors. Grounded in community leadership and recognized expertise in online communities and networks, Nancy works with people to leverage their strengths and assets towards tangible goals and meaningful process. She is a chocoholic and lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, USA. John David Smith brings over 25 years of experience to bear on the technology and learning problems faced by communities, their leaders and their sponsors. He coaches and consults on issues ranging from event design and community facilitation, to community design and evaluation, and technology selection and configuration. He has been focused on communities of practice for the past 10 years and is the community steward for CPsquare, the international community of practice on communities of practice. He is a regular workshop leader in CPsquare and elsewhere. He grew up in Humacao, Puerto Rico and now lives in Portland, Oregon. Etienne Wenger is a global thought leader in the field of communities of practice and social learning systems. He is the author and co-author of seminal books on communities of practice, including Situated Learning, where the term was coined, Communities of Practice: learning, meaning, and identity, where he lays out a theory of learning based on the concept, and Cultivating Communities of Practice, addressed to practitioners in organizations who want to base their knowledge strategy on communities of practice. Etienne helps organizations in all sectors apply these ideas through consulting, public speaking, teaching, and research. Jon Lebkowsky, Nancy's Virtual Communities conference cohost on the WELL, will lead the conversation. Jon is a consultant who works with nonprofits and businesses to create effective internal and external collaborations using online social tools, community platforms, and emerging web technologies. He is also an author, social commentator and cultural maven focused on the social web, collaborative technologies, media, advocacy, sustainability, and future studies. He has written for various publications, has been blogging regularly since blogs first appeared, and has been involved in various aspects of the Internet and the World Wide Web since the late 1980s. He was part of the early 2000s social technology conversations that led to the concept of "web 2.0," and is still tracking and studying the evolution of the Internet as a platform for conversation and action.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 21 Jun 10 14:25
Welcome, Nancy, John, and Etienne! Let's start with communities of practice - in your own words, what are they? How do they differ from other kinds of communities, or from project teams? What are some examples?
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Mon 21 Jun 10 15:05
First of all, I would say that they are social formations that develop around people's experience of learning together. I think they can be immensely varied in appearance. There are a number of "classic" examples in Lave & Wenger's _Situated Learning_ (which you mention above); the example you didn't mention was alcoholics anonymous. One of the things we've done in CPsquare over the years is try to systematically look at communities that are different in form or or composition than what we read about in books, trying to get (or refresh) our sense of what they're like in the flesh, alive. One community we followed was a health-related community (which we promptly put in the book). Another was a community that was loosely forming around the "nptech" tag on delicious, slideshare, flicker, and other platforms. Another year we followed a guy who was both a wikipedia editor (which seemed like its own CoP) and a member of a mostly face-to-face meditation community. So one idea to consider is that communities of practice are identifiable more from the inside experience than from their outer form. I took a crack at writing about the connection between project teams and communities with respect to technology in a blog post: http://technologyforcommunities.com/2010/05/digital-habitats-for-project-teams /
Nancy White (choco) Mon 21 Jun 10 15:23
(Translating --> CPSquare is http://www.cpsquare.org and is a community of practice on communities of practice. Since we love META here on the well, that seems fitting) Re definitions... I learned a lot at Etienne's and John's knees. Two things I learned there stick w/ me. Well, three, but the first two relate to definitions! The first is that it matters more that we talk about a communities of practice perspective than trying to decide if something is or isn't a CoP. The second is that perspective. For me, the CoP perspective is "community," "domain" and "practice." Translated, that might be "who we are" (as this IS a social form of learning), what we care about, and how we learn together and apply what we learn out in the world. John and Etienne usually define this better than I do, tho. ;-) While I'm spouting what I learned from John and Etienne (which is tons as part of the process of writing the book), one of my favorites that I *think* is from John, is as a community leader or technology steward, don't mess with C, P and D all at once -- too darn disruptive!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 21 Jun 10 18:15
You refer in the book to "community," "domain," and "practice" as the three dimensions of a community of practice. Can you relate that view to an example, as you did in the book (but more briefly), to give us a sense how the dimensions relate to each other and frame a perspective?
