The death of nice communities of practice?

Greeks always argue about facts (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)
Argument, oiling in respect among friends… but beyond? (Credits: papazimouris / FlickR)

An interesting conversation is happening in KM4Dev – when is it not the case? – in relation with Dave Snowden‘s recent inputs to the conference on ‘Knowledge for Development (#DIEK4D see and his reflections on this post (full meeting wiki notes are available here).

Oh and close down those communities of practice which are now so hide bound as to be only of use to the avid naval-gazers.  We need more disagreement, more passion, more argument, more engagement which is not conditional on not upsetting people. (Dave Snowden, reflections on #DIEK4D, 9 July 2014)

Two interesting take-homes from this:

a) Let CoPs die!

b) Nice is the new poison

Interesting and provocative statements of course – just wanted to rebound on these, but I highly encourage you to see all strings from that conversation on the KM4Dev mailing list here (link possibly requiring log-in credentials).

Ad a) Let CoPs die!

Not getting Involved (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)
Communities of practice, between agreement, argument and indifference? (Credits: Tarik B / FlickR)

Communities of practice (CoPs) won’t die just now. Even though it seems many of them are not doing well.

The problem is rather the proliferation of these CoPs, and the fact that many of these CoPs might have been set up and labelled from the onset as ‘CoPs’ although they were just groups of invited people in a top-down manner. CoPs need their time to develop over time. The case of KM4Dev is testimony to that slow simmering process.

The proliferation of guidelines for how to set up and use CoPs (just see some of my personal bookmarks on CoPs) seems a fair indication that there is a lot of bad practice going on and that CoPs take time to grow to a mature level. So the problem is not so much with all those navel-gazing CoPs but rather all those that are steered by a navel-gazing base of narrow-minded people setting up the CoP without budging away from their original thinking, and probably inviting people that are too much alike.

The paradox is that even if it’s not forever and even if it’s not in a real community of practice, having a space for people to question their practice can be a really helpful thing – it just takes a lot of time to develop into a real community of practice that generates the critical mass required to make way for constructive disagreement… And it leads thus naturally to point b)

Ad b) Nice is the new poison

That argument really is an interesting one, as it seems to denote a trend that happens at some point to a lot of people studying (and ‘doing’) work on collaboration. The Wageningen UR teams who theorised multi-stakeholder processes have also progressively shifted their interest away from the positive aspects of cooperation to the conflicts and negotiation of these conflicts around setting a collective agenda.

I think the issue here is rather about the conditions of establishing a space for learning and decision-making. Learning is very much steered by the conjunction of ideas coming from people with very different walks of life. Allowing that diversity to flourish means that the people in that space need to be open to wildly different ideas, listen to all and make something of that. And the decision-making process in those spaces should cherish that diversity and not kill any deviation from an ‘orthodox practice’.

This can mean allowing disagreement to revisit the foundations of work as we know it. That is deeply disruptive. And itchy. Not pleasant to most people, and thus the reason why disagreement is somehow snuffed in the bud in some spaces. Now, while I see how sterile conversations can be if everyone agrees to everything, I’ve always been an advocate of the ‘Yes and‘ principle of improvisation theatre, which is not about disagreeing but building upon each other in a creative way.

Every conversation has its dynamics, they need not be all about agreeing, neither about disagreeing… It is all about the space that you entertain and the negotiated outcomes that a group seeks at a given time. And it’s all dynamic, so agreeing to keeping an eye on the diversity of views and possible disagreements is an essential part of the process. Some of the key questions are thus perhaps:

  • To what extent are you paying attention to diversity, curiosity over establishment and creative disruption in your collective learning space?
  • What tells you that a space has become stale? What are the early signs that something needs to be done or that space needs to disappear – or that it needs to go through a massive disruption process?
  • Who are you actually to say that this or that space is not helpful and should disappear, if it allows others to find their own space for personal development? What is your mandate and your stake in that decision?

