Sep 10 2009

What it takes to detect absence or silence

In considering whether to take the Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop, a PhD student in the healthcare field wrote asking whether the workshop would be useful to her, given what she was doing:

I am going to examine what [communities of practice are already there in an academic health care setting] …. or as I suspect the lack of of them… and hopefully determine what those challenges [to their development] are, using an institutional ethnography approach.

I wrote back that …

Detecting silence or absence is huge, and they are only visible with careful ethnographic observation informed by theory.  Last week the keynote at the conference was Gillian Tett, an anthropologist who ended up working for the Financial Times and noticed that there was an awful lot of silence around the global debt markets in 2007, despite the fact that they were much larger than the equity markets. There were a lot of reasons to not pay much attention to the debt markets at that time.  Careful ethnography that paid off in the most unlikely setting.

I can’t resist asking whether you’ve bumped into Charlotte Linde, Working the Past; Narrative and Institutional Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) … a fellow-alum of the Institute for Research on Learning with Etienne. She’s using a vast ethnographic study of an insurance company, she sets up a powerful analytical framework and one of her chapters is about silence and “stories that are not told”… Well worth the read.  (I reviewed the book in more depth here.)

Contact with Etienne is an important part of the workshop experience. He’s great to talk to —  and he has a great way of sharing access to current practice in many different settings. But it’s also really important to participate in a wider conversation of people who are exploring and applying these ideas in all kinds of settings. The practice of cultivating communities takes more than research.

While I’m at it, I’m hoping you’ve connected with this group (or at least read their stuff). Fung Kee Fung, Goubanova and Crossly are 3 of the authors who’ve all done the Foundations workshop (at one time or another):

A final thought: if part of what you’re looking for is absence of communities of practice (partly with a view of suggesting change to enhance learning in a complex system), you need to develop a pretty sensitive eye for the diverse kinds of communities that are fully functional out there.  This workshop can’t be the last word on that subject, but it does bust some of the stereotypes that many of us adopted from reading about the “Turbodudes at Shell” in Cultivating Communities of Practice.

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