CoPs for multistakeholder problems?

Posted on Wednesday, 12 July, 2006 by


During the project in the CP2 course we focused on inter-organizational CoPs. After we discovered that an inter organizational CoP is not all that different from other CoPs, I felt unsatisfied as the questions I started out with, about forming and sustaining CoPs, had not been asnwered. I came to discover that it was more general, CoPs in difficult conditions, where no embrionic CoP existed, I was interested in. I had (wrongly) attributed the difficulties of these CoPs to the fact they were (to be) inter-organizational. A better question would have been: How to form and sustain CoPs in complex, challenging multistakeholder issues, where no communities existed before. We used again the metaphor of gardening: how to cultivate plants in a place that does not even have weeds, in barren soils?

Etienne Wenger responded:

There seems to be a number of situations that you could be referring to with your barren soil analogy, but all would have in common that you see the potential and need for a community, and prospective members do not. It is a problem.
They may have a common practice already but they do not see a need to connect. In this case, they need to experience how learning together can enhance their own practice. Being brought together for a task can do this without committing to the full community idea up front.
They may be involved in different practices and do not see each other as potential learning partners at all. In this case they need to experience a challenge that transcends their different perspectives and can only be addressed by connecting across boundaries.
They are in such competitive relationships that sharing is out of the question. In this case, they need to find some common ground that is at a level that does not involve direct competition or that involves competition with some other group.
These situations are always difficult for community building and the mortality rate is fairly high. But it is not impossible.

While another co-learner commented:

  • My sense is it starts with the burning, ‘need to know’ question – usually by one person – that is quickly found to be in common with others. 

  • there is a natural gestation or nurturing period where the idea of exploring knowledge together coincides with an evident and emerging leadership that is recognized for its legitimacy and is trusted. In our own case, the idea of municipal cultural planning had been around for some time, but the leadership wasn’t there.  The person who was most passionate about the topic couldn’t get it off the ground until our organization (CCI) saw the potential that this co-learning would provide its own members.  Once we stepped forward and provided administrative support and leadership, it enabled the person whose passion it was to study and share knowledge about cultural planning, to flourish. 

  • The other learning I gained from our project case study is that a CoP needs time to germinate.  So, framing your question in gardening or agricultural terms is really very appropriate:  How can we better cultivate a quest to learn among those who share a common interest in learning together?

  • Our comparative case study did point out come characteristics of CoPs that were not apparent to me earlier – that there are issues of rivalry that exist within organizations and between organizations that form barriers to co-learning. Therefore, one of our questions, has to be how do we overcome rivalry and demonstrate that there is shared benefit?

With their help, I am also discovering what CoPs are NOT. I am intrigued by those groups that do not share a practice, but do have reciprocal sharing of rights and responsibilities for the mutual benefit of the participants. Networks that give rise to collective action in complex issues. In short, development. I am not yet sure what CoP think can contribute.

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