Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Idealising CoPs

Sometimes, theoreticians and practitioners alike get into idealisation of a concept. And this is a time in which, sadly, I see it happening to CoPs.

How? Let's see some examples....

A) Theoreticians

One of the most common is, over-reliance on Wenger's definitions , even when nebolous and/or incomplete, as pointed out by Gourlay (though his critique was one-sided on principle it still has some huge merits). Some go far beyond this, thinking that, if Wenger didn't theorize/describe it, then what was added from, by and to the "field" is false/inaccurate.

Another risk I see is overtheorization. Some folks pile definitions on top of definitions and what is said to be informal, dealing with implicit knowledge and not enforceable begins to have more rules and definitions than a Catholic Catechism.

Frequently, you can stumble into nonsense classifications, with people splitting hairs into definitions that aren't operational at all and, often, are all on the same level rather than being branched. The net result of it is a long long list of names, usually "community of something", that aren't characterized well enough to be useful and/or aren't ordered in a hierarchial taxonomy to be applied.

B) Practitioners

Most frequent thing you can see is the lack of and/or allergy to methods, and by that I mean any method. Now, there is a difference (I hope) between a CoP and a mess, and I'd like to see it characterized more often. Methods for both action learning/research and participatory research were hard to find and get defined, yet having a codified method gave dignity to the discipline and (especially) its findings. Wondering why academics "snob" the field...?

Another problem is the lack of conceptual definitions that could help divulge the findings of the practice. Anedoctal stories could be studied and theorized on much better in presence of some unifying concepts (which by the way would help communication, since it happens through language, which in turn is impossible without codified concepts). Still wondering why academics "snob" the field...?

A huge, almost unexplored part, is the way of "nurturing" a CoP climate, how it works, why, etc., which I believe to be a priority, if we want CoP implementation to be a widespread successful practice. Not addressing THIS part means, de facto, preventing others from reproducing CoP implementation, which means none of our findings can be tested. Again... still wondering why academincs "snob" the field...?

And finally (this is for all, practitioners and theoreticians) there is no one-size-fits-all: even CoPs are inadequate solutions for some situations.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Inside Story (Milano, June 11-14)

All stories have a story, and this is my experience of a common story.

This story sounds simple, but it really is not. Some persons met online, and decided to meet F2F. These persons liked one another. They spend some wonderful days together, till they parted again, bringing in their lives vivid memories of those days. These are the mere facts (but a story is something different, right, Bev?).

Such difference lies ALL in the difference there is between a group, collection of individuals (the definition, Alice), and a community, collection of people glued together by the relationships among them (can you see it now, Pat?). Meeting with each of you changed my life because together we created relationships (and therefore shared meaning, John), and relationships change you the way a shared electron keep two atoms together (or repel them, Elisabeth).

If I try to codify the meaning of my teasing of Patricia, I can explain a joke (maybe!), I can't explain how those jokes linked Patricia and I in a relationship, what happened in that moment and why (I wish you'd find a better way to convey that, Jason!). It's not just a matter of context (Elisabeth and Bev), it's a matter of tacit knowledge. I could tell you many instances of this story, but the bottom line is, what I've felt and done is not codifiable. A mere account of it would convey what was going on, but not what happened.

What was going on is almost all there (if it weren't for John forgetting to record the conclusions -- too much wine I guess or not sparkly enough I guess), how do I convey what happened? Some of the decision I've taken, question I've asked (Alice), things I've said (Jason), I understood them only later (John), when I thought of it, making an effort to "pass" my knowledge. And even though some of you said some decisions weren't intentional (Bev, John and Patricia), I still think you were, like me, tapping into implicit, tacit, awareness of the situation. We were mirroring one another, mimicring each other's behaviour. That's listening, John. That's CoP: learning when you don't know WHAT you are learning, learning when you don't know THAT you are learning.

And this leads straight to next issue, identity. Coming from the online self-help settings, this is of very much interest to me. Patricia is the one that has it more clear, IMHO. She repeatedly addressed her needs, her doubts, her feelings. At this point, John, are you sure Etienne is right and self-help groups are CoPs, or is it the other way around? It was crystal clear how the shared sense of outsiderness related to our interests and professional choices, the relief of finding others like us, the sense of normalcy coming out of it were making us feeling better. And that's self-help! To what extent we are into CoP practice because THAT climate makes us feel better, understood, accepted, meaningful, "normal", more resolved with our insiderness/outsiderness inner tension? Remember the term: normal-smiths (see Lofland, 1969).

