Wednesday, October 31, 2007

'Between the Ears'; Three myths about communities of practice

We went to the studio of 'Tussen de Oren' ('Between the Ears') a television program that does all kind of psychological experiments to share scientific research about communication and psychology in a humoristic manner. One of the questions to the panel was to find out what was true of some widely known anecdotes or 'broodjes aap' in Dutch. This was hard to guess! Some of the anecdotes that were not true were:
  • eskimos have 100-s of words for snow
  • cat survives ride in washing-machine
  • you can breed 'bonsai' kittens by breeding them in a pot
While working with people on communities of practice I've encountered similar convictions about communities of practice that are not true, but are nevertheless quite persistent. OK, for the people who belief in them they are true, but not for me. Here they are:

1. A community of practice is an online platform

I think people who belief in this myth do know that there are people interacting through the online platform, yet they are blinded to this fact by focusing on the online space only. Their focus is too much on the online space that they don't see the human interaction through other media (or face-to-face). It is similar to the natural tendency of people to focus too much on the 'events', the public life of the community as opposed to the private spaces of the community, like one-on-one e-mail, informal encounters in the corridor, etc.

2. Communities of practice are self-emergent so after organising one event, they should self-emerge

The whole idea about self-emergence has blurred the view on the type of interventions and facilitations that can benefit the emergence and development of communities of practice in a organisational setting. Though communities can be self-emerging, there is a whole lot that can be facilitated, initiated etc to improve collective learning, knowledge sharing and innovation processes.

3. Meta-level conversations are not needed in communities of practice

I find the last one most intriguing as I think lots of people would disagree with me that it's a myth. I have the impression the idea of emergence in communities of practice stands in the way of using various techniques of guiding meta-level conversations about the health of the community. The idea that the community should grow 'organically' in my opinion does not counter the fact that meta-level conversations are healthy and can support growth.

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