eCoPs: Technology for communities of practice

Etienne Wenger’s survey Supporting communities of practice is an interesting read. Well worth byuing, if you have lots of money …

So you want to use technology for your community of practice? According to Etienne Wenger, you basically have a choice between four paths:
1. Just use what you have
2. Start with a simple facility
3. Deploy a community-oriented system
4. Build on an enterprise collaboration system

Wenger’s report is intended as “a guide for selecting and assembling a technological platform to support communities of practice across a large organization”. Hence his examples are aimed at people with real money, an issue I want to pick up on later.

Wenger asks, and answers, four questions:

1. What makes communities of practice different from garden-variety online communities?
“Every group that shares interest on a website is called a community today, but communities of practice are a specific kind of community. They are focused on a domain of knowledge and over time accumulate expertise in this domain. They develop their shared practice by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights, and building a common store of knowledge.”
Wenger’s structural model (Domain, Community, and Practice) is essential here. CoPs are special. A CoP success-factor is how the community is stewarding knowledge, in other words, whether it has a Community-based Knowledge Strategy. In my experience, such strategies rarely exist.

2. What categories of community-oriented products exist and what are they trying to accomplish?
The ideal system “does not exist yet, though a few come really close”. Wenger has done an interesting scan of products, which is good for understanding the various aspects of a knowledge strategy based on communities of practice. But I miss a couple of, IMO, important products and even product categories. Where is the blogger revolution? The Two-Way Web and all the P2P stuff?

3. What are the characteristics of communities of practice that lend themselves to support by technology?
It is “useful to start with the success factors of communities of practice that can be affected by technology.” Wenger’s list of success factors is interesting. Can these factors be used as criteria for more systematic evaluations?

4. How to use the answer to these questions to develop a strategy for building a platform for communities of practice?
“Decide what kinds of activities are most important for your communities. Select a product in that area, and expand it with elements from the other categories.” Good strategy. I use this in my own projects. Must however be cautious not to get too dependent on proprietary systems. Systems integration is critical today.

Some issues to consider
Wenger is good at picking up good questions. No matter what approach you adopt, he argues, here are a number of questions to ponder:
1. What types of communities are you trying to support?
2. What are you trying to accomplish with technology?
3. Do you want technology to modify behavior?
4. What are the effects of pricing structures?
5. What are the requirements of the technology?

These are without doubt relevant questions. But let us step one or two steps backwards for a moment, and ask some more fundamental questions, such as: What part can technology play?

There are not many ICT systems explicitly oriented to communities of practice. Wenger argues that right now “the space is empty and that the perfect product for a general community-of-practice platform does not exist.” But while “no one has everything for communities of practice, many products have something.” In order to understand the market and its future, Wenger looks more broadly at the variety of community- and knowledge-oriented technologies. He points out eight categories of related products that have relevance in considering technologies for communities of practice:

  • Desktop of the knowledge worker: complete portal-like applications for managing participation in multiple groups
  • Online project spaces for team work
  • Website communities, such as customer communities, where the management of membership is important
  • Discussion groups typically targeted at communities of interest with little commitment to a shared practice
  • Synchronous meeting facilities, online auditoriums, conference rooms, and chat
  • Community-oriented e-learning systems
  • Access to expertise, through questions or expert profiles
  • Knowledge repositories

In fact, all of these product categories represent activities that are important dimensions of a community-based knowledge strategy.

I have looked at the examples, and find the lists relevant. Not complete though, and I would have included other examples, if I were to make a similar list. In syncronous events, for example, I find Benjamin Barber’s PnyxUnChat innovative.

BUT: Where is the blogger revolution, The Two-Way Web and all the P2P stuff? Where is Computer-Support Cooperative Work and Participatory Design systems? The real map is even bigger than yours, Etienne!!