Who among us was the normal-smith? Is this the role for a CoP facilitator, ie addressing and "managing" the outsiderness/insiderness tension, among members and WITHIN single members? I told you, a CoP facilitator is not like any other facilitator. S/he has to be collaborative, a normal-smith, addressing feelings as their arising is a threat to the *safety* of the CoP and its members (not intellectual safety, John, calm down). Does a CoP facilitator have to be oriented on goals, like a "normal" one, or on processes, ie creating a "CoP climate", Patricia? If *stating* the goals helps the group performance as a CoP, how far can we go in lying without being unethical, Bev?

I wanted to write a story, I've mixed narrative and analysis, the way I mix practice and theory. I've written CoP material, I guess.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On Dunbar's Number

I am way late reading onfac posts, so I hope duck-grinned Nancy won't mind if I comment on Dunbar number only now...

The author worked on animal and human groups and argues that, regardless of the habitat ecological specifics which determine group size, there exists a species-specific upper limit to such size beyond which groups loose cohesion and integrity. This constraint is said to be, by Dunbar, of neocortex origin.

This makes sense experientially, since everyone of us is familiar with the sensation of not "keeping up" with his/her address book when the number of contacts exceeds a threshold. It also makes sense scientifically, in that it's easy to understand how a the cortex is circuitry and, just like any circuit, it can go in overload when too many contacts are active in the same moment. More or less, like it happens in generalized epileptic crises, where in fact conscience is always lost.

There has been a lot of fuss, in a lot of articles and blogs, over this Dunbar number. My impression is, most people misunderstood (or stretched) what Dunbar wrote. Let's see why.

What Dunbar himself defined as social grooming, is an activity that Primates get engaged into for social purposes and the time spent in it correlates with group size. Men and women, though, do not engage in such cleaning activity litterally (with the exception of trying make-up and beauty masks on one another LOL).

What is really interesting in what Dunbar said is how the following statement managed to get overlooked:

"the relationship between group size and time devoted to grooming appears to be a consequence of the intensity with which a small number of key "friendships" (the primary network) is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group."

which explains why so much bs on the size of online groups has been said.

Re-read the above quote and reinterpret it in light of online settings:

"the relationship between group size and time devoted to grooming appears to be a consequence of the intensity with which a small number of key "friendships" (the primary network - also known as 'close ties withing the group') is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group - also known as group members."

Which means that the Dunban number applies to the number of close ties we can have in a group or, if you prefer, the number of nodes another node can be connected to (from a social network perspective).

In fact, Dunban adds:
"These primary networks function as coalitions whose primary purpose is to buffer their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The larger the group, the more harassment and stress an individual faces (see for example Dunbar 1988) and the more important those coalitions are. It seems that a coalition's effectiveness (in the sense of its members' willingness to come to each other's aid) is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other (see Cheney & Seyfarth 1984, Dunbar 1984). Hence, the larger the group, the more time individuals devote to grooming with the members of their coalitionary clique."

Dunban himself goes the extramile to define "natural conditions" under which studying Homo sapiens sapiens groupings, but in a technological world, with less physical cues, is such number the same? I mean, if we hypothesize, like Dunban did, that there is a threshold beyond which the neocortex gets too stimulated, how does this change in conditions in which the tie, virtual encounter, stimulation, is weaker because of the lesser amount of cues? It would make sense that we as humans would be able to tolerate a higher amount of online group members, vs F2F ones....

The trimodal distribution Dunban discovered (ie: bands 30-50, clans 100-200 and tribes 1000-2000) could still make sense in an online environment, but... for the same numbers?

What however does tickle our imagination is that the size of clans tend to varies very little, thereby making plausible Dunban's assumption for it to be a cognitive restraint. But again this might tell us how such restraint does apply to online clans as well, but it does NOT tell us that the number would be the same. Fact is, the kind of interaction is different and it makes sense the number be different as well.

Here Dunban helps us by writing (emphasis added):
"It is important to note that the intermediate level groupings do not always have an obvious physical manifestation. Whereas overnight camps can readily be identified as demographic units in time and space and the tribal groupings can be identified either by linguistic homogeneity or geographical location (and often both), the intermediate level groupings are often defined more in terms of ritual functions: they may gather together once a year to enact rituals of special significance to the group (such as initiation rites), but for much of the time the members can be dispersed over a wide geographical area and, in some cases, may even live with members of other clan groupings. Nonetheless, what seems to characterise this level of grouping is that it constitutes a subset of the population that interacts on a sufficiently regular basis to have strong bonds based on direct personal knowledge."

