I talked to Jos van Brummelen who is doing his thesis for the Erasmus University in Rotterdam about communities of practice. In particular he is investigating whether developing an online game would work to stimulate people into online corporate conversations. The idea followed from the observation (an observation I share!) that a learning event like an in-house training could trigger a more continuous online community of practice. He found me via my statements about online competences of Dutch companies on the emerce website. (it's amazing to find out this has been copied here and here amongst others, sort of rapid pumping around of information on the web!). The way he found me is a good example of how online networking exists in addition to the good old way of networking. It also brings me back to my old fascination that information travels so rapidly when people are really interested in the information.
His questions forced me to formulate some of my ideas that I developed over the past year more clearly. I thought I'd blog them before I loose them (rather than scribbling them down in one of my paper notebooks).
1. It is only meaningful to think of developing a community of practice after a learning event when the training topic constitutes of an appropriate level of domain, not to narrow, not too broad; when a sufficient number of people is passionate about that domain, and when the domain is important enough for the organisation (or organisations). And if you want a training to develop into a community of practice, it needs a high level of investment, it is not something that develops completely organically.
2. People have to develop a certain trust in online communications; this type of trust is different from the face-to-face trust. Once people have developed that trust they can more rapidly interact online and with more confidence. There is an interesting article called communication and trust in global virtual teams by Leidner and Jarvenpaa, which I also blogged about here. They talk about swift trust and their questions is: from where is trust imported to the global virtual team and how is trust maintained via electronic communication? rather than how to 'build trust'. So the radical difference is not saying that people need to build the same level of trust, but that it is important they they have built previous trust in online communication in general! My positive experience was the foundations workshop during which I developed a lot of 'swift trust' in the possibilities of online communications.
3. There is a generational thing: probably the younger generations will have that type of trust online, confidence automatically, and will have access to a wider range of communications. Yet, organisations can not wait for them to fully take over before they can add easy online interaction for effective learning and innovation to the face-to-face repertoire. So how to deal with this variety in organisations? One thing is to use the younger generational advantage to your own advantage. The fact that management team are often made up of older people who are 'blind' to the full range of online possibilities does not help make an important shift.
4. I consider myself as part of the older generation (I learned wordperfect as a student and handed over my first report in university typed with the aid of a typewriter). I believe I have developed some level of online trust over the past year which allows me to blog rapidly, enter online discussion fora etc. (so there is hope :)). Hence, I think it is important to realize that people can learn new ways of interacting online and new ways of building trust. I think we have to understand more about how people learn this; how to open up their interest, etc. I think for instance that when people are uncomfortable for whatever reason (at the start of a new group, because of a reorganisation), introducing new technologies adds up to their level of discomfort. So you'd have to introduce the use of new technologies when people are sufficiently at ease in general. There is probably a relationship with individual learning styles too.
5. It would be great to see research into companies in the Netherlands about these differences, how are the number of employees conversant online distributed over the organisation and how does this influence the level of online interactions and learning? I need to dive more into Dutch articles and literature, which I haven't done so far. Tips for interesting articles and blogs are welcome.