Nancy White (choco) Tue 22 Jun 10 11:42
(I'm stalling because I think John or Etienne would give a more intelligent response than I!)
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Tue 22 Jun 10 12:25
There's a lot to say here, so the challenge is to be concise. I think it's useful to think about how the three dimensions in fact define each other, making the whole thing kind of circular. The domain is the topic or label that gives a community it's identity. But that domain is defined by the people who are members. When you have new members, the topic tends to shift or even re-defined. And the topic boundaries depend on practice, or how the knowledge is applied. So changes in the practice can make an obscure part of the topic suddenly very important and visa versa. The example that we used in _Digital Habitats_ was the MPD-L Community. It's topic was "how to live with myeloproliferative diseases." The topic evolved when JAC2 was identified as a genetic marker, for example. The community had a couple thousand members around the English-speaking world. Several physicians and researchers lurked in the community and would feed comments through the community leader. During the time that we were accompanying the leader (the first "shadow the leader" series in CPsquare.org) there was an interesting fight about domain between two community members: one who had been a scientist at the Center for Disease Control and the other who was advocating several alternative medicine practices. It got hot. Took some real delicacy on the part of the community's leader to make the conflict a productive learning experience. Sometimes I think the three dimensions of a community of practice are so obvious, that it feels pedantic to bring them up or talk about them. But in the end I find it to be a very practical model. Among other things, I always say to myself: "when thinking of any one of them, consider the other two. How do changes in the other affect change (or resistance to change) in the one?"
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Tue 22 Jun 10 12:26
And they raise a lot of questions in terms of technology. Here are 3 snippets from the book: "Domain. How does technology enable communities and their members to explore, define, and express a common identity? To see the landscape of issues to address, and then negotiate a learning agenda worth pursuing? And to project what they stand for and what it means to them and others? Does technology allow communities to figure out and reveal how their domain relates to other domains, individuals, groups, organizations, or endeavors? "Practice. How does technology enable sustained mutual engagement around a practice? Can it provide new windows into each others practice? What learning activities would this make possible? Can technology accelerate the cycle through which members explore, test, and refine good practice? Over time, can technology help a community create a shared context for people to have ongoing exchanges, articulate perspectives, accumulate knowledge, and provide access to stories, tools, solutions, and concepts? "Community. How can technology support an experience of togetherness that makes a community a social container for learning together? Can it help people find each other and reduce the sense of isolation? Does it reveal interesting connections and enable members to get to know each other in relevant ways? Can it enhance the simultaneous interplay of diversity and common ground? Does it allow various people and groups to take initiative, assume leadership, develop roles, and create subgroups, projects, and conversations?"