So, summing it up and translating it into our online life:

  1. the intermediate level groupings do not always have an obvious physical manifestation: this property is shared by online groups
  2. the intermediate level groupings are often defined more in terms of ritual functions: this property too can be shared by online groups, especially communities of practice
  3. for much of the time the members can be dispersed over a wide geographical area: this is shared by online groups as well
  4. it constitutes a subset of the population that interacts on a sufficiently regular basis: this is the definition of a social network

From all of this, we may reasonably think that it does exist a number beyond which our mind is constrained even in online settings. There are no reason, however, to think such number to be the same that applies to F2F interactions. There are reasons to think such number to be higher.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

CoPs and complexity: Conversation and culture (featuring Peter Bond)

Peter Bond who I consider to be one of my mentors, wrote yet another excellent piece "Communities of Practice and Complexity: Conversation and Culture".

CoPs, as Peter writes, have been confused with anything under the sun involving more than two persons getting together for reasons related to work.

"The self-organising quality of CoPs can put them at odds with those who would seek to control them"

Ah, the management! Aren't they the same folks speaking in terms of job descriptions, reports and external rewards? How many of them do practice the management by interaction?

"the very knowledge they create serves as the basis of their continuous reinvention."

How many times some smart*ss in some "smart group" b*tched about "not reinventing the wheel"? Such statement betrays a haughty attitude, a general lack of interest for how another person implements a solution to a common problem (the fact a problem is very common does NOT mean the implemented solution will be as common....) and a naive faith in the wheel, meaning "everything that could have been invented has already been invented, kiddo" (again, "best practices" can not be improved, there is nothing better than what is already there, etc etc).

"For them to be effective vehicles for competence development and knowledge transfer, and conducive to creative solution making, they must maintain a certain degree of autonomy (from host organisations), flexibility, and responsiveness."

OR the manager/leader/facilitator has to proactively foster autonomy, flexibility and responsiveness... ;) Meaning, a CoP needs a flexible and responsive leader that changes managerial style according to the situation, in order to foster self-organization (ie: gives more structure when CoP is chaotic, pushes on more autonomy and flexibility when CoP is too rigid).

"The key to maintaining the creativity and inventiveness of a CoP, bearing in mind it is emotional energy we are speaking of, the CoP needs to be continuously challenged by problems that excite its members, and if this is not quite enough, by appropriate forms of leadership, which will be dependent on the context from which the CoP arose."

It is important to stress out how such excitement is emotional in nature and cannot be elicited through a job description or anything rational like that. Being able to motivate and excite people means being able to be a good coach and mentor, and present managers need to have coaching and mentoring skills as well.

"The key to understanding how a community forms is the role of the independent learner, how her natural motivation is to share her knowledge of the result-of-actions, and how they are produced, which leads to the formation of social relationships."
So the key to form a community is NOT about sharing results or "best practices", but to explain even mistakes, how they happened, why,and the like. Interesting! It does, indeed, explain some things to me, such as, for example, why people spreading "best practices" (or always the same old concepts/links) tend not to be a part of a successful, vibrant community. It's because they cut off the conversation: "follow these best practices and shut the f*ck up".

"The more an individual learns and the more she shares, the greater the variety of situations and events she and her community are able to handle. The more problems she is able to solve, the more strategies the community has for dealing with unanticipated events."
And I reiterate: the more she learns (as opposed to: saying the same old things and practicing always in the same old way), the more the community is able to handle.

"Conversation is a process that can, but not always, give rise to strong emotioning, which may influence a decision to share a result-of-action, individual and collective, with others. Järvilehto also associates the production of results of action with emotions. The depth of emotioning experienced during and after the production of a result, might also influence the value an individual attaches to it. Similarly, the value placed on a particular means or process of production, and the components thereof, will also be influenced by the depth of emotioning produced."

These lines do not need any further comment *grin* The days in which people thought that conversation was a mere information exchange are OVER.

Next question is: when will they get it? ;)

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Friday, June 03, 2005



on June 1st I've bought a domain and am presently building my site for my Gionnethics.

I guess this will only be a tentative version of it, because the ideas I have all take time *grin* Can any of you suggest one software package over another (please, don't say Yahoo Site Builder!)?

So far, I am working on contents and structure, not to mention some soul-searching about the life purpose/mission statement. For the ones of you who know me either IRL or from other groups, it might help to have a little sketch from you, just to see how I am perceived, what I am able to communicate and such. Last thing I want is to describe myself the way I would like to be and am not!

Given the name I chose, a merge of my nick, gionnetto, and ethics, I want to be honest and upfront, also in order to avoid problems with clients later.

Ah, forgetful that I am. The business will be about online facilitation, especially applied to CoP nurturing and especially thought to suite the nonprofit world and other mission-based businesses. Add here and there some coaching and volunteer management consulting work.