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Communities of practice at the core

First published October 04, 2001

The notion of communities of practice, or CoPs, is at the heart of many epistemological theories of workplace learning. These days, the spotlight is on virtual CoPs, or technology-enabled CoPs. And, thanks largely to the Internet, many CoP solutions exist. But, building and sustaining a CoP takes more than just acquiring the technology. The "build it and they will come", or in this case, "build it and they will share knowledge" attitude completely ignores the fundamentals of human interaction.

In this paper, I draw on research done by the likes of John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid, Larry Prusak, Don Cohen, Malcolm Gladwell, Julian Orr, and others, to bring out some of the often neglected social aspects of CoPs.

Knowledge Visions

When I ask attendees at knowledge management (KM) conferences what their KM visions are, I often get stereotypical stories. These stereotypical stories are usually manifestations of best practices as reported in the magazines and journals. For example, many said that they would like employees in their organizations to share stories like Xerox's technical reps did, or reap benefits of organizational "know-how" like Bukman Labs experienced.

It is beneficial to have these visions, but not at the expense of the awareness that the "devil is usually in the details." It is the difference between modus operendi, and modus operatum (see Organizational Learning & CoPs, John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid). Modus operendi means the process, and the way it unfolds over time, while modus operatum is the end result, as seen with hindsight. Thus, best practices, which are generally viewed in the modus operatum mode, misses or bypasses the important details and decisions that were taken to get to the results.

For example, consider Xerox's story. Here we have technical reps who share "war stories" with their colleagues, exchange tips and suggestions, help each other out in times of crisis, etc. This is the social aspect of the story (the intangible part that is only felt in the modus operandi mode). But, there is another aspect of the Xerox story, which is to do with the Eureka system. This is IT aspect of the story. And, many times we get to hear only this part of the story in conferences and seminars (the most visible part, and hence the most talked about in the modus operatum mode).

But the truth of the matter is that if we don't have the social part of the story first, there will never be an IT part. This paper explores these important social aspects.

Let's consider knowledge sharing in CoPs, which is representative of KM. The primary goal of KM is to have employees share their know-how with their colleagues. And, the primary obstacle of KM, after all these years, is getting people to share their know-how with their colleagues. Seems like KM hasn't progressed much! The reason is that the "share" is a social construct, and not an IT construct. One cannot simply put up a system and ask employees to share their knowledge, which by the way is highly personal. Rather, one should look into the building of social constructs, otherwise known as social capital.

Social Capital — Building strong ties

The whole issue of sharing of knowledge, is taken up by Don Cohen and Larry Prusak in their book, In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work (2001), in which they explain the benefits of Social Capital. Cohen & Prusak define social capital as follows:

Social capital consists of stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and the shared values and behaviors that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible (p.4).

Cohen & Prusak's main objective in writing this book is to increase the awareness of social capital issues in organizations. They assert that many management-types consider social capital issues to be of the touchy-feely kind, hence un-quantifiable, and therefore totally useless. In order to correct such misconceptions, they cite numerous examples of social capital use (and misuse) in companies.

On a different note, to learn of the importance of social capital issues, you might want to check this article on the aftermath of the WTC attacks on Sept. 11.

According to Cohen & Prusak, it is social capital that enables knowledge to flow in CoPs. People are willing to cooperate, share, help, and support with their views, opinions, feedback, and experience because they and trust each other and believe in the common cause. And this sense of camaraderie makes itself visible only when the environment is draped with, the largely invisible, social capital.

But, What builds social capital?



Trust is that glue which binds the members of a community in a sharing and cooperating manner. Without trust, members hoard their knowledge. In high-trust firms, knowledge flows smoothly through the communities or networks, resulting in the quintessential learning organization. While in lower-trust firms, knowledge flow is cutoff, resulting in isolated islands of information, leading to "fragmented" knowledge networks.

When it comes to an organization, much of the trust between members of a network depends on the existing levels of trust in the organization itself. This type of trust, termed "organizational trust" by Cohen & Prusak, plays a crucial role in communicating the desired set of behaviors that the organization expects from its employeesÑ" In lower-trust firms, people are guilty (and not to be trusted) until proven innocent; in high-trust firms, they are innocent until they prove themselves guilty" (p. 36-37). Cohen & Prusak suggest that organizations show trustworthiness by making processes, rewards, selections, promotions, etc., open and visible to all in the organization:

By and large, as we have suggested, people tend to be pretty much trustworthy or devious as you expect them to be. Assume that they will try to get away with doing as little work as possible, and many will. Measure their work by the clock, and they will watch the clock and go home when they have put in their time. Assume, on the other hand, that they are capable, conscientious, and engaged, and most will prove you right ( p.49).

But, there is no such thing as instant trust. Trust takes time to develop. It is the numerous hours of working together, of sharing experiences, of being part of both failures and successes that build the bonds that lead to trust. Space and time provide the breathing room for trust to strengthen and grow.