    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)
    The Purpose of Argument (Credits: Imnotquitejack / FlickR)

Oh, an are you gonna say something about your silence these past few weeks? On another note, I’m coming to terms with some of the feedback – that I invited and – that I received a while back: This blog is indeed probably not the #1 most innovative of all blogs around. Yet it is my blog and that blog reflects who I am. I may not be Harold Jarche, but I think I do have some innovative ideas…Yet whether that’s true or not, I can’t really pretend to be someone else, so I reckon it will keep on reacting on the signals that I find interesting, because this is my mode of processing a lot of that information, and actually innovation happens at the edge, in transforming and combining bits of information such as these… that does not prevent me from taking into account a lot of the other comments I received. But I prefer to keep blogging with my limitations rather than be stopped by the blank page syndrome because I should be someone else…

Related blog posts:


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hi everyone, interesting posts here and very informative.The fact that am soon introducing CoPs in my organisation for agricultural scientists this discussion is insightful. Hope to keep in mind a few issues.

  2. Ian expresses many of my thoughts. But one keen thought is that you can brush anything with too broad a stroke (such as Dave’s comments about CoPs and World Cafe) and miss both the positives and negatives. So critical thinking is often subtle, eh?

  3. Ian, thank you very much for sharing your time and thoughts here, I really appreciate (and don’t despair that one day you’ll come on a visit to Ethiopia and we can hook up in person).

    I completely agree (so much for disagreement ha ha ha) with you on preparing the space to be safe enough for anyone to express their views. Taking the example of KM4Dev, we know from hear-say, back channels and all that important grapevine noise that quite a few (lot?) of the KM4Dev members do not feel like sharing anything or posting on the list because they either are impressed by some very vocal members or feel that the space is too ‘academic’, ‘Western-dominated’, ‘technical’ etc…

    It’s always gonna be a difficult balancing act in a wide CoP like KM4Dev where people do not know each other to really ‘trust’ each other… I guess there is an element of time here where waves of members come and grab the space and create a trustworthy environment for the while of a discussion to share their thoughts, and then they leave the space open for others to do the same…
    And you are also very right about the difficulty of creating space, even in a small team, among people from wildly different walks of life and backgrounds. That is one of the major lessons of multi-stakeholder processes: it takes time to create that space, and usually careful facilitation.

    This leaves us with a difficult mandate but an exciting challenge to be purposeful on bringing some people (who would otherwise shy away from the limelight) front and centre to ensure diversity and trust bring the best possible results. Facilitation definitely has a key role to play here. And that’s why the next issue of the KM4D Journal should be really interesting too:

    Thanks again!

  4. Ewen – nice post. I’ve been following this discussion on KM4Dev and I both like it and feel a little discomfited by it.

    One of the biggest challenges in knowledge sharing and collaboration in communities is of building trust. People need to feel comfortable enough that they are willing to share their experience and views and that it is a safe place for them to do so. This includes the safety to ask “dumb questions” and express different perspectives. In organizational contexts particularly hierarchy and status play a role suppressing honest sharing – and given that a community is a group of people with shared interests, desire to be part of the group also play a role in self-censorship. The flip side to this is that if I make a contribution to a community and then someone is highly critical of what I write, especially someone with authority, then it might just dissuade me from ever expressing my opinion again.

    A couple of thoughts here are that i) the more cognitively diverse a group is the more likely it will be to surface new knowledge – but it will also be harder work to get the group to trust sand to communicate and collaborate effectively – worth it – but much harder.

    The dynamics of conforming and dissent are quite complex – it’s not just about being able to disagree (which is necessary), but also making people feel that they are safe and respected despite the disagreement i.e. that they can work through it to a solution without damaging the relationship. This is a tricky balance – we might well do more to stimulate expressing of diverse viewpoints and useful debate – but we need to do it in a way that keeps the community healthy.

  5. Thank you Benoiit and Jaap!

    @Benoit: Absolutely, and this is a lifetime credo… however difficult it is (i’m undertaking daily after-action-reviews on my day since three months ago and it’s still hard to learn and focus on the things that really need to be corrected.

    @Jaap: Yes the powers are averse, though the interesting thing is that these times are marking the revenge of the (flash) mobs against the emperor. It’s actually no longer ‘the emperor in the new clothes’ but ‘the beggar in the emperor’s clothes’ (unfortunately often behaving like another emperor). This means that systems (despite the policies around them) are totally open to changes on the edge, and that’s a good think to disrupt and let needed change emerge (insh’Allah)…