Oct 08 2013

Reporting on my sabbatical in Shambhala

small__2051500480Last week Nancy White and I were in “the hot seat” for the Networked Learning Conference. We decided to talk about blind spots – those things that are right in front of us but for some reason we just don’t see them. Actions built on untested or aged assumptions. Actions based on our own preferences and perceptions which make no sense to others, yet we count them as “common sense.” 

One way that blind spots become vivid for me is when I change roles or “social place”.  This blog post elaborates on some thinking that started in that “hot seat.”

After some 14 years working on communities of practice and how technology can support them, I needed a break.  Last December, took a break, working pro bono for a very different kind of community of practice.  From then until September I’ve been working for the Portland Shambhala Meditation Center almost full time as the communications director.  Before that I’ve been on the Shambhala Center’s governing council in an advisory, greybeard role for the last 7-8 years, but due to a transition to a new Center Directors it seemed important to take on a “real job”, so I took on the job of Communications Director.  Now that my full-time stint is over, it’s time to think about the blind spots I noticed.

The first is surely too much focus on the front-end of a community’s life. Too much focus on the front end besets consultants (who are hired to help launch a community) as well as people who study communities.  When I took over as communications director, there was a lot of infrastructure in place, with a lot of work patterns defined and my work had to serve an existing community that was shifting.  A lot of infrastructure and assumptions and practices had to go by the wayside before replacements could really be visible. It is clear to me that others will come after me who will take up (and modify) what I have set up.   A longer view changes our perspective – especially when you consider that this particular Shambhala Community has roots going back 2,600 years.

Community observer as author-god. Over the years I’ve seen many masters theses, PhD projects and even formal research agendas that propose to “create a community of practice” in order to study it.  My problem with that strategy is that it distorts what we observe, it sets up the researcher/observer as community arbiter of last resort and it leaves community participants behind after the creator’s degree is granted or the research is completed.  Several times during my sabbatical I had to deal with the fact that people were not interested in anything new or better — they wanted help figuring out passwords! I had to work with their concerns and satisfy their needs; it was clear that the community was in charge, not me.

Community as “a first date”. A major blind spot that working for the Shambhala Center revealed to me is that working to “create community” not only focuses attention on the front end of a community’s life, it implies recruitment and as a result a very tentative commitment.  How much of our understanding of communities, social learning, and engagement is based on communities where the observers are complete outsiders, newcomers, or where we assume  that participation is somehow optional? What effect does it have when we participate only because we are scavenging for insights to be used elsewhere? On the other hand, what difference does it make in our actions or in our understanding when we feel completely identified with a community – when we are involved for the long haul? I think the relevance of these questions depends on whether you think depth of understanding matters. I’ve realized that that for me, when it comes to community, it does.  The interesting communities are the ones that persist.

Technology is a necessary prerequisite. One of the ideas that we explored in Digital Habitats was about technology stewardship as a role for someone who knows enough about a community to be able to see community (and learning) implications of technology choices. This is certainly true for mostly-distributed, mostly-technology-mediated communities. My sabbatical emphasized just how true it is for a mostly face-to-face community, too. The role of technology in a Shambhala Center (and it’s a big one) is primarily to enable face-to-face interaction and meditation practice. In a mostly face-to-face community it is still the case that many people who know the community well don’t see technology-based opportunities and conversely, I think, that many people who know about the technological possibilities don’t see the opportunities for community benefit. Going back to the password-confused and techno-phobic end of the spectrum: the blind spot in my work with communities over the past 14 years is that I tended to come into contact with people who had already crossed big technology hurdles. To some extent, if they couldn’t handle the technology basics, they weren’t “present” or were even invisible. I”m seeing technology is a key thread but only one of many.

Forget about a community-wide platform. I continue to observe and reflect on a myriad of small technology balances and styles of interaction. I am struck by how much the Shambhala Community in Portland uses email. There is a lot of it! In distributed communities so many side conversations in email might threaten community cohesiveness or integrity; but since this community can count on its face-to-face venues and interactions, the centrifugal quality of email is not a problem. I see almost no interest in synchronous meeting technologies; they are the lifeblood of so many distributed communities and relationships. A notable practice that developed before I began my sabbatical has been for the governing council to develop its meeting agendas in a Google Doc, inserting all the “information items,” such as monthly reports, in the document for people to read before the meeting. The first agenda item is always a simple, “Any questions about the reports that people put in the Google Doc?” After that, the conversation can really focus on decisions or questions that really need discussion. That’s a nice example of using technology to remove some of the dross from our “being together.” What seems most important to me is that the Portland Shambhala Community doesn’t respect technology boundaries: people use whatever tools they have at hand with whoever they are working with and they don’t worry much about the rest of the community.

That’s all for the moment.

Photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

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