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A Community Of Practice: Social Networking as Applied to Knowledge Sharing

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share an interest, a craft, or a profession. The group can evolve naturally because of the members' common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created specifically with the goal of gaining knowledge related to their field. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally (Lave & Wenger 1991). CoPs can exist online, such as within discussion boards and newsgroups, or in real life, such as in a lunch room at work, in a field setting, on a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment.

While Lave and Wenger coined the term in the 1990s, this type of learning practice has existed for as long as people have been learning and sharing their experiences through storytelling.

Communities of practice and knowledge management

Wasko and Faraj (2000) describe three kinds of knowledge: "knowledge as object", "knowledge embedded within individuals", and "knowledge embedded in a community". Communities of Practice have become associated with finding, sharing, transferring, and archiving knowledge, as well as making explicit "expertise", or tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is considered to be those valuable context-based experiences that can not easily be captured, codified and stored (Davenport & Prusak 2000), also (Hildreth & Kimble 2002).

Because knowledge management is seen "primarily as a problem of capturing, organizing, and retrieving information, evoking notions of databases, documents, query languages, and data mining" (Thomas, Kellogg & Erickson 2001), the community of practice, collectively and individually, is considered a rich potential source of helpful information in the form of actual experiences; in other words, best practices.

Thus, for knowledge management, a community of practice is one source of content and context that if codified, documented and archived can be accessed for later use.

Benefit of community of practice

Social capital

Social capital is said to be a multi-dimensional concept, with both public and private facets (Putnam 2001). That is, acquiring social capital gives value to both the individual and the group as a whole, in which the social capital is generated. Through informal connections that participants make in their community of practice, and in the formal process of sharing their expertise, learning from others, and participating in the group, members are said to be acquiring social capital - or a trust that members build between themselves and others that can lead to better communication. Thus, CoPs are considered a way to gain social capital, especially to those members who demonstrate expertise and experience.

Factors of a successful community of practice

Individuals in communities of practice

Members of communities of practice are thought to be more efficient and effective conduits of information and experiences. While organizations tend to provide manuals to meet the training needs of their employees, CoP's help foster the process of storytelling among colleagues which, in turn, helps them strengthen their skills on the job. (Seely Brown & Duguid 1991)

Studies have shown that workers spend a third of their time looking for information and are five times more likely to turn to a co-worker rather than an explicit source of information (book, manual, or database) (Davenport & Prusak 2000). Time is saved by conferring with members of a CoP. Members of the community have tacit knowledge, which can be difficult to store and retrieve outside. For example, one person can share the best way to handle a situation based on his experiences, which may enable the other person to avoid mistakes and shorten the learning curve. In a CoP, members can openly discuss and brainstorm about a project, which can lead to new capabilities. The type of information that is shared and learned in a CoP is boundless (Dalkir 2005). Duguid (2005) clarifies the difference between tacit knowledge, or knowing how, and explicit knowledge, or knowing what. Performing optimally in a job requires being able to convert theory into practice. Communities of practice help the individual bridge the gap between knowing what and knowing how. (Duguid 2005)

As members of communities of practice, individuals report increased communication with people (professionals, interested parties, hobbyists), less dependence on geographic proximity, and the generation of new knowledge. (Ardichvilli, Page & Wentling 2003)

Social presence

Communicating with others in a community of practice involves creating social presence. Tu (2002) defines social presence as "the degree of salience of another person in an interaction and the consequent salience of an interpersonal relationship" (p. 38). It is believed that social presence affects how likely an individual is of participating in a COP (especially in online environments). (Tu 2002) Management of a community of practice often faces many barriers that inhibit individuals from engaging in knowledge exchange. Some of the reasons for these barriers are egos and personal attacks, large overwhelming COP's, and time constraints (Wasko & Faraj 2000)

Motivation

Several motivations lead people to contribute to virtual communities. Various online media (i.e. Blogs, Chat rooms, Electronic mailing lists, Internet forums, Wikis), are becoming ever greater knowledge-sharing resources. Many of these communities are highly cooperative and establish their own unique culture. They also involve significant time from contributors with no monetary gain. Motivation to share knowledge is critical to success in communities of practice. Studies show that members are motivated to become active participants in a CoP when they view knowledge as meant for the public good, a moral obligation and/or as a community interest (Ardichvilli, Page & Wentling 2003). Members of a community of practice can also be motivated to participate by using methods such as tangible returns (promotion, raises or bonuses), intangible returns (reputation, self-esteem) and community interest (exchange of practice related knowledge, interaction).

Collaboration

Collaboration is essential to ensuring that communities of practice thrive. Research has found that certain factors can indicate a higher level of collaboration in knowledge exchange in a business network (Sveiby & Simon 2002). Sveiby and Simons found that more seasoned colleagues tend to foster a more collaborative culture. Additionally they noted that a higher educational level also predicts a tendency to favor collaboration.

