What we are learning about CoPs and desired degree of organization and design

Posted on Wednesday, 9 April, 2008 by


In preparation of a conference contribution, I am talking to Marc Coenders about our personal work with communities of practice and what we are learning about them. Some nuggets that stayed with me:

  • Marc learned how to integrate the organizational structure of the cop within the learning design, and how to integrate the learning design into the tight project organizations involved. Thinking and deciding about structure, budget, responsibilities, helpes to set things straight. This rather prescriptive “pre-design” is somewhat in contradiction to what some deep cop people might say about voluntary participation, self-organizing character, ebbs and flows. However, it provides a way to include cop elements in tight run project organizations, it harbours many of the important characteristics of cop think, and “cop” is still the best name and useful way for us to think about it.
  • The learning gets a whole different dynamic the moment it is “for real”. (for real meaning really relevant to the persons practice) General learning, no matter how interesting, will not bring people back.
  • The risk of being just another “chat group” is real. Some critique to some cops is justified.
  • The Netherlands culture is good at bringing together different disciplines. Another strength is the institutional landscape, with the presence of over-arching organizational umbrellas.
  • the roles of the convenor and the facilitator are different, it works well to have them separated. The convener is part of the community and his task is to get them together. The facilitator is looking at the process. They collaborate in the design.

My experience is in a very different setting. No tight run projects, no institutions, but entrepreneurs with their businesses.

  • I learned how hard it is to organise from scratch, without any over-arching entity, no budget and no mandate.
  • Emergence can work, but doesn’t always. People like structure, like knowing what to expect, like even, to be passive learners at first.
  • In SME groups settings, it is hard to find funding for the convener and facilitator role.

I am reading “here comes everybody” by Clay Shirky and i get some clues. My cops might be the one under the “Coasean floor”, the ones that were too costly to organize before, but since the collapse of <the transaction cost involved in bringing people together> might be viable. Shirky argues that this type of “group” can only exist because the cost are low: as soon as the cost (ie facilitation) goes up, it dissolves again.

Two questions:
1. aren’t we collectively underestimating the <the transaction cost involved in (really) bringing people together>? Sure, it has come down, but there is also the issue of externalities: costs not borne where they belong, in this case the energy of many altruistic conveners and facilitators.
Whether low or high, the transaction cost has come down. To optimize learning, I would like to bring them up again. To sustain the “non-organization” you would want to keep them minimal. Have these groups really climbed up to the “Coasean floor” or are we fooled by cheap tools?

Posted in: learning log