Nancy White (choco) Tue 22 Jun 10 13:17
A story. Around 2001 there was a gathering in Washington DC about the role of knowledge management in international development. People found the connections and conversations hugely valuable and they decided they wanted to "stay connected" so KM4Dev (knowledge management for development" http://www.km4dev.org ) was born. The community took to life from a tech stewardship perspective on a glorified email group using DGroups (http://www.dgroups.org) and, because the mailing list needed a name, became KM4Dev. Ironically, many of the early members felt that knowledge cannot be managed and prefer the term "knowledge sharing." But the NAME, as reified by the mailing list, is "knowledge management." The name attracts people interested in KM. So the technology actually didn't/doesn't fully represent the domain by the fact of that first, almost accidental naming. It attracts a diversity of people and so people self select in or out once they see what the conversation (one of our practices) is about. Within the community, some identify with KM, some with KS. The community is large enough now to comfortably hold that diversity. But the irony of the name to some, remains. Now, all these years later, our technology configuration (all the tech we use) is more diverse. We have the Dgroup, a NING, a wiki and often use ancillary tools like phone bridges and google docs. We have an annual F2F someplace in the world. Across our 1000+ members (member being any one who subs to the email list. We have 1000+ on NING and we have no idea of the size of overlap. Ah, the challenges of multi-platform life) people now have very different experiences of KM4Dev. Some experience it as a rich, F2F meeting. Some as a series of conversation on an email list. Some as a social network on Ning with workspaces. Some as a set of captured learnings on the wiki. I would venture to guess that most members don't have the full variety of experiences. So our practices are diverse. Our domain has gotten pretty large and our community is such that we really can't put a finger on it. Much of this is because technology has changed what it means to be together for communities. Keeping a line of site to CPD is more complex in a network era, full of possibility ... and challenges. That's why this "tech stewardship thing" is so interesting to me.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 22 Jun 10 14:16
I was writing this question: "In your experience, how do these pieces come together before you settle on a technology? I'm having a bit of a chicken/egg sense here - can the community really form before it has a technology? But how can it decide on a technology before it's formed?" Meanwhile Nancy posted an example that could almost be seen as a response before I asked (I'm pretty sure she was reading my mind). Nancy, since you mention tech stewardship in your post, this may be a good place to define what that means. In the case of KM4DEV, the community started as a physical meeting and adopted several technologies, a multimodal approach. Can you say more about the stewardship role - what is it, and in the KM4DEV example, who filled that role; who made decisions about technologies?
Nancy White (choco) Tue 22 Jun 10 18:18
First, my shorthand definition. A technology stewards is someone who knows enough about the community to represent its needs and ways of being together, and enough about technology to scan for, select, (help)implement the technology and support its use in the community. The latter, I'd add, includes noticing others' practices and spreading those around. The tech steward isn't a know it all. They are bridgers between people, technology, process and all sorts of good things. Ironically, many of us are "accidental technology stewards." I often say I know enough about technology to be dangerous. (Don't ask me how much pico I know. Please.) In KM4Dev, this is the case. We have one person with a very small stipend to be our day to day facilitator and I would say that she does NOT consider herself a technologist. Yet she often falls into the role. Our "core group" - about 15 crazy volunteers is much the same. We have a few geeks, but we collectively steward by paying attention, experimenting and calling in heavy hitters when we need serious geek chops. Decisions? Here I have to laugh, because we have a rather unique decision making process in KM4Dev. Someone suggests something. If no one objects, the person who suggested it has to make it happen. Turns out this is a good filter for "is this really important." Likewise, we have an odd configuration, not well integrated. But we also have almost no money, we are flexible and as long as we have the base tech of our email list, we can weather a lot. So tech stewardship at KM4dev is loose, voluntary, shifting and probably an example at the informal end of the practice. John might have a different view from his stewardship of CPSquare, which it seems to me is often a bit of a lonely job. John? (And no, I have not noticed I can read minds. :-) )
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Tue 22 Jun 10 22:35
