Jul 18 2008

Secrets & Lies Panel

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May 8, 2001, Panel Session

Secrets & Lies about Online Communities of Practice

The water cooler has become the symbol for gathering communities of practice together, but more and more CoPs are now gathering and collaborating on the Internet. What opportunities does this open? What new skills are involved for becoming leaders? The panelists for this session drafted the following 10 theses and antitheses—the “secrets and lies” of online communities of practice—to frame our discussion of the subject and to catalyze conversation. We hope you’ll join us online after this conference to continue building on and exploring these challenges, ideas, and possibilities.

The Secrets & Lies


THESIS: The best design, the next release, or the coolest technology will solve my community’s problems.

ANTITHESIS: Technology isn’t everything. An improved design, a new release, or a cool technology may not solve the problems—they can be disruptive, distracting, and even destructive.

CONTEXT: Technology platform changes come in many sizes, from bug fixes and cosmetic changes to massive conversions and entirely new technologies. Bug fixes and cosmetic changes may not be really innovative or productive. If you add significant new features or tools, you need to train the community how to best use those features or they’ll go unused… or be misused. (Community members might be better off learning to use what they have well before they’re given something new or “better.”) Changing the community platform is certain to have unintended consequences. Similarly, there will always be something new, something “better,” and something different. At what point does change in technical infrastructure become a distraction? If there are underlying problems in the community dynamics, technology fixes won’t erase those problems. We need to create communities that are oases in which people can focus on important stuff rather than let CoP participants become hostages to change for the sake of change. At the same time, most communities have a range of learning styles, technical skills and interests, and levels of experience. The irritation of technical change could spark other unanticipated growth.


THESIS: If you build it, they will come. The Web site or community platform in and of itself will define the community and attract membership.

ANTITHESIS: Careful design of a community Web site or other online resources is a waste of time because you can’t really tell what people will want until they all show up. Too much design beforehand will just quash the creativity and innovation that arises through use.
CONTEXT: Online communities need to find a middle way between being over-designed or constrained by a designer’s idea of what’s appropriate and an approach that’s so casual it throws up a collaborative platform and then expects participants to connect the dots and fill the void. Remember to invite people in and show them the benefits of participation in the CoP and in the specific technology environment being used. If you create a safe, open space in which people can play in a directed, appropriately facilitated way, what the community wants will evolve and new possibilities will emerge. The “building” of the community (online and off) never ends.


THESIS: Outsourcing community management will get your community launched faster and at a lower cost because all of the technical details are sure to get taken care of.

ANTITHESIS: Your best community managers will be community members, regardless of how comfortable they are with online tools and interaction. Let them figure it out, no matter how long it takes.
CONTEXT: Community management consists of three main activities: technical, facilitative, and leadership. Any platform that’s suitable for a community of practice will be highly configurable and require a significant effort to manage and maintain. The amount of detail involved in insuring access, dealing with bugs, and coordinating system upgrades is just the beginning. Coaching people on tool use, dealing with cultural blind spots, and keeping the conversation on track can make supporting an online community a fairly massive task. Sometimes community managers are also expected to be community leaders, adding additional tasks. Dealing with all of these issues is not easy. You can’t always afford to have the leaders of a community involved in low-level tasks. So is it better to delegate the operational details (and hope the operators get the vision) or to teach the visionaries how to wash the windows? In any case, both jobs need to be done. Some specialization seems to be appropriate; the problem is in finding the most effective boundary between the two sides.


THESIS: The main online interaction platform (the mailing list, online interaction space, repository, etc.) is the community.
ANTITHESIS: The people who use the online community tools are the community. And there’s value in side conversations, private interactions, one-to-one emails, and instant messages that happen outside the main community space.
CONTEXT: Too often, we mistake our mailing lists, discussion forums, knowledge management systems, or other systems that serve our communities for the communities themselves. They’re not the same. The community is made up of people who may use the platform to interact and may also interact in other ways. The relevance is that resources and assessments of performance or value tend to be transferred or happen at the peripheries and intersections. If nothing is happening on the list or in the discussion forums, we might start to wonder whether the community itself is dead.


THESIS: External experts in online communities and communities of practice can fix my community’s problem.

ANTITHESIS: There are no experts and the only way to solve a problem in a community is to draw from internal talents and tough it out on your own.

CONTEXT: Introducing online communities of practice as yet another corporate initiative can be just another wasteful and burdensome distraction from real work. It can be another fad, a solution looking for a problem to solve. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile to seek out expertise. What it does mean is that if you’re looking for an expert on communities of practice, or on community platforms, you also have to spend some time looking in the mirror. You often best know what’ll work in your organization. In some ways, only community members really understand the needs of their community. At the same time, seek outside perspectives, engage consultants and facilitators, and talk to other CoP workers. But don’t expect experts to save you.


