Friday, March 5, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 1)

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This is the first post in a series based on the book Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (CPsquare Publishing, © 2009) by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith. This post will cover Chapters 1 and 2 of the text.

Etienne Wenger is one of the experts on Communities of Practice, having authored several books on the topic. The definition of a Community of Practice (CoP) for the purposes of this book is a group of people brought together around a topic or area of interest with the intention of learning from each other. This learning places more on technology that just keeping a list of friends or exchanging messages: it implies that technology will help us find learning partners and engage with them meaningfully. While learning is not the driver for all communities, it is a large part of what makes interactions on the Internet attractive and productive. The book provides many examples of CoP's , including one of from the military, CompanyCommand, in which Army Captains have come together to help each other learn how to be better at the vital task of commanding a company in time of war.

The text defines three fundamental dimensions of a CoP: Domain, Practice, and Community. These dimensions also influence the underlying technology used to support the community.

Domain: In coming together in an online conversation, the members must have something in common that they really care about. This is an essential aspect of a Community of Practice. For a community to form, the topic must be of more than passing interest. This domain can extend inside and outside the community.

Practice: The members of a Community of Practice can be thought of in the terms of sharing a practice. Learning a practice is learning how to be a certain type of person with all the experiential complexity this implies: how to "live" knowledge, not just acquiring it in the abstract. This learning includes formal as well as informal activities, and can include sources from inside and outside the community.

Community: The learning connection is just as salient as a process of community-building. Learning together depends on the quality of relationships of trust and mutual engagement that members develop with each other, a productive management of community boundaries, and the ability of some to take leadership and to play various roles in moving the inquiry forward.   

Each of the three dimensions- domain, practice, and community- places demands on technology; conversely, technology opens up new facets for each dimension:

Domain: How does technology enable communities and their members to explore, define, and express a common identity? To see the landscape of issues to address, and then negotiate a learning agenda worth pursuing? And to project "what they stand for" and what it means to them and others? Does technology allow communities to figure out and reveal how their domain relates to other domains, individuals, groups, organizations, or endeavors?

Practice: How does technology enable sustained mutual engagement around a practice? Can it provide new windows into each other's practice? What learning activities would this make possible? Can technology accelerate the cycle through which members explore, test, and refine good or best practice? Over time, can technology help a community create a shared context for people to have ongoing exchanges, articulate perspectives, accumulate knowledge, and provide access to stories, tools, solutions, and concepts?

Community: How can technology support an experience of togetherness that makes a community a social container for learning together? Can it help people find each other and reduce the sense of isolation? Does it reveal interesting connections and enable members to get to know each other in relevant ways? Can it enhance the simultaneous interplay of diversity and common ground? Does it allow various people and groups to take initiative, assume leadership, develop roles and create subgroups, projects and conversations?

Communities of Practice offer a useful perspective on technology because they are not defined by place or by personal characteristics, but by people's potential to learn together. The text outlines the history of  the CoP, showing how technology helped spawn communities (from early email and bulletin boards up to Web 2.0) and also how communities helped influence technology (from the "Internauts" to the roots of the wiki and the open source software community). This helps to illustrate how technologies and communities are very intertwined.

The CoP perspective is helpful to understand digital habitats - where community and technology intersect. It helps us focus on how communities use technology, how they are influenced by it, how technology presents new learning opportunities for communities, and how communities continue to assess the value of different tools and technologies over time, and even how communities influence the use of technologies.

This is just an overview of an important component of Knowledge Management - Communities of Practice and how they form a part of a Digital Habitat. The next post will cover a key role in the digital habitat, the Tech Steward who serves to balance this interplay between community and technology.

As always, I look forward to your comments and questions.

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