Dec 31 2008
I’m working with several meta-communities: communities of practice made up of people who are themselves supporting communities. Of course CPsquare is very much my “main meta-community” but I’m a bit surprised at how these meta-communities are turning up. (I guess I shouldn’t be, since that’s where I started 10 years ago working to get a meta-community going at StorageTek.)
Talking about communities of practice can be pretty tricky, straining the patience of the action-oriented folks if it goes on too long and making the analytical types anxious if conversations get too loose. These communities face a raft of issues about leadership, technology, boundaries, and purpose. In a couple of these meta-communities I’ve introduced the concept of regular “experiments”, borrowing an idea in Derby and Larsen’s Agile retrospectives. (They aren’t talking about communities of practice, but in a way that’s what their book is about.) Collective experiments are a useful activity no matter what a community’s domain might be, but with a CoP meta-community the can be especially helpful.
Here are some of the questions that come up in meta communities, all of which are in some way a matter of balancing opposites:
- What exactly are our goals as community leaders? Is it legitimate to find new goals as we go and if so, how do we do that? Could we develop richer and more useful frameworks to evaluate our selves and our work?
- If we’re trying to “improve our practice as leaders” we have to figure out what, exactly, our practice is. How do we do that? Compared to what other roles do we define ourselves?
- How do we get into the nitty gritty of making comparisons between practices and experiments of different members — so that we dig in enough without getting too personal?
- Can we simultaneously stand inside and outside of our practice? We want to be critical enough without too much navel-gazing and without getting mechanical about what we’re doing.
The point about experiments is that none of these questions need to be answered in the abstract or “for ever.” They need to be answered in practice, for the moment. Swapping stories is obviously a core practice in this kind of work, but that can be too sloppy and too informal. Charlotte Linde’s discussion about places and occasions for remembering and telling stories suggests to me that “experiments” are a great umbrella to get the right stories out. Just as Jerome Bruner talks about how the law is all about formalized stories, I think that “experiments” are a nice framework for formalizing stories about community leadership.
From that perspective the whole art of community leadership might come down to providing good occasions for practitioners to remember together what works and what doesn’t. It applies to meta-communities as well as garden variety communities of practice.
Esther Derby and Diana Larsen, Agile Retrospectives; making good teams great (Raleigh, NC: The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2006) http://isbn.nu/0977616649
Charlotte Linde, Working the Past; Narrative and Institutional Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) http://isbn.nu/9780195140293
Jerome Bruner, Making Stories; Law, Literature, Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) http://isbn.nu/9780674010994
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