Actions to cultivate a successful community of practice

What makes a community of practice succeed depends on the purpose and objective of the community as well as the interests and resources of the members of that community. Wenger identified seven actions that could be taken in order to cultivate communities of practice:

  1. Design the community to evolve naturally - Because the nature of a Community of Practice is dynamic, in that the interests, goals, and members are subject to change, CoP forums should be designed to support shifts in focus.
  2. Create opportunities for open dialog within and with outside perspectives - While the members and their knowledge are the CoP's most valuable resource, it is also beneficial to look outside of the CoP to understand the different possibilities for achieving their learning goals.
  3. Welcome and allow different levels of participation - Wenger identifies 3 main levels of participation. 1) The core group who participate intensely in the community through discussions and projects. This group typically takes on leadership roles in guiding the group 2) The active group who attend and participate regularly, but not to the level of the leaders. 3) The peripheral group who, while they are passive participants in the community, still learn from their level of involvement. Wenger notes the third group typically represents the majority of the community.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces - While CoP's typically operate in public spaces where all members share, discuss and explore ideas, they should also offer private exchanges. Different members of the CoP could coordinate relationships among members and resources in an individualized approach based on specific needs.
  5. Focus on the value of the community - CoP's should create opportunities for participants to explicitly discuss the value and productivity of their participation in the group.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement - CoP's should offer the expected learning opportunities as part of their structure, and opportunities for members to shape their learning experience together by brainstorming and examining the conventional and radical wisdom related to their topic.
  7. Find and nurture a regular rhythm for the community - CoP's should coordinate a thriving cycle of activities and events that allow for the members to regularly meet, reflect, and evolve. The rhythm, or pace, should maintain an anticipated level of engagement to sustain the vibrancy of the community, yet not be so fast-paced that it becomes unwieldy and overwhelming in its intensity. (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002)

Theories

Several researchers have investigated motivation in virtual communities. Studies show that over the long term users gain a greater insight into the material that is being discussed and a sense of connection to the world at large.

Peter Kollock researched motivations for contributing to online communities. Kollock (1999, p. 227) outlines three motivations that do not rely on altruistic behavior on the part of the contributor: anticipated reciprocity; increased recognition; and sense of efficacy.

There is another motivation, implicit in the above, which Marc Smith mentions in his 1992 thesis: Voices from the WELL: The Logic of the Virtual Commons: "Communion", as Smith terms it, or "sense of community" as it is referred to in social psychology.

Anticipated reciprocity

A person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return. Indeed, there is evidence that active participants in online communities get more responses faster to questions than unknown participants (Kollock 1999, p. 178).

Increased recognition

Recognition is important to online contributors such that, in general, individuals want recognition for their contributions. Some have called this Egoboo. Kollock outlines the importance of reputation online: “Rheingold (1993) in his discussion of the WELL (an early online community) lists the desire for prestige as one of the key motivations of individuals’ contributions to the group. To the extent this is the concern of an individual, contributions will likely be increased to the degree that the contribution is visible to the community as a whole and to the extent there is some recognition of the person’s contributions. … the powerful effects of seemingly trivial markers of recognition (e.g. being designated as an “official helper”) has been commented on in a number of online communities…”

One of the key ingredients of encouraging a reputation is to allow contributors to be known or not to be anonymous. The following example, from Meyers (1989) study of the computer underground illustrates the power of reputation. When involved in illegal activities, computer hackers must protect their personal identities with pseudonyms. If hackers use the same nicknames repeatedly, this can help the authorities to trace them. Nevertheless, hackers are reluctant to change their pseudonyms regularly because the status associated with a particular nickname would be lost.

On the importance of online identity: Profiles and reputation are clearly evident in online communities today. Amazon.com is a case in point, as all contributors are allowed to create profiles about themselves and as their contributions are measured by the community, their reputation increases. Myspace.com encourages elaborate profiles for members where they can share all kinds of information about themselves including what music they like, their heroes, etc. In addition to this, many communities give incentives for contributing. For example, many forums award Members points for posting. Members can spend these points in a virtual store. eBay is an example of an online community where reputation is very important because it is used to measure the trustworthiness of someone you potentially will do business with. With eBay, you have the opportunity to rate your experience with someone and they, likewise, can rate you. This has an effect on the reputation score. The participants may therefore be encouraged to manage their online identity in order to make a good impression on the other members of the community.

Sense of efficacy

Individuals may contribute valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, a sense that they have had some effect on this environment. There is well-developed research literature that has shown how important a sense of efficacy is (e.g. Bandura 1995), and making regular and high quality contributions to the group can help individuals believe that they have an impact on the group and support their own self-image as an efficacious person.

Wikipedia is a good example of an online community that gives contributors a sense of efficacy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which uses online software to enable anyone to create new articles and change any article in the encyclopedia. The changes you make are immediate, obvious, and available to the world.

Sense of community

People, in general, are fairly social beings and it is motivating to many people to receive direct responses to their contributions. Most online communities enable this by allowing people to reply back to contributions (i.e. many Blogs allow comments from readers, one can reply back to forum posts, etc.). Again, using Amazon.com as an example, other users can rate whether one's product review was helpful or not. Granted, there is some overlap between increasing reputation and gaining a sense of community. However, it seems safe to say that there are some overlapping areas between all four motivators.

In addition to participants that actively contribute to online discussions, many people join virtual community spaces and do not post, a concept referred to as lurking (Preece 2009). There are several reasons why people choose not to participate online, and chief among them are: getting what they needed without having to participate actively, thinking that they were being helpful by not posting, wanting to learn more about the community before diving in, not being able to use the software because of poor usability and not liking the dynamics that they observed within the group (Preece, Nonnecke & Andrews 2004) (Bishop 2007).

Online participation and psychology

Studies have also found that the nature and the level of participation in online social networking sites have been correlated with the personality of the participants. The Department of Psychology in the University of Windsor found some levels of correlation in the articles “Personality and motivations associated with Facebook use” and “The Influence of Shyness on the Use of Facebook in an Undergraduate Sample”. The articles state that people who have high levels of anxiety or stress or a shy personality are more likely to favor socializing through the Internet. The reason for this is because they are able to communicate with others without being face-to-face, and mediums such as chat rooms give a sense of anonymity, which makes them feel more comfortable in getting involved in discussions with their peers.

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