Interesting contrast between KM4Dev and CPsquare. (at the same time it turns out they are connected in some people's minds. I just got this in an email yesterday: "It is incredible to see how valuable the shared cp2 (and km4dev) culture is. ") Because of how CPsquare evolved as a membership community with dues, it has had to be more tight and somewhat more controlled. Still it's pretty loose and member driven. Here's a story about the other end of the spectrum (too many cooks in the kitchen) at the very early days of CPsquare. It was right after 9/11 and the idea of CPsquare being a corporate, annual dues around $25K a year, face-to-face kind of community was clearly not going to work. We were trying to figure out how to cobble together something that would be cross-organizational and that we could manage ourselves. A vendor offered us a content management system and there was a lot of momentum around it. I was very skeptical, especially about the discussion / forum features. I couldn't put my finger on it but it seemed really terrible. I remember that I managed to pull Nancy into the conversation at the last minute and she poked around and agreed with me that it was terrible. Then we had a show-down meeting where 4 or 5 of us were all looking at the same pages on a prototype website and it was astounding to me that it was as if we were looking at completely different websites. Nancy and I agreed that the discussion software was terrible and we couldn't really explain it or figure out a language to get us all "one the same page" so to speak. So we went with the content management system and pretty soon it became apparent that it wasn't so hot. Someone asked me in an email whether I could open up a little discussion space on a Web Crossing platform that we had used for workshops. I did and a subgroup got to work doing their business. Soon another little group approached me and then another one said, "Hey, how come those guys get to have a discussion space over on Web Crossing?" So pretty soon all the discussions had moved off of the content management platform. Finally we decided that we had to abandon the first platform and move over to Web Crossing (with all it's warts and imperfections). The move was indeed lonely, because nobody seemed interested or willing or really comprehended the importance of bringing all the profiles and the artifacts that had been created over on the content management system. In my mind, some of our work on polarities and community orientations was a response to that experience of being in conversation with people you respect and admire and who completely don't get what you see. So bottom line: tech stewardship is as much social as it is about tech chops.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 23 Jun 10 05:09
So is it safe to say that tech stewardship is often more than one person, and what they have in common is enough grasp of technology to have a vision for an optimimum platform or configuration? And that they often have to be persuasive at pointing the way, and possibly persuading those who might resist?
Nancy White (choco) Wed 23 Jun 10 07:49
I'd say it is a sport that is dangerous to play alone! ;-) One of my key operating principles is that online interaction software is "designed for the group, experienced by the individual." Meaning as we sit at our computers (and now mobile devices) we create a uniquely individual experience of what we see on the screen and rarely get to compare/cross check w/ others. With video, we can see some body language, but our imaginations fill in a lot of the gaps. Some of us do that well, others... well.... Pegging on to your question about "optimum." That is another interesting term. What I've learned is that "what works now" is REALLY important. "Good enough" can be a great virtue. Communities change. Their tech needs evolve. They are changed by the tech. They change the tech. So iterative, evolutionary approaches seem to work better for communities than a "give me the specs, I'll build it and we are done" approach. That is what has been cool with the evolution of social media - it makes the possibility of improvisation available to community members, not just the geeks. (Of course, it has it's dark sides... like chaos, lack of meaningful integration, etc.) Thus "optimum" because a bit of a fanciful, even scary concept in reality. Does that make any sense?
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 23 Jun 10 13:01
Well-said. "Good enough" is one of those reasons that people become accustomed to technology and prefer not to change even if the alternative is objectively better for both the group and the individual. Once you learn even a clunky interface, it is no longer in your face, and re-learning something that is widely accepted as easier is not appealing to most folks. The software is supposed to melt away, leaving you with people and ideas. (For the record, now that this conversation is open, friends can find it on the web at: http://bit.ly/bqLaLz should you care to tweet it around. If you are reading without logging in, you may email a question for inclusion (along with your name). Send it to email@example.com and include "Digital Habitats" in the subject line, please.) Lack of meaningful integration of tools is a painful challenge indeed. Do you have insights into how important that is or isn't over time, by any chance?
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Wed 23 Jun 10 14:19
My sense is that "good enough" is an assessment we make at the level of a community's configuration of tools (all of the tools that are used together, as opposed to the platforms, tools and their features). When a new tool comes into the configuration, it may make an existing one more obviously NOT good enough. For example, the tool is an isolate and doesn't play well with the others. I agree, Gail, that many communities tend to be very conservative, and for good reason. But one of the insights that I get from the community, domain, practice model is that if you DO manage to get a tool added to a community's conversation, you often change the practice first, then the community (different people have access or don't), and thus the conversation (so domain boundaries also change).
Nancy White (choco) Wed 23 Jun 10 14:30
Are the terms "platform," "tool" and "feature" familiar to everyone? If it is worth a "magic decoder ring" post, holler. I hate to obsess with definitions, but sometimes we THINK we are talking about the same thing and we find we are NOT!
