Sunday, June 04, 2006

Communities of practice: legitimate peripheral participation and lurking

56 (!) messages ago I asked a question in com-prac, refering to a paper by Miguel Cornejo 'Revisiting Communities of Practice' who observed that "a person can participate in a peripheral way in a community without it implying a lack of qualification: the person can be engaged as a core member in other communities." I asked how people see lurking (the picture is a lurker :) ) versus legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) and how we can ensure the adequate participation of 'experts' in online communities?

I want to use my blog to capture what I gathered from the whole discussion. Legitimate peripheral participation is an analytical perspective (LPP) that has to do with opening the practice to someone who is not a core member and who has something if not a lot to learn about the practice. So can lurking on a discussion list be said to be a way of opening up the practice of a community of practice to new entrants? David Gibbons proposed to call lurking "legitimate peripheral non-participation", as it is not about participating in the practice, but rather reading in on discussions about the practice, which sparked a whole thread about the role of lurkers in online discussion forums. Lurkers participate by reading posts. This may be a form of LPP, but different from the real participation in the practice (like fishing, advising or training).

John Smith pointed out the 'Net extends the periphery and makes it larger, but it also creates more tenouous forms of participation. It's up to community leaders and facilitators to be looking for correspondence between the talk and the walk (or the fly casting or the teaching or the policing or whatever the practice)'. Madalena Pino Santos added to this by saying that the ideas that are discussed in an online forum like com-prac are also discussed in our minds, with our closer peers, so there are activities going on, even if not always visible in digital form and in a local space (this one). A side conversation on the blog of Nancy White brought in the criteria of changing practice: "The conclusion I am drawing is that these labels are only useful in context if we want them to define a boundary. In theory, they are handles with which we can talk about participation. If I learn from reading and it changes my practice, that counts as participation in a community of practice for me." Whereas Beverly Trayner brought in the aspect of identity and accountability; if people identify with the community of practice behind a discussion list and have the aspiration to learn and grow, lurking may be a way of LPP. (but hence not in all cases, a lurker is brought into the practice of a community of practice).

The discussion then shifted somewhat to how to draw in lurkers into the conversation of the community of practice (and a discussion of whether com-prac is a cop or not plus a question whether the institutionalised term lurker should not be replaced with a more positive term).
Pierre Gagnier then brought the ideas of potentiality and actuality to bear. Lurkers may feel some deligitimizing pressures (often self-generated) about their contributions, as when for example they are faced with the challenge of inserting themselves into an established space with established experts. So how open is the community of practice to new contributions and how are new or different perspectives welcomed? Followed by some very useful posting on why people may/may not move from lurker to poster. (check it out, or maybe I should summarize that in a separate blogpost).

Concluding, I think that communities of practice may use a variety of means to communicate, work and learn together. A discussion list may be one of the more public means of that community and may provide a low-threshold space for people to get interested in the community of practice. (a form of LPP?). If they identify with the community of practice, they may move on to other forms of communication/participation. So not all lurkers may actually aspire to become really part of the community of practice, you may use it just to fish for links (like I do with some discussion groups). But for a community of practice it is unlikely that the discussion group is the sole means of interaction (though it may be the most visible part for outsiders).

1 comment:

Knowledge Communities said...

Below is a story from my work about a lurker who becomes a former lurker. The lesson I take from this is: Systematically reaching out to peripheral members of a community may have unexpected positive outcomes.

The Lurker

I was seated at a national conference session eight months after the HoS (Heads of School)community had formed, and a man came in and sat down in the seat next to me. When I looked at his name tag, I noted that he belonged to the one school in the area that had not participated in the HoS community to date. I had recently reached out to that school by making a call to a staff person who was not listed as the primary contact for the school but who had been identified by a friend as a promising audience. I introduced myself to the man at the session and asked him if he was familiar with our work, to which he responded:

“I am a lurker. It looks like things are really moving along nicely.”

He explained to me that he did not want to take the formal position of the primary contact, the Head of School, because someone else was currently holding that position. I mentioned that there were members of the HoS community who held other titles at their schools. He mentioned that he had talked to a friend about the CoP and about his hesitation to attend because of the potential issues of competition between his school and others, and that his friend had encouraged him to try it out. It was quite evident in our conversation that he had been reading the materials I was sending to him over the course of the HoS community’s development. This man was quite engaged with the community, though he had not to date attended any group events.

I saw the Lurker at another session at that same conference and introduced him to my co-weaver, and we all agreed to have lunch together. Over soup and salad, he filled us in on what was going on with his school. He told us about its special and unusual warmth and that he was working on how to grow and professionalize the school without losing that warmth. I asked what would be helpful to him in doing that and he said he would like to speak with “someone who has done it - or an expert.”

I was impressed by his decisiveness and sophistication. As I sipped on my soup, I noticed at the table ahead of me another head from Boston, D, a very thoughtful and articulate man who had been through a similar process and who is very generative. After lunch, I introduced them and they exchanged contact information. A point of interest about this pair, and about the relationships that are often developed through Communities of Practice, is that the two men have very different backgrounds, coming from different religious streams.

Less than two weeks later I received the following email from the “former” Lurker:

I met last night with B and had a nice chat over dinner. Thanks for the connection.