May 20 2008

Growing better legs and pockets

During the Council meeting at the Portland Shambhala Center last week, Paul Refalo, the Center’s director observed that he can always give two alternative responses to the question of “How’s the Shambhala Center?” He can say that things are falling apart and that they are just coming together. And he said he could give substantial detail for either assessment. Joan Sears, the Treasurer, said the same paradox applied to the Center’s finances. The same week that she’d worry because of two requests to stop automatic dues payments would somehow be balanced by surprisingly generous new members who sign up. Over the years I’ve found that a Shambhala Center is a great example for thinking about the balance between an organization that provides education and services to its members and a community of practice with all the emergence that makes communities lively.

There’s nothing new, in a way, about our proposal for improving the tools for providing legs and pockets that communities of practice could use. What Josien Kapma and I are talking about is making it easier for communities to become just slightly more like organizations, along the lines of Clay Shirky’s airline passengers rights example in Here Comes Everybody. Our point is that somehow technology has helped the informal and conversational side without supporting the formal and financial side as much (or at least keeping them quite separate). Getting the learning and the informal side to coexist with the other side — so that neither one is subordinate or compromised — is quite the trick. It involves technology stewardship as well as leadership.

Joitske’s comments about transparency remind me that transparency is conventional, collectively understood and never completely absolute (whether in a community of practice or in other settings). That leads me to the question of, “What community-like characteristics are essential when adding organization-like characteristics?” I think here are some important ones:

  • Negotiation of meaning. Communities grow around some fundamental openness to their practice and what it means. That makes them and their finances kind of messy. But it also implies a capacity for resolving or repairing disagreements. Groups that are all talk and no practice may not really need pockets because they don’t need legs.
  • A history of learning together, so there is some authentic social capital. Sharing real capital (in modest amounts, according to the community’s maturity) ought to be completely natural. A learning path suggests that legs are needed.
  • Communities have developed practices of being together in ways that create value that’s not fundamentally monetary but occasionally depends on having the cash to support being together. Having someone else, like Google, monetize being together, may or may not be OK. Better to have your own pockets than live in someone else’s.
  • Distributed leadership and several overlapping systems of status means that different people can speak or act on behalf of a community in different regards. Somebody may spend money on behalf of the community without necessarily being the paragon of polished practice. But some kind of integrity is negotiated or the community falls apart.
  • A wide periphery and enough of a sense of identity. The whole point is that “people like me would help,” perhaps by contributing money. Our own journey is connected to that of the communities we belong to.

One idea that occurs to me is that for the scheme we’re thinking of to work, there needs to be a repository that can catch the left-overs when communities fall apart. That might be an interesting new role for CPsquare, provided that at that moment it’s coming together, not falling apart.

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