Space & Time

Relationships built on trust cannot be hurried. They need their space and time to grow organically. In an article, Designs for Working, written for New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell cites several examples of organizations that have realized that providing social spaces for their employees to connect increases social capital, which leads to greater learning and innovation:

The office used to be imagined as a place where employees punch clocks and bosses roam the halls like high-school principals, looking for miscreants. But when employees sit chained to their desks, quietly and industriously going about their business, an office is not functioning as it should. That's because innovation-the heart of the knowledge economy--is fundamentally social. Ideas arise as much out of casual conversations as they do out of formal meetings. More precisely, as one study after another has demonstrated, the best ideas in any workplace arise out of casual contacts among different groups within the same company.

In another two-part report, which has now become a sort of a classic, WIRED magazine charts the radical modification of office space by Chiat/Day, one of the world's top ad agencies.

In July 1994, WIRED magazine interviewed Jay Chiat, the founder of Chiat/Day, on his new concept, and this is how he described it:

Under the new organization at Chiat/Day, you don't have to come to work at 9 a.m. if you don't need to be here. By the same token, you don't win any points for staying at the office late at night. What you get when you come in to work is a locker -- and a computer and phone you can check out for the dayÉ We don't have titles on our business cards. No one really gets any special treatment. No one gets a corner office to put pictures of their family and their dog in. Everyone answers their own phones and makes their own coffee.

Chiat's vision of the office of the future caught the attention of the media too. The New York Times, and Time Magazine carried prominent stories on the concept, and hailed the emergence of the "road warriors."

But, in a follow up article, Lost in Space, that appeared five years later in February 1999, WIRED magazine reported the subversion at Chiat:

They finally cleared out last September, moving to new digs down the road and abandoning the Frank Gehry-designed binocular-shaped building in Los Angeles where Chiat, five years earlier, had first unveiled his cocky attempt to tear down the walls of the American workplaceÉ And with that, Jay Chiat's much-ballyhooed "virtual office," the work-from-anywhere workplace for the knowledge workers of tomorrow, was officially pronounced dead.

So, what happened? Why did the concept, now known as hotdesking, fail at Chiat/Day?

The problem with this kind of "virtual" office space is that people don't get their "private" space. Having a personal and private space, people, over time, build relationships with their colleagues (and with their surroundings) around and over that physical space. And, it is on the strength of these relationships that daily work gets done. This "work lifeline" is severed with unfixed workspaces.

Incidentally, Chiat/Day has learnt its lesson well. The company has redesigned its new office space and incorporated many principles of community. For example, top executives now sit in the middle of a room so that they can see, and be seen, by other employees. The new design also has ample rooms where employees can meet for face-to-face discussions. There are even emblematic pubs, cafes, bars, and a large central open space, aptly called "central park".

The Chiat/Day experiment shows the importance of a social space for people to come together and interact. But, providing the social space has to be complemented by providing time for relationships to grow and mature; organizations need to provide the time for interactions to take place in these social spaces.

Managers of many organizations seem to regard time to talk and get together as an unaffordable luxury, but we believe that this apparent luxury is in fact a necessity, and essential social capital investment. Building relationships takes time. We are not talking about large chunks of free time or even about time away from work-trust relationships develop in the course of working together-but relationships and networks need some time-some breathing space to grow (Cohen, Prusak, 2001, p.98)

Cohen & Prusak cite two examples (p.98):

Summarizing, CoPs are essential for workplace learning and innovation. But, in order for these communities to function and respond, they need social capital. Social capital is built upon trust, which among other things, requires space and time to grow organically.

Now, here's a question: Is is possible to somehow spruce up the knowledge sharing in CoPs?

Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000) provides some clues.

Tipping Knowledge?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the factors that cause social events to " tip". For example, the crime rate in poor NYC neighborhoods had been steadily increasing till around 1992, when suddenly, it started showing signs of changing direction. In the following five years, it decreased by 64%. Gladwell refers to the point where social events make an unpredicted and sudden change as the "tipping" point.

In another case study, Gladwell analyzes the sudden rise in popularity of Hush Puppies in late 1994 and early 1995. Hush Puppies is a shoe brand that in the time before late 1994 was in dire financial condition. But in less than a year, it became the most sought after brand and a staple in many American homes, even wining the prestigious best accessory award from the Council of Fashion Designers in 1996.

So, what causes such events to tip? According to Gladwell, who refers to these events as "social epidemics", there are three rules to the Tipping Point:

  1. Law of the Few - few people make a big difference
  2. Stickiness Factor - making messages contagious
  3. Power of Context - influence of the immediate environment

Gladwell's basic argument is that an idea's, or meme's, journey across a network is greatly influenced by these three factors. If it weren't for a few special people (Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen), the idea of wearing a Hush Puppy shoe to make a fashion statement would not have ventured out of the suburban Manhattan town in which it was first spotted. Likewise, if it wasn't for the environmental cleanup of the NY subway system, which radically altered the subliminal message it gave out to would-be-criminals, the crime rate in NY would have not dipped.

