Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Is structure harming communities?

Hi all, this comment was posted on the blog and I think its a great discussion topic so I wanted to answer it on the blog itself as a primary entry.

"I'm wondering if you agree with the APQC KM Roadmap to Success idea that the culmination for org KM is institutionalizing KM. I am particularly interested in your thoughts on institutionalizing communities of practice.

Remember Etienne Wenger and William Snyder's HBS article in 2000 called CoP: The Organizational Frontier? In that article they describe the managerial dilemma of supporting CoPs without destroying them. I loved the story of the farmer who killed the golden goose to get at the gold.

I'm wondering if we are not heeding Wenger and Snyder's warnings. If the formal organization coopts informal social systems, aren't they killing the golden goose?"

My thoughts

In our earlier study on "Building & Sustaining Communities of Practice" this concern is exactly what we had articulated in the closing section of the report. That is, if organizations start managing communities heavily then they will lose their sense of being a community and start feeling like another business unit.

I have thoughts that go both ways on this argument. In our recent study on CoPs what was clear among organizations was that communities had to display tangible value in order to continue to be funded. This begged the argument that expectation of tangible value meant imposing a structure on the community and many organizations have in fact done that. So if I follow the "purist" thought process that a community is a group of individuals that come together because they want to and not because they have to then one can assume that in this new structured CoP there will exist both types of individuals. Most of them hopefully will participate because they want to, because they see the inherent value to their jobs and their lives but there will also be some that will join because they have to due to management visibility. Does this intermingling then of voluntary and involuntary membership change the fact that it is still a community? I am open to anyone who wants to comment on that. My thought is doesn't. Maybe its a modified community structure but the base goal of the community is still the same. That is, to share knowledge that others want.

Where the analogy of killing the golden goose is concerned, we do find communities that die as a result of increased management attention but in most cases if the community is in fact the golden goose then management finds people who are willing to commit to outcomes to start up a community. In such cases the people who did not want the management attention shy away from the community and those who can handle it participate.

Another interesting change among our partner organizations was the recognition that CoPs could in fact take many forms. There are groups of people who just want to meet and talk and not worry about outcomes. For them the converstaion is enough. In such cases management says "its ok to continue to do that, just don't ask us for money, because if you do then you have to justify the expense." Then there are groups of people that don't mind the outcomes and want increased visibility in the organization. Just the fact that they have structured outcomes does not make them any less of a community. They are still like minded people, they still like talking to each other and sharing, the only difference is they are taking their knowledge sharing to knowledge creation and dissemination that impacts the organization's botom line.
So organizations are starting to understand both these types of communities and are supporting both of them.

I hope I have provided enough information to your comment. I thank you for taking the time to respond to my postings.
take care


Anonymous said...

Farida wrote: "In our recent study on CoPs what was clear among organizations was that communities had to display tangible value in order to continue to be funded."

QUESTION: Do communities of practice HAVE to show tangible value in order to be funded?

This is a basic underlying assumtion. It may not be true.

And, in cases where it is true, is it in the best interest of the informal social system (the CoP) to exert energy towards demonstrating tangible value to the formal organization? If you get locked into the formal funding stream, you may get locked into structures that prevent you from innovating.

Whom are you serving? The members of the CoP or the formal organization?

The predominant mindset seems to be that the formal organization IS the organization. An assumption seems to be that the formal organization knows best.

What if formal structures have actually begun to prevent the organization from achieving its purpose? Even great leaders atop the formal chart can't seem to overcome the inertia. By bringing the informal social systems like networks and communities of practice under formal organizational control, we actually limit the power of the informal to make a positive difference for people and society.

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