Etienne Wenger on communities of practice

I was privileged to be able to attend a number of really stimulating events in 2010 focusing on how social technologies can be harnessed to foster the spread of knowledge and good ideas across organisations, communities and sectors. I attended the Dachis Group Social Business Summit in London in March, Mediating Boundaries: traversing the landscapes of online communities of practice in May and Beyond 2010 – Delivering more for less through digital technologies in October.
At the time, I didn’t make the time to write up notes and reflections on the events for this blog. However, as much for my own learning and thinking as anything else, I’m going to put in the effort to post here what I feel might be useful summaries and reflections on those events and on others I attend this year. To start with then, here are some of the key points and lessons that I took away from the Mediating Boundaries event, and at the bottom of this post I link to a document containing the full set of notes I took at the event.

Key points from Etienne Wenger keynote

  1. The role of the steward is absolutely vital in a community of practice – the people who really nurture and build the community and who understand both the technology and the social, emotional and political context of that community.

  2. We need to think about how people manage and experience their identity across a complex landscape of group memberships, communities and invitations to participate. Nobody has a singular professional community and we should never persuade ourselves that the community we run offers that to its members.

  3. So, we need to think about how the communities we seek to nurture and build are really meaningful for people when they have so many multiple affiliations and memberships. What does our offer really mean for participants? How can we make it really meaningful for them?

  4. All the people you connect with professionally, or who you seek to attract to your own community, are having to handle this issue of how they manage their identity / who they connect with / where they feel there is both value and a place that they feel they are accountable to.

  5. Community builders, community stewards perform the hard work of building bridges between different contexts and practices. They are individuals who want to enhance / enlarge the learning capabilities of their various communities, by opening them up to each other.

  6. Healthy, thriving communities have social artists within them. Social artists are exceptional people. They may lead communities, they influence the tone of the communities they interact with, they invite and push people to learn and rethink. They are collaborative and wilful, idealistic and pragmatic. We don’t have a good language to recognise the value that these people bring to their organisation. We need to recognise them, their value and contribution.

  7. We should move from a curriculum-oriented education system to an identity-oriented education. An education system that prepares people to manage their identity as lifelong learners in a complex landscape. Do we give children practice in managing these sorts of connections?

Key points and lessons learned from the featured online community or network projects

  1. Just because you have built it, does not mean that they will come.

  2. The diversity and the number of connections in a network are absolutely vital to its success.

  3. Don’t try to compete with, or replace, existing networks and communities. Try to collaborate and connect with them. You also need to meet your members, your audience, where they are rather than assume they should exclusively come to you.

  4. Online networks and communities work when you really manage, build and nurture them. They require patience and effort.

  5. Don’t build a bolt on – online collaborative opportunities must really feed right into and support what your target members are about, what drives them.

  6. For your editorially managed activity, think of ways to bring experienced practitioners together with aspiring, younger professionals. Think of ways of making the activity satisfy both camps.

  7. Think of ways to bring existing audiences into your audience, rather than always building your audience from scratch – e.g. run an activity for and with an existing group / event.

  8. Emotive and challenging content, and content about ethics, generates interest, engagement and feedback.

Mediating Boundaries – summaries, notes and lessons learned

Stuart Sutherland

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