Friday, March 26, 2010

Digital Habitats (Part 4)

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

This is the fourth 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 Chapter 6 of the text.

People experience being part of a community in a variety of ways: communities have different styles. That's why different habitats work better for different communities. The text refers to this as having different orientations toward the process of learning together. An orientation is a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community. The authors have observed nine orientations that have implications for the selection of technology (the order does not suggest ranking). Orientations are not mutually exclusive, and they reflect the importance communities place on various ways of being together. This post will briefly review these orientations, what constitute signs of life and success factors, some key questions, and the technology implications for each orientation.

1. Meetings: Communities with this orientation place emphasis on gathering at a certain time to engage in shared activities. These meetings can be face-to-face or blended, online synchronous, and/or online asynchronous. Signs of life for this orientation are regular, well attended meetings, with enthusiasm to participate, connections with others, and successful outcomes. Success factors center around meeting practices, the member experience of the meetings,and the flexibility in the agenda to allow for spontaneous interactions. Questions have to do with the details of the meetings (size, composition, and logistics). Technology implications for this orientation include the use of technology for online meetings, and how technology can facilitate the face-to-face meetings of the community.

2. Open-ended conversations: Some communities never meet, but instead learn through ongoing conversations. These open-ended conversations can be single-stream, multi-topic, and distributed. Signs of life are a sustained flow of contributions and responses. Success factors include having enough variance in the topics, enough contributions to feel active but not overwhelming, active participation by a representative segment of the community, and a well-organized conversation archive that prevents circular conversation and allows newcomers to get up to speed quickly. Questions center around user preferences around conversations, accessing and harvesting conversations, and multilingual requirements. The technology implications are a selection of the right tool for the conversations (email, chat room, wiki, blog, threaded discussion) and how to configure these tools to best facilitate the conversations.

3. Projects: In some communities, members want to focus on particular topics and really go deep and collaborate on projects that solve problems or produce artifacts. Learning is not just a matter of sharing knowledge or discussing issues, but instead is something done together in order to develop their practice. Projects usually involve a subgroup of a community, and can take the form of co-authoring a document, a practice group, project team, or instruction. Signs of life are committed engagement in producing some change in the community's world, such as developing a useful artifact, addressing a recurring problem, or responding to a challenge. Key success factors include collective definition of projects, coordination and leadership, adequate communication between subgroups and the community, and compliance with internal project management process and procedures (if applicable). Questions center around project activities,the requirements to enable project completion, and how the project will connect to the rest of the community. Projects create several technology implications mainly around virtual spaces (including space creation and security), collaboration methods for the team, technology to allow sharing from the project to the community, and how to enable creation and storage of artifacts.

4. Content: Some communities are mainly interested in creating, sharing, and providing access to documents, tools, and other content. Valuable and well-organized content is useful for members; can attract new members and makes it possible to offer a community's expertise to others. Content orientation can include a library, structured self-publishing, open self-publishing, and content integration. Signs of life include the regular creation or identification of new material and frequent downloads or use of existing material; active involvement with content- discussing, tagging, commenting, remixing, reorganizing, and exploring relevance. Key success factors are a careful and ongoing organization of content, a flexible taxonomy, ease of publishing internally and externally, ease of creating new content, archiving of aging material, use of tools that invite active involvement with documents,and excellent search capabilities. Questions refer to frequency of activities around content, use of content, types of artifacts, responsibility for maintaining content, and access to content. The technology implications focus on content management: uploading, organizing, combining, search, application of taxonomies, and editorial functions. In addition to managing artifacts, enabling conversations around the content is also important.

5. Access to expertise: Some communities create value by providing focused and timely access to expertise in the community's domain, both internally and externally. Communities with this orientation focus on answering questions, providing advise, or engaging in just-in-time problem solving. This includes access via questions and requests, direct access to explicitly designated experts, shared problem solving, knowledge validation, and apprenticeship and mentoring. Signs of life are rapid and reliable responses to requests for expert advice and assistance; well-established methods for eliciting community expertise- people should know who to approach for specific expertise. Key success factors consist of known or designated holders of expertise, quick access to reliable sources of information and quick responses from experts, accurate routing to best sources of help, reliability of responses established by reputation or through a validation process. Questions to consider include how to get rapid access to information and advice, the importance of formal validation, discovery of experts and expertise, status as a center of excellence, the employment of outside experts and their support requirements, and the size of the group that needs to interact, as this makes a difference in the type of support needed. There are several technology implications with this orientation, including determining the best mode of communication (synchronous or asynchronous), the level of automation of discovery and archiving of expertise, and the technology around validating the answers provided by experts.