My adaptation of Gladwell's argument revolves around this: If the above three factors are influential in tipping social events, then they should be equally influential in tipping the flow of knowledge in networks, as this is also a social process.

Although all of the three factors are important and related to the study of communities, in this paper I shall explain the first point only - the few people who make a big difference, whom Gladwell labels as being Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Connectors: These are people who know lots of other people. They have the extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. These are people who always remember to send you a birthday card, and who will follow up even after a brief meeting. They occupy several social circles, and "their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy" (p. 49).

Mavens: These are people who connect other people with information. They are information specialists, or "information stewards." These people are obsessed not only with collecting information, but also with wanting to tell other people about it - "The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than because they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone's attention" (p.67).

Salesmen: These people are persuaders. They are the ones who will make you take a decision when you are undecided. When it comes to spreading social epidemics, these people take on the strategic role of reaching out to the unconvinced, and to persuade them to accept change, or to try out something new. They are "very good at expressing emotions and feelings, which means that they are far more emotionally contagious than the rest of us" (p.85).

This tipping notion may explain why some communities manage to thrive and grow while others wither away and die. If we plot a graph of relationships in a community, as would be done in social network analysis the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen would occupy points of high density. This means that if an idea, concept, process, etc. is to disperse through a network, these people are in the most strategic position to make it happen. Conversely, the absence of such people in the community makes it hard for getting the kind of reach and commitment that is necessary for the community to grow and thrive.

Btw, if you are interested in social network analysis (SNA), here are some links:

Thus, when we consider learning from a communities' perspective, we need to bear in mind that there are many underlying social structures influencing the system. The mutual work and sharing that are characteristic of many successful communities do not happen instantly, or at will. It is the result of each member's investment in building social capital by spending numerous hours with other members, sharing experiences, and building ties that bind. Further, spreading the learning experience to the entire community requires the capabilities of the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen present in every community.

Now, I suspect that you might be asking yourself, Where's the technology stuff in all of this? How come there is no talk of the next "killer app"? Read on.

The question of virtuality

Virtuality is still an experiment in progress. And being an experiment in progress, there are obviously no certain facts from both sides of the camp. Those eager in hailing virtuality as the subsequent step forward in the work culture are at loggerheads with those advising more research, especially on the social front.

The main arguments against the case of virtuality, as seen from the perspective of social capital, are the following (Cohen, Prusak, 2001, p.163):

Here's a case in point. The WELL is a very well known online community. WIRED magazine featured the happenings at the WELL calling it "The World's Most Influential Online Community". And it sure was.

The WELL had become a force whose influence was wildly disproportionate to its size. A discussion that started on The WELL had a way of bleeding into the larger world; it would be taken up and then written and talked about in more mainstream forums. As a result, many ideas generated on The WELL became pivotal in the history of cyberspace, including the naming of cyberspace itself- it was in a WELL posting that John Perry Barlow first took science fiction writer William Gibson's term and applied it to the present.

But, here's a point that might surprise many. Katie Hafner, who documented the WELL article in WIRED, observed among other interactions and personal stories that built strong relationships on the WELL, that many of these relationships were actually strengthened by the numerous face-to-face encounters that the "WELLbeings" used to have:

The WELL defied current notions about virtual community in that it wasn't one - entirely. In fact, the community probably wouldn't have thrived solely in virtual space. Problems that arose online got worked out offline, and vice versa.

This facet of the WELL is also coherent with current notions of virtuality, and that is to opt for a balance between online and offline interactions. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Larry Prusak says:

People have to get together in the real world. Three organizations I know are studying this: AT&T, Procter & Gamble and the U.S. army. At different levels, they have all studied how much so-called face time you need for a community to have coherence. They all felt that people have to actually meet, either once a month or every other month or some such number. Without that, you get entropy. You lose your edge, and passion cannot be transmitted. Things also get ragged; it's like an orchestra being conducted without a conductor. I have yet to hear about a "community" that has never met and still has coherence.

Even British Petroleum (BP), which has a good reputation in knowledge management circles for reaping the benefits of CoPs with the use of technology, opts for the balanced approach. Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell have documented BP's experience with creating knowledge exchanges in their book, Learning to Fly (2001). In giving notes to a coordinator of CoPs, Collison and Parcell advise:

A rule of thumb to meet face-to-face at least once year to establish and maintain relationships. Communication can be maintained electronically but the relationship gradually decaysÉ Allow plenty of time for socializing in these gatheringsÉDistributed communities depend on a core group meeting face-to-face at least once a year and are in regular contact (p.134).


Going from the arguments presented above, we can say that a balancing act is needed when considering communities; one that blends the appreciation of social capital, and tipping issues with the use of technology. In essence, communities are here to stay and they exist for reasons beyond what technology can afford in terms of how people are networked and how communities thrive. Technologies that support virtuality through online communities should thus be seen to complement, and extend existing communities.

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