Category Archives: Connected Futures

Detecting silence or absence

In considering whether to take the Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop, a PhD student in the healthcare field wrote asking whether the workshop would be useful to her, given what she was doing:

I am going to examine what [communities of practice are already there in an academic health care setting] …. or as I suspect the lack of of them… and hopefully determine what those challenges [to their development] are, using an institutional ethnography approach.

I wrote back that …

Detecting silence or absence is huge, and they are only visible with careful ethnographic observation informed by theory. Last week the keynote at the conference was Gillian Tett, an anthropologist who ended up working for the Financial Times and noticed that there was an awful lot of silence around the global debt markets in 2007, despite the fact that they were much larger than the equity markets. There were a lot of reasons to not pay much attention to the debt markets at that time. Careful ethnography that paid off in the most unlikely setting.

I can’t resist asking whether you’ve bumped into Charlotte Linde, Working the Past; Narrative and Institutional Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) … a fellow-alum of the Institute for Research on Learning with Etienne. She’s using a vast ethnographic study of an insurance company, she sets up a powerful analytical framework and one of her chapters is about silence and “stories that are not told”… Well worth the read.

Contact with Etienne is an important part of the workshop experience. He’s great to talk to — and he has a great way of sharing access to current practice in many different settings. But it’s also really important to participate in a wider conversation of people who are exploring and applying these ideas in all kinds of settings. The practice of cultivating communities takes more than research.

While I’m at it, I’m hoping you’ve connected with this group (or at least read their stuff). Fung Kee Fung, Goubanova and Crossly are 3 of the authors who’ve all done the Foundations workshop (at one time or another):

A final thought: if part of what you’re looking for is absence of communities of practice (partly with a view of suggesting change to enhance learning in a complex system), you need to develop a pretty sensitive eye for the diverse kinds of communities that are fully functional out there. This workshop can’t be the last word on that subject, but it does bust some of the stereotypes that many of us adopted from reading about the “Turbodudes at Shell” in Cultivating Communities of Practice.

Getting ready for the connected future

There is nothing like a project to focus community effort.  The leaders of the “Connected Futures” workshop are in more or less constant touch planning version 3.  This post is a little out-take from our conversations as as we get ready to launch.

The initial idea of the workshop was introduced by email, and followed by several conference calls, using a phone bridge and Skype chat for note taking. A wiki was used to develop material and regular calls used to keep up to date with development. Throughout both of the previous runs of the course a Skype chat was kept open for the facilitators.

The first run of the workshop, had a “home base” in Web Crossing, with other technologies introduced during the five weeks. The second run used a Google Group as the home base.  This time we’re using a beautiful implementation of Drupal designed by Howard Rheingold and friends.  Although the home base matters, all the other technologies that are used during the workshop matter as well because:

  1. Choosing and using technology is a primary topic of the workshop
  2. The workshop leaders seek to present the workshop in a transparent way, where the practice of organizing and presenting is open
  3. Workshop participants are themselves invited to introduce technologies to the group — and explain the logic of adding a specific tool

Each home base choice and the additional technologies that were introduced open new possibilities and create some frustrations for everyone (participants as well as workshop leaders), including dilemmas about where to post things, the chance of missing what was considered important, and monitoring each other’s “presence” in the workshop.

We keep re-writing the workshop description as we think through the details, building on our experience from last time.  Beverly Trayner inserted an off-hand comment in a draft of the Participant’s Handbook, “Of course, it’s the reason that we choose the tools we use in the workshop that’s really interesting.”  Or was that Nancy White?  This is not a scholarly environment where you get to keep track of who contributed what.

We don’t know or can’t say all the reasons for picking a tool — each of the workshop leaders probably has different reasons because each brings a different perspective. And each offering is an experiment — an instance of practice that hopefully gets better and better.

One reason that the tools we use for this workshop seems problematic and keeps changing is that there is an inherent tension in the workshop because of our practice orientation:

  • The tools we choose have to work for workshop participants, to help us work and learn together creatively for 5 weeks;
  • but they also are for illustration and experimentation — they are supposed to illustrate what you can do at home and how you might think about the choices you  continually make on behalf of your community;
  • and finally we are constantly picking up new tools or using them in new ways (e.g., copying interesting uses from the communities we are involved in)!

Nevertheless, here are some top-of-mind criteria for the tools we are using in this workshop:

  • Collectively they serve different purposes and they are varied enough for us to do those various tasks together.  We try to demonstrate the various things that communities frequently do together using the different tools that are available.
  • They are common tools, not too exotic.  We have a bias toward open source or readily available tools.
  • They work together more or less, although they were not “designed together.”  Dealing with the reality of separately designed tools is something community leaders and technology stewards have to deal with every day.  We illustrate diverse possibilities but also have critical conversations about the challenges that these tools raise for communities and their leaders.
  • We’re not using too many tools: as practitioners we want to share everything, but previous workshops suggest that enough experience with each tool and with the issues that come up when they are combined is more useful than a shallow survey of everything that’s out there.

And  here are the tools we’re using this time through:

Delicious Tagging
Drupal Home base: discussion, blogs, chat, files
Facebook Alum group
Flickr Sharing images
Google Docs Document edit
Google Reader RSS reader
High Def Conferencing Phone bridge, recordings
Mediawiki For persistent wiki pages
Skype Telephony and text chat
Twitter Microblogging
Vyew Presentations
WordPress Personal blogs

We’re not done yet

At a recent conference here in Portland, Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, commented that “saying ‘It’s not done‘ is good news for a community.” Particularly in an organizational context, that can be hard to take. But there’s a lot of wisdom in Ward’s comment: it’s one of those “glass half empty” kinds of things. And as we all know, keeping a community alive and moving forward can be discouraging if we forget how much has been accomplished incrementally, one conversation at a time. I’ve always thought that “keeping it going” is a very worthy goal for leaders of communities of practice. It’s actually a big deal when you think about it. This collection of notes from CPsquare and the communities of practice part of the world is all about “keeping it going.”

Five CPsquare members (Bev Trayner, Bronwyn Stuckey, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, Shirley Williams, and I) are offering the “Connected Futures” workshop again, starting on April 20. We’ve offered it twice before and want to make it be more eye-opening and useful for community leaders who are seeking to help their communities leverage all the technology resources that are out there. I’ve just added some participants comments to the description page.   Nancy White, has just written a marvelous description of an urban ornithology community using one of the tools we present in the workshop on her blog.

The venerable Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop ran this past winter (with a rather small group). The workshop itself still keeps growing and evolving and creating a deep impression on participants after 10 years. Three of the prospective presentations for CPsquare’s “research and dissertation fest” this Spring are directly related to the foundations workshop.

CPsquare had a conference on all things wiki this January. Some of the materials from that session are on CPsquare’s new (public) MediaWiki. The wiki is quite incomplete (even the SPAM prevention and registration procedures are frustratingly incomplete), but it is starting to have some valuable material on it. Shawn Callahan mentioned recently that a corporate team he was working with was worried about the incompleteness of wikis. They were immensely relieved when they realized that incompleteness was handleable in the sense that you could classify pages as “incomplete” or as “more complete than not” as we’ve done with the tools pages here.

This year’s “shadow the leader” series is in its 9th month. We are talking with a wikipedia editor who has a life in the real world. It’s been a fascinating story about attention, political conflict, apprenticeship, morphing conversations, and not giving up. Just paying attention to the ongoing ups and downs of practice has that feeling of inconclusive insight, but it also underscores Gardner Campbell’s comment that “Wikis only work in practice, not in theory.”

So I guess that the world of wikis, like the world of communities of practice, is beavering away in the background. In fact “Wiki” just had it’s 14th birthday! Have a look at all the Tweets about it.

There’s a lot of unfinished business, but the glass is more than half full!

Connected futures workshop starts November 10

We’re pleased to announce that CPsquare members are offering “Connected futures: New social strategies and tools for communities of practice” — a five week workshop for community managers, designers and conveners to explore social strategies and  tools to support them (referred to by some as Web2.0) for the second time.  It starts November 10, 2008.  We anticipate offering it twice a year. This workshop is a hands-on, practice-shifting, dive into using new technologies to meet community needs. At the end of this workshop, participants can expect to:

  • Become more confident in managing and combining tools to support a community’s orientation and ongoing activities
  • Develop a deeper understanding of how new tools enable one another, are adopted and supported in communities
  • Have productive and lasting social connections with other participants, leaders and community conveners.

New technology stewards are especially encouraged to join us. The workshop includes virtual field trips to successful communities and deep dives into the use of new tools. We will explore many freely available technologies, including web conferencing, teleconferences, blogging, RSS syndication, microblogging, social bookmarking and tagging, wikis, mashups, and social networking.  Each aspect has the support of experts and leaders in areas such as organizational, educational, government and enterprise communities. Participants will work through a process of thinking through new social strategies and technologies to support the ongoing life of their respective communities of practice. Participants will also receive an advance electronic copy (PDF) of parts of the forthcoming book “Digital habitats: stewarding technology for Communities” (Wenger, White, and Smith 2008).

More information about the workshop is here:

Registration page is here:

It’s true that we’re forcing it into the calendar, offering it without a lot of advance notice, but we’re trying to build on the experience of the first offering in the Spring of 2008.   We’ve decided that we can’t really claim to offer a “practice-altering” workshop unless the presenters collectively practice offering it — at least twice  year.

One thing we’re exploring this time is how different Web 2.0 tools build on each other.  That matters in a workshop setting, but it also shows up in the trajectories of individuals and communities.  Another is how to use a new “Action Notebook” chapter in “Digital Futures” in a workshop context.