6. Relationships: Some communities focus on relationship building among members as the basis for both learning and being available to each other. Communities with this orientation place a high value on knowing each other personally. This is done by connecting, knowing about people, and interacting informally. Signs of life are networking, bonding, friendship, references to personal lives in conversations. Key success factors consist of ways for people to get to know each other and build their identities, opportunities to connect informally beyond community events, networkers acting as connectors with other people,and having individual control over personal disclosure and exposure. Questions revolve around how members are drawn to the community, how important trust is to the ability to learn from each other, the level of curiosity and willingness to disclose information and investing the time to get acquainted outside the domain-oriented interactions, and the size of the community and the need for widespread connections coupled with whether the community is open or closed. Relationships are between people, technology seems less relevant. However, the advent of online social networking  and social media have enabled the creation of online relationships. These relationships can grow without the participants ever meeting each other face-to-face, to include immersive environments such as Second Life. In these cases the technology can actually foster the creation of communities.

7. Individual participation: Learning together happens in the context of a group, but it is realized in the experience of individuals. Increasingly, their participation in any community takes place in the context of multimembership in many other communities- a factor that is bound to give them a unique perspective in any given community or facet of community life. The main variants of this orientation include varying and selective participation, personalization, individual development, and multimembership. Signs of life are where members develop their own style of participation and are aware that others develop their own styles, they feel they have a meaningful connection to the community regardless of the form of their participation, and the community welcomes, supports, and thrives on this diversity. Key success factors center around valuing diversity, supporting and facilitating different levels and modes of participation, practices and tools that are used to bridge between interaction modes, communicating preferences, availability, and multimembership, obvious customization options, and the ability of members to manage their interactions across different tools and communities. Questions go to the extent that the community's success depends on uniform participation experiences, the degree of diversity of the members in terms of proficiency in the core practice and learning styles, the amount of ownership members take in their own learning compared to how much they expect this to be defined by the community, and how many communities members belong to simultaneously and if they require the use of different tools. The technology implications of this orientation are mainly focused on the individualization of the experience using technology, bridging the the various modes of participation, and supporting the multimembership paradigm.  

8. Community cultivation: While many communities are content with loose self-organization, other thrive on attention to community cultivation. For different reasons, the success of the community comes to depend on a high level of ongoing attention to process and content. Variants to this orientation include democratic governance, strong core group, internal coordination, and external facilitation. Signs of life are that the community's activities are well planned, its reference materials are well produced and well organized. and members find someone that is always very responsive to their requests, contributions, and changing needs. Key success factors consist of efforts made to support the community are appreciated by other members, enough time is available to engage in cultivation, the personality, skills, and leadership of those who take on the community cultivation roles, and good succession planning for transitions. Questions refer to the needed information to cultivate the community, the actions the cultivators should take in regards to technology and how it affects participation, and what the community culture is around feedback tools so they are not "gamed" and give accurate results. The technology to support this orientation can be fairly basic (telephone, email, etc.) but can also include online polls and conversation management systems.

9. Serving a context: All communities of practice are oriented to their members' learning experience, but they also exist in a context that can influence how this learning takes place. In some cases, serving a specific context becomes central to the community's identity and the ways it operates. This context may be inside or outside of a larger organization, and can even be global. Variations on this orientation thus can be organization as context, cross-organization context, a constellation of related communities, or a public mission. Signs of life are community members fully engaged in the mission defined by their context, and reciprocal recognition and resources from people outside the community. Key success factors include clarity on the community context, channels for negotiating the relationship of the community to its context (such as organizational sponsorship), recognized and supported boundary roles that serve the orientation to context, tools that enable outsiders to interact with the community that reflect their needs and openness of the community, and ease of granting controlled or open access to the community. Questions are around the goals, agenda, or mission that the community is serving, the extent that the community has to keep track of its activities and it learning to justify itself to outside constituencies, the importance for the community's technology infrastructure to be integrated with broader information systems, whether the community is open or closed, the importance of having the community visible and accessible to non-members accounting for their needs and current methods of interaction, and how members integrate their community activities with their other activities, such as their job in their organizations. There are major technology implications for a context orientation, mainly in regards to integration of the technology with other systems and also the ability to control access to the extent needed by the community.

Understanding the orientation of a community of practice can improve the performance of its tech steward, but also can assist a member in being a better participant of that community. Orientations create specific technology-related challenges in many different ways, especially around compatibility with existing infrastructures. Also, many communities span different orientations, and also can change orientation over time. All of this will affect the technology needed to support the learners of the CoP.

The last few posts have established a frame of reference for both communities and their digital habitats. This has been done both from the perspective of how technology can affect communities, and how communities can influence their supporting technology. The next few posts will use this context to go into more detail around specific practices of technology stewardship.

Thank you for reading this post. Please ask questions and comment on your thoughts around this topic.

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