THESIS: The people in charge of your community of practice should be able to deliver desired results. Otherwise, get rid of them.
ANTITHESIS: Communities of practice, especially in an online environment, can’t be strictly managed and basically need the freedom to emerge.

CONTEXT: If you moderate or facilitate your online community too aggressively, you can quash all of the ownership, creativity, innovation, and activity of its participants. At the same time, if you don’t do anything, the participants might not do anything either. Or a few members will dominate leaving little room for others to participate. Most communities need light facilitation to get started, but more often than not, leaders can be nurtured, leaders will emerge, and the community can lead itself. That needs to follow the general direction of the supporting business organization, but that organization needs to be willing to let go sometimes. If you need a community of practice to meet your business needs, you need to become comfortable with that lack of control. And what exactly are the points of control?


THESIS: One consistent approach and platform creates the strongest community. You have to get the users to conform to the system.

ANTITHESIS: You have to meet everyone’s different needs through very customizable interfaces.

CONTEXT: Not all community participants are created equal. One size community platform will not fit all. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Chances are good that your CoP will comprise people of various levels of expertise, experience, etc. We all learn in different ways, and experience an online environment through our personal styles, culture and filters. Some people like choices and customizability. Others need simple, clear options. Early adopters will have different needs from the fast followers and mainstream users. You may be able to provide a range of to meet all of their needs. You may not. So to help meet this diversity, encourage subgroups. Encourage tiered tool offerings for super users and newbies. But make sure to cross-pollinate, connect the conversations, and help participants evolve along the development vector. Additionally, facilitators should constantly question their point of view. How does it reflect the view of the users?


THESIS: Online activity is the best way to measure success. We know how to evaluate online interaction.

ANTITHESIS: Online activity is the easiest way to measure success. But it’s not always an accurate gauge.

CONTEXT: How do we identify and measure value? Is an online community a failure if traffic is down, posts are down, etc. Is there value or action coming out of conversation? Is invisible “back-channel” interaction supporting or sapping the main online interaction space? Many businesses that provide online community platforms to its employees and practitioners confuse owning and managing the community platform with a necessary level of activity on that platform with the success and importance of that platform. But it is far more complex than login or posting frequency.


THESIS: On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. The online world gives us new a freedom from old social roles and constraints.

ANTITHESIS: Anonymity is a complete illusion and Big Brother is watching you. Anonymity destroys the important function of reputation.

CONTEXT: Existing Internet technologies seem less personal than interacting around a table. Many people (and many online communities) claim that the lack of personal face-to-face cues actually makes conversation and collaboration more creative. But many abuses of anonymity are found where there is an impoverished or negative work environment, where people’s identities have been suppressed or squeezed into some kind of straight jacket. The expectation of anonymity can cause very toxic behavior. On the other hand, the human need for a sense of identity is deep and we ignore it at our peril. Too much posturing and ego-flourish in online communities can be equally destructive. Flame wars can result from a funny combination of ignoring other people’s feelings (or identity) and becoming over-identified with a piece of turf. Providing for the creative negotiation of positive identities around competence is important to consider at several points: platform selection, community formation, facilitation, access policies, maintenance and disposition of text (and other artifacts).


THESIS: These propositions are the 10 lies about online communities of practice.

ANTITHESIS: These antitheses are the 10 truths about online communities of practice.

CONTEXT: There are as many lies about online communities of practice as there are truths. And many times, they’re flip sides of the same coin. Just as our personal strengths and weaknesses mirror each other. For every person who thinks something is a lie, there’s someone else for whom it’s the truth. What works in a given setting is personal, context-specific and driven by purpose. And instead of developing a bunch of hard and fast rules, articles of faith or “best practices”, we think it’s more productive to start a conversation about who’s doing what, what’s working where, how it’s working—and why it’s working.

The Panelists:

Richard Karash
Karash Associates Inc.
Society for Organizational Learning

Heath Row
Company of Friends
Fast Company

John D. Smith
Learning Alliances

Nancy White
Full Circle Associates

The Invitation:

If you’d like to join an ongoing conversation about these and related subjects, sign up to participate in com-prac. Com-prac, an online discussion for CoF practitioners, is an online space for conversations on how to build and support communities of practice. Members share drafts, working papers, links, contacts, and related materials.

With more than 300 members around the world, the mailing list averages about 60 messages a month. You can learn more about the list—and sign up—at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/com-prac

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