Jul 04 2013
A conversation in a bar the other day made me pull out Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context (1995). In addition to the diversity of examples in the book’s chapters, Jean Lave’s intro has a statement that I keep coming back to again and again:
“Participants in the conference agreed, on the whole, on four premises concerning knowledge and learning in practice.
- Knowledge always undergoes construction and transformation in use.
- Learning is an integral aspect of activity in and with the world at all times. That learning occurs is not problematic.
- What is learned is always complexly problematic.
- Acquisition of knowledge is not a simple matter of taking in knowledge; rather, things assumed to be natural categories, such as ‘bodies of knowledge,’ ‘learners,’ and ‘cultural transmission,’ require reconceptualization as cultural, social products.”
For the past six months I have done a lot less consulting in organizations and a lot more work in and for the Portland Shambhala Meditation Center. My experience there bears out Lave’s statement about learning. That Understanding Practice started out as an inquiry about “the context problem” points to an issue of community context. When thinking about communities of practice, it’s a problem if we focus too much on the community and forget to look enough at their context. (Context has a lot to do with the social periphery around a community and with our position as observers of communities.)
Here’s a sketch showing some of the different configurations where communities and organizations have different relationships to each other:
There were no organizations to speak of in the Lave & Wenger midwives example (apart from the unmentioned funding that Gitti Jordan must have had to study them in the Yucatan). Community technology involved face-to-face conversations, eavesdropping, looking over people’s shoulders or running errands. Wenger, McDermott & Snyder treated organizations as containers for multiple communities (observers, defenders, and enablers were often consultants, whether organizational insiders or outsiders). The technology used by those communities was what was provided by their organizations. Partly because of technological evolution, Wenger, White & Smith also considered communities that crossed organizational boundaries, and were not “owned” by any organization (as we worked on the book, we were all connected with or involved to varying degrees in KM4Dev and CPsquare).
Over the years, I’ve been involved in several projects where the communities didn’t really fit any of those models. As I think of them, they seem to be values-based communities where an organization depends for support on members of the community and the organization exists to serve its community. But for people who work in those organizations, the community aspect can be swamped by organizational concerns such as fund-raising, recruitment, service targets, or publicity. On the other hand, these communities have grown to the point that they need some kind of organization, even though community members may be so focused on their own practice (in their lives or their organizations) that they forget the organizational effort required to call meetings, steward the technology, curate resources, or staff essential services).
The relationship between the community aspect and the organizational aspect in these cases has many ramifications. These organizations, for example, typically recruit staff from legitimate members of their communities. That supports authenticity, but can result in hiring decisions that have problematic organizational consequences. The fact that I’ve been involved in the Shambhala community for almost 40 years may provide me with many insights into community issues, but it can also lead to biases and blind spots.
As I work on (and revise and reconfigure) the technology infrastructure of my local Shambhala organization and community, I’m reflecting on different projects and conversations that I’ve had about technology stewardship with Baptists, Jews, Mormons, Presbyterians, Unitarians, and of course many different Buddhist communities. Not many communities can draw on that kind of background I’m bringing. Being in a position to observe and understand what’s going on depends on legitimacy and participation in the community as much as any leadership role in the organization.
It’s striking to me how these communities and their organizations have so many issues in common, even though they all see themselves as unique and different. All of them are involved to one extent or another in reconceptualizing all manner of “natural” categories (or sacred categories, as the case may be), such as bodies of knowledge, learners, and cultural transmission, whether consciously, intentionally, or not. And that’s one thing that I think I’m learning.