Mar 26 2007

Communities of Practice, organizations, and teen-agers

Published by at 4:03 pm under Communities of practice,Technology

Last week at the SAO session on Online Social Networking I kept suggesting that to think about social networking and organizations, you should start by thinking about your teen-agers. Mind you there were not many teen agers in the audience that morning — its was mostly digital immigrants who are parents of teen-agers. My assumption was that everyone was starting from a question like, “How can I add social networking technologies to my website — or bolt them on to what my company offers?”

I thought a more useful question would be, “What kinds of relationships between an organization and a network can social networking technologies enable?” Most of the conversation shifted to talking about communities, not social networks, emphasizing the programmer communities that Intel supports rather than the looser networks of Classmates.com.

So here’s the pitch: instead of thinking about how to bolt technology onto your website, think about your relationship to your teen-ager — and then about how your teenager uses technology. Communities of practice are much like teenagers in that they are inventive, but uncannily conservative; independent but also needing support; open but also smart about spotting the fake.

Just like it’s a waste of time to think about teen-agers in general because they come in so many different sizes and shapes, so are communities different and you should think about the community you have or want before wondering what technologies they might want. Consider how different teen-agers are, depending on their family context (nuclear vs. extended families, big vs. little ones, blended ones, etc.). Consider teen stereotypes, such as “jocks,” “soces,” and “geeks.” Different teen-agers will want to use different technologies in their daily lives and so will different communities.

Finally, consider how teen-agers themselves relate to the technologies in their lives. Providing technology for them with a, “Here… use this!” kind of message is not the most auspicious beginning for a new relationship. Consider how teen-agers are able to straddle two or more technologies at a time, or how they leap from one to another. Communities are the same. Consider how teen-agers are able to re-purpose technologies for new uses; again, communities are just as creative.

Bottom line: respecting a young person goes a long way. Some support is helpful, but a flush and splendid free ride may create some bad habits. Some jointly negotiated performance expectations are useful, but too many goals and deliverables can take the fun out of growing up. All those things apply to communities of practice, too.

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