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 23 Jun 10 15:43
Let's see -- twitter is a platform, tweetdeck is a tool, a re-tweet is a feature? Or is re-tweet a tool? And in WELL parlance, is The WELL the platform, or something that is pan-platform? Is PicoSpan a tool? Are Conferences platforms, tools or features? Ulp. By all means define away.
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Wed 23 Jun 10 16:54
Gail, I think you're using the terms just like I would. and I would say that a re-tweet is a feature. Your example of The WELL is interesting to me in the sense that email is a tool that's included in this conversation via a specific email address. But I miss having email alerts. The sheer complexity of our tools is what made us take a stab at trying to come up with some definitions like that. But as Nancy suggests, they have to be useful. It may be that designers need much more precise tools than what we suggest in _Digital Habitats_. The definitions we came up with were intended to be helpful to community leaders and technology stewards.
Craig Maudlin (clm) Wed 23 Jun 10 17:00
Let me jump in to say that I quite enjoyed listening to the audio introduction -- a pleasure to hear your voices. Some nice tidbits there: "Literacy is not primarily focused on tech" I can't help but think of the term 'groupware,' which started out in the mid 70's meaning "group practice plus tools for groups" and pretty much ended up meaning "tools for groups." The victim, perhaps, of our natural tendency to oversimplify. Are you facing a similar struggle with the use of terms like 'community' or 'technology steward?'
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Wed 23 Jun 10 18:28
Hi, Craig! Long time no see! I've thought of the fate of Peter+Trudy's 'groupware' as a term, but hadn't put my finger on that narrowing. I agree with you that tools are much easier to name than practices and yet practices trump tools. Maybe you're pointing to something that technology stewards need to be very careful about: telling the difference and keeping their eye on the practice. Am I missing your drift?
Nancy White (choco) Wed 23 Jun 10 22:07
Peter + Trudy = Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz who can now be found at http://nexus.johnson-lenz.com:8080/jl/We3.nsf/Agents/Initialize?Open RE the term -- of course it is both a struggle, and at some point, the label is the least of the interesting stuff. It is the practice, man, that is so much fun.
david gault (dgault) Wed 23 Jun 10 22:11
hi, i heard about this on Facebook and wanted to listen in.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 23 Jun 10 22:17
Is technology stewardship focused primarily on Internet/web tools? Did this role precede "Web 2.0," and if so, has it been growing and evolving as a result of the increasing number of social platforms?
John David Smith (johndavidsmith) Thu 24 Jun 10 06:06
We tried to develop some examples of tech stewardship in Chapter 2 -- talking about some of the activities on the PLATO development team -- as efforts that were much more techie than most tech stewardship is today. Obviously the current technologies multiply the choices, opportunities for combining tools, and of course the need for it. It would be interesting to come up with some examples of tech stewardship in a pre-computer time.
Nancy White (choco) Thu 24 Jun 10 07:47
Welcome David <dgault>...please, do more than listen if you are so inclined! Pre-computer technology stewardship. Um, PHOTOCOPYING! Mailing. Getting the slide projector for the meeting. But as I reflect on this, these tasks were primarily mechanical and in service TO the group, but with little participation by the group. It's like the wonderful contribution of cooking dinner for the group. It is hugely important. But you were in the kitchen, they weren't. Naw, bad analogy. The big shifts of the sheer variety of tools and then the distribution of control and power over tools, IMO, changed the role significantly. That is also why it changed the relationship in organizations with the IT department in some of the stewarding functions. In this online econsultation I'm setting up right now, 5 years ago I would pick the tech, install and that would be it. Now I get suggestions, push back, endorsements, appreciation, hassles from people who would never have even questioned it before. The power has shifted. (And these folks are, for the most part, not geeky in the technology sense.)
Members: Enter the conference to participate