Friday, 5 December 2008

Communities of Interest

Communities, a word that seems to fit so nicely with the month of December. But also a word often heard in business. Communities were really hot in the early 2000's when business was booming but seem to have gone down in the popularity polls when the crisisses (yes, multiple: .com, .credit, .credibility) hit.

Why is that? Well, before going into that lets see what communities are in business. The concept was popularized by Etienne Wenger. On his website he writes:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for
something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly
And indeed, that is what most business people refer to when they speak of a community: regular meetings of groups of people to exchange knowledge about a shared concern or topic. And there a lots of examples where groups of similar people meet to learn from each other in a certain discipline: banking, chemistry, software, etc.
It is however not very clear who should participate when the communities is gathering around a problem. Wengers' definition states that the people should share a concern or a passion. Ones passion can be ones job, but problems in organisations rarely obey departemental or discipline boundaries. In general they tend to challenge those more than be confined by them.
Therefore, problems are better handles by communities of interest.
Groups of people from different backgrounds that share an interest in the problem
at hand and volunteer to participate in an attempt to solve it
At the risk of overgeneralizing I suggest to discern two types of communities:
  • Communities of Practice (CoP) - regular gatherings where people with a shared profession or passion can increase and most often deepen their knowledge about the subject at hand.
  • Communities of Interest (CoI) - ad-hoc formed short-lived team-like groups that volunteer to work on solving a problem from their disciplines' perspective.

CoP's are perfect for sharpening existing skills and learning skills to newcomers in the organization, CoI's are geared at solving problems that cannot be solved by applying knowledge from one discipline.

Here we see, once more, that reality is fragmented. Many oroblems arise because things are not approached holistically but from within a certain tunnel-visioned framework. Solving these problems requires many inputs, neglecting presense of (organizational) walls that were once relevant in order to guard the organization from developing chronic pathologies.

As promised, some final words on the current popularity of Communities. As allways in times of crises people and organizations show a tendency to retreat to safe harbours. Making sure "normal" work is done gets priority. Developping skills can wait until later.

And indeed, that might be true for Practices, but Problems seems to be more abundant in times of trouble. So my thesis is that Communities need a rebrand as good Problem solvers, especially in dire times.

So far my "Sinterklaas" (the Dutch version of the Santa) present for my readers.

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