Shared interests

Last week, I posted some thoughts related to a Clay Shirky talk, "Authority in an age of open access". A core take-away is Shirky's observation that "involving the general public as consumers works better when we involve the general public as producers."

Toward the end of the talk, Shirky briefly mentions Etienne Wenger and work done to explore "communities of practice". I wasn't familiar with Wenger's research, so I've been trying to remedy that.

A useful overview was written by Wenger in 2006 (a web site, also available as a Microsoft Word download). There, Wenger defines the term:

"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly."

Wenger goes on to note that "learning can be the reason the community comes together or an incidental outcome of member's interactions."

Usefully, he identifies three characteristics of a community of practice that he feels distinguish it from what we commonly call a "community". These are: the domain; the community; and the practice.

Domain is the shared interest, separate from expertise (though it could include that). Community is established when "members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information" – it is fundamentally two-way communication.

And the practice is active: members "develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems – in short a shared practice." Wenger notes that "this takes time and sustained interaction"… "by developing these three elements in parallel that one cultivates a community."

Wenger identifies a variety of ways in which communities of practice evolve. Activities can include (verbatim list):

  • Problem solving
  • Requests for information
  • Seeking experience
  • Reusing assets
  • Coordination and synergy
  • Discussing developments
  • Documentation projects
  • [Arranging] visits
  • Mapping knowledge and idenifying gaps

Although Wenger's work focused on the development of communities of practice within organizations, I think the framework and principles are useful for anyone looking to organize communities in person or on the web. There has to be a domain, an expressed or perhaps latent interest or need that must be met.

To sustain a community, two-way exchanges and dialogue are required. Before cultural norms are established, moderation (an investment of time and resources) can be a critical asset.

And the practice grows through a "shared repertoire of resources" that ultimately creates an implicit or explicit content repository. This is also an investment that community organizers can help support.

Wenger's assessment suggests that, while communities of practice can spring up informally, they can also be aided or even started by a series of deliberate acts. That's the kind of investment future publishers are likely to be making as they organize communities across the web.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.