By nature, P2P encourage a distributed architecture, so the community’s security, policy and workflow governance becomes important. Far from all approaches to P2P encourage “wild and uncontrolled” access to users and data. Enterprises will, according to Gartner Group face the challenge of deriving policies that govern users connecting to and exchanging data or applications among “unstructured” communities. Policies will evolve along these two lines (Gartner):

  • Informal: Access to indices or directories and their related resources is controlled by individual decisions or community norms, rather than governed by formal corporate policy. Examples include Napster, Gnutella and public IM services.
  • Formal: Access to index and directory services (with control residing at both server and client levels) and related resources is strictly controlled. Preplanned workflow may be defined for application usage. Protocols are easily defined and monitored at the network level. Examples include Groove, NextPage and PurpleYogi.

Other sources, open sources

METADOT has developed the Digital Workplace Server, an Open Source content and community management application for the Web. METADOT can be a cost-effective solution for organisations to build their knowledge networks and to establish more streamlined business processes, to create an environment for collaboration, knowledge sharing and connectivity to their users – both internal and external.

Anteil offers Open Source CRM software solutions designed to help companies – and why not also governments – better identify, attract, retain, service and support customers.

Wyona has the Extensible Publishing System, XPS, which is an Open Source Content Management and Publishing System written in 100% pure Java, and based on open standards such as XML (DOM, SAX) and XSLT.

Kumera is an Open Source Content Management System written in Perl and using XML for data storage.

PHProject is a modular application for the coordination of group activities and to share informations and document via intranet and internet.

AFAIK, none of these Open Source systems are very big. Yet. But wait and see. Linux, Apache, MySQL, … the list of Open Sourced systems that are close to world domination is big, and will probably become even bigger.

But what about the established, proprietary systems? Trellix offers a comprehensive publishing platform, a “breakthrough multi-page web authoring environment”, that currently used by 4 of the the top 10 Media Metrix Web properties.

13 criteria

Wenger presents thirteen fundamental elements of successful communities of practice which technology can affect:

Time and space
1. Presence and visibility
A community needs to have a presence in the lives of its members and make itself visible to them.

2. Rhythm
Communities live in time and they have rhythms of events and rituals that reaffirm their bonds and value.

Participation
3. Variety of interactions
Members of a community of practice need to interact in order to build their shared practice.

4. Efficiency of involvement
Communities of practice compete with other priorities in the lives of their members. Participation must be easy.

Value creation
5. Short-term value
Communities of practice thrive on the value their deliver to their members and to their organizational context. Each interaction needs to create some value.

6. Long-term value
Because members identify with the domain of the community, they have a long-term commitment to its development.

Connections
7. Connection to the world
A community of practice can create value by providing a connection to a broader field or community that its members care to keep abreast of.

Identity
8. Personal identity
Belonging to a community of practice is part of one’s identity as a competent practitioner.

9. Communal identity
Successful communities have a strong identity that members inherit in their own lives.

Community membership
10. Belonging and relationships
The value of belonging is not merely instrumental, but personal as well: interacting with colleagues, developing friendships, building trust.

11. Complex boundaries
Communities of practice have multiple levels and types of participation. It is important for people on the periphery to be able to participate in some way. And inside communities too, people form subcommunities around areas of interest.

Community development
12. Evolution: maturation and integration
Communities of practice evolve as they go through stages of development and find new connections to the world.

13. Active community-building
Successful communities of practice usually have a person or core group who take some active responsibility for moving the community along.

Wenger examines each of these community principles in more detail, and considers how technology factors can influence the success of community life along these lines. This examination is one of the most interesting parts of the report.

With Wenger’s survey, we have gotten a first, important framework for discussing technology-support for CoPs. The eCoPs.

Supporting communities of practice – a survey of community-oriented technologies
How to make sense of this emerging market, understand the potential of technology and set up a community platform
Etienne Wenger, Research and Consulting
Draft, Version 1.3 – March 2001

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1 Comment.

  • Hi John,

    I find your resume and comments very helpful and interesting. I especially support your remarks on why Wenger doesn’t take the blogger revolution in to consideration.
    As you know I’m a part of the MMD – SG2.2 blogg (look at (http://blog.hoejberg.dk/gubas/)). A part of our discussions we have mailed Etienne Wenger and asked him to comment on weblogs as a means for supporting communities of practice.
    If we get his answer – as we hope to – we will inform you and other participants on gotzespace.

    At the same time we urge others to participate in the debate on (http://blog.hoejberg.dk/gubas/archives/cat_06_testimonials)

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