May 21 2010

Digital Habitats for project teams

Kathy Milhauser mentioned that she assigned Digital Habitats to students in a course on globally distributed project teams. That got me thinking about the difference between a project team and a community as far as their digital habitat is concerned. Of course there are many project teams that have spawned communities and many communities that have launched projects, so there are many connections. When a project begets a community it’s often because the sense of accomplishment that people have sparks that sense of recognition of each other’s expertise and people feel that they need to stay connected to each other. I was on a team at StorageTek in the ’90’s that designed and produced a big learning event; afterward we staid in touch, got together frequently and looked for more work along the same lines. When a community launches a project, it could be to produce an event, to explore a topic, to standardize a practice, or to provide the community with a technology advance. For example, when Beverly Trayner agreed with me to head a the project to hold a dialog in Setubal in 2002, there was a clear moment when she announced that “project team rules” would apply, not the discursive, relaxed, “let’s think and talk about whatever seems important,” and “everybody gets their say,” approach that had previously prevented us from meeting face-to-face.

But there are are also differences between the two. Quoting from the Table 2.2 on p. 42 of Cultivating Communities of Practice (Wenger et al., 2002) proposes these differences:

Communities of Practice
Project teams
What’s the purpose? To create, expand, and exchange knowledge, and to develop individual capabilities. To accomplish a specified task
Who belongs? Self-selection based on expertise or passion for a topic People who have a direct role in accomplishing the task
How clear are the boundaries? Fuzzy Clear
What holds them together? Passion, commitment, and identification with the group and its expertise The project goals and milestones

Sometimes the two blur and the difference may be more about a point of view than anything else. In fact, it may be useful to think of project teams as if they were communities of practice in some cases, especially when teams are globally distributed, learning is a fundamental component of their assignment, and project scope is to be discovered as the project proceeds. Here are some ideas about when a community perspective on technology such as we propose in Digital Habitats may be useful for a project team:

  • There are many cultural and technological uncertainties that come up when a project team is global. A part of the project’s work needs to be focused on learning how to cope with differences in time zones, bandwidth, technology environment, language, customs regarding deadlines or commitments, etc., etc. All of those elements have technology implications. The improvisational, emergent, approach we develop in Digital Habitats, and the frameworks we develop such as the polarities in Chapter 5, help us think about how to get conversations to address tricky questions issues such as, “How do we work together?”
  • Who is on a project team is not always as clear as we’d like. Sometimes a key resource or contributor will be part of the network or surrounding community but not part of the formal project team. When the knowledge and skills required for a project are very cutting-edge or very diverse, project team membership sometimes can’t be known in advance, much less specified. All of the discussion about permeable community boundaries will apply in those situations because team members may need to bring an expert into a few technology-mediated conversations, not involve them in the whole project’s work-space. During the project of writing Digital Habitats, Nancy White kept repeating “Technology is used collectively but experienced individually,” (or something to that effect) till Etienne and I could say it on cue. In my observation, communities are expert at dealing with the differences in people’s experience of technology and somehow inventing ways of bringing people together despite the obstacles.
  • Even when a community isn’t sponsoring a project, sometimes the community is the critical sounding-board or peanut gallery for the project. Unless the project team pays careful attention to the larger community’s conversations, the project will fail. For a distributed, technology-mediated team that may require that project team members stay involved in the conversations or activities of that surrounding community (which have more fuzzy and ad hoc technology boundaries than what we normally think about as “the project area”).
  • When you observe projects in real life they are quite diverse, not just the instantiation so many Gantt charts. If we look closely we might find projects that are oriented toward “meetings,” “open ended conversations,” or “access to expertise,” or “relationships” much like the orientations for communities that we propose in Chapter 6. If those orientations have technology implications, the surely the orientations in projects must also.
  • Finally, when a long-running project team experiences member turn-over, there’s a need to bring new members of the team into the team’s culture and tell them the stories from the team’s history. That sounds like the time for community thinking to me. Bottom line, there is more self-selection going on in project activities than an “everybody is on task in this project” kind of perspective would suggest.

Of course there’s the question of whether project teams can learn more from communities or the other way around.

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2 Responses to “Digital Habitats for project teams”

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