Sunday, January 30, 2005

Communities of Practice and "Best Practices"

I was reading John's group and JMH posted a link to a Guide And Toolkit For Communities Of Practice so I got side-tracked and started reading the pdf files I want to comment.

On Part 1 I find a stimulating:
"Clear and visible analysis of the type, range and location of information, knowledge and expertise that the organisation collectively holds."
that reminded me of Miller's and Stuart's wonderful Network-Centric Thinking: The Internet's Challenge to Ego-Centric Institutions I bugged NG with.

On Part 2 I found an astonishing:

"CoPs have four major roles: helping, knowledge stewarding, best practice development and innovation." (p. 2)

Wait a moment!!! "Best practices" OR innovation?

As Etienne Wenger said:
"As a consequence, a community of practice that spreads throughout an organization is an ideal channel for moving [emphasis added] information, such as best practices, tips, or feedback, across organizational boundaries" (1998).

which is in fact what Xerox does, but creating best practices via CoPs is a whole other thing! That is, something meant to fail.

CoPs are communities of:
  • implicit knowledge, as opposed to explicit
  • practice (experimentation): as opposed to academical/theoretical understanding
  • situated learning: as opposed to analytical one
  • people that share, as opposed to personal achievement
  • peers as opposed to (academical/managerial) hierarchies
  • knowledge as opposed to tasks
  • self-selecting people

For all these reasons, CoPs with a task especially when this task is about "best practices" (as an academic I know defined them: what is always best for everybody --- helloooooooooooooo) are a nonsense. Even if they were the best for most people, it still doesn't mean they would be the best thing to do in that situation...

I want to reiterate how CoPs are well-known to foster creativity (rather than "best practices") and unusual solutions (rather than solutions that are good for most people). So again, I can't see why to force them into producing "best practices" when a team would be enough.

I am perfectly conscious that I don't like the term "best practices"... and I don't like because:

  1. It implies that there is nothing better, which is simply impossible, since they were made by humans;
  2. It is discouraging in that, since there supposedly is "nothing better", what's the point in trying to find new solutions (Sounds like Hercules Pilasters: "Don't go ahead, there is nothing after them" YEAH RIGHT)?
  3. It curbs down innovation, shaming anything that goes out of what they are able to understand (same old narcissistic refrain: "Since I can't understand it - and you know how intelligent I am, it must be wrong" YEAH RIGHT);
  4. It reveals a shameful holier-than-thou attitude in who uses and backs them ("I am better than you, cause I follow best practices" YEAH RIGHT);
  5. It is stupid because if something is really best it doesn't have to be crammed down other people's throats (this is what they don't understand, speaking of leadership Dan!!!!).
This one-size-fits-all approach puzzled me a whole deal even when it has nothing to do with supposed (and often self-proported) "best practices".

I also remembered of the work of Dubè, Bourhis & Jacob in 2003 and 2004 and their conclusions... their studies were specifically on intentionally formed virtual communities of practice (VCoPs) and showed how there is no such approach that is valid for any VCoP, but it has to be tailored on that specific VCoP's characteristics.

Anyway, more when I will be reading on :)

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Blogger Dan said...

For me, the "mindless" adoption of best practices is NOT a best practice. What is best must also be congruent, fit with the people, the culture, the situation -- the nuances of the goal and what people together want to see happen. Which means, at best, a "best practice" is someone else's practice that when understood in context may stimulate our own best ideas about how to proceed.

5:19 pm  

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