Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Collapse of a Community of Practice (CoP)

I have long been a subscriber to, first, the old TR-DEV listserv and its revised format as a moderated Yahoo group. While the site shows 4,000 members, I would guess that truly active membership -- lots of posting, interaction, some argument -- is in the range of 50-100. Debates have been long and often spirited, and while I have not always found it all useful (too much parsing of semantics, too many side visits to politics last fall) it did keep me informed about current interests in the training field and what practitioners were really working on (as opposed to what the media often report). While a true community of practice is usually characterized by its lack of formal oversight, the moderators did a good job of blocking out blatant marketing attempts and people phising for email addresses, and refocusing/refereeing discussions when needed.

ANYWAY, the announcement came from the moderators this week that the site will be shut down effective Tuesday, and they will not be entertaining any further discussion or answering responses about it. They did provide a long explanation, including acknowledgement of new social media technologies that did not exist back when the listserv was started. And, really, they said, they're tired. It is an often thankless job, with anyone with a beef about anything taking it out on the moderators who were doing this voluntarily in the first place. The moderators have already deleted all the materials in the archives, things like handouts and whitepapers and tools submitted by members.

The response has been, not unexpectedly, dramatic and emotional. People are shocked at the swiftness of the decision; comments on the board this week tend to alternate between "thanks for all the years of service" and "how dare you?" The conversations have raised some points to ponder on the matter of CoPs. Let's cogitate:

1. Who "owns" a CoP?
2. To whom does the material shared by, created by, and stored in a community repository belong?
3. Does the life of a community have such a definite end point? What will happen next?

While I am sad to see TR-DEV go I admit I have been fascinated at watching the drama play out this week. For those really interested in the philosophical side of all this, there is a small body of academic literature on power issues in CoPs; authors include Huzzard; Pemberton, Mavin, & Stalker; and Roberts.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Jane

I see a CoP as being akin to a complexity system (I guess some might say it is a complexity system). I won't bore you with the details, but a complexity system has two main characteristics.

One is that it is adaptive - it can adapt to change. It has the ability to change its structure - it can transform.

The other is that it is emergent. Creativity speaks through the spontaneity of emergence, through the power of self-organisation within a CoP. It invariably develops through evolving processes within a community.

1. Who owns a CoP? A- The community does.

2. To whom does the material shared by, created by, and stored in a community repository belong? A- The community does.

3. Does the life of a community have such a definite end point? What will happen next? A- Even a community that is a true CoP can be extinguished. But the likelihood of this happening is slim compared to the inevitability of the end of a working group, for instance.

With a CoP the size you describe, there is a real possibility that it will rise from the ashes through its innovators moving to preserve the life of the CoP. What's needed are processes to communicate to all or most members at the beginning of the recovery period and the creation of a new platform for the CoP.

Good luck Jane.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

Jane Bozarth said...

May I call you Frodo? Your responses point to exactly the debate at hand: based on the messages this week, members feel they 'own' the community and its artifacts, but the moderators do not. Letting someone "moderate", in this instance, apparently did not come with any promises or agreements about the future, or what would happen if/when moderators wanted to leave.

Dick Carlson said...

Yes, we'll be seeing this more and more. (As a former member of TR-Dev, long long ago, I remember all the hissy fits fondly.)

Who owns a community? It doesn't matter. What matters is preservation of the content, and I'm finding that I now often grab interesting resources and sock them away in an external hard drive for just this reason.

I've been part of a great community for a particular type of oddball old motorhome, and there was a great collection of service bulletins and how-tos that a member had collected. Then it all vanished, and was a huge loss to us all.

Preservation of content will become in interesting driver.

Dave Ferguson said...

I think TRDEV's early history may have included a high level of active participants, meaning people who posted at least once a month, but over time it tended to maybe 2% of the total -- say, 120 people out of 6,000.

That's not necessarily bad, but it did skew things toward those with a lot (or too much) to say, those with time on their hands, and those with soapboxes to mount.

The internal politics of moderation also played a factor, as I saw during my own brief stint. I ran afoul of someone's very strong vision of the way things oughta be.

I don't think anyone owns a community of practice, unless it's one set up within a corporation or organization (in which case the owner's the boss). By that same token, the TRDEV coordinators weren't the employees of the list members.

Communities generally don't have clear endpoints -- heck, people are still talking about Atlantis. They modify over time, and some fade away -- the Gaelic spoken widely in my hometown less than a century ago is scarcely a memory.

A few people, like Don Clark, will try to keep the group going somewhat as it was. I'm not sure the majority will easily find their way to an alternative, though.

Dick's comment about the content confirms my hunch that for many, the content of TRDEV existed apart from the membership or even the contributors. Newcomers would sometimes treat the list like a knowledge-dispensing machine, making you wonder what these folks were like in face-to-face networking.

It's a bit ironic... like training that focuses on "content" rather than "learning." I'm finding that my personal networks tend to start with some common interest, however vague, but the people become highly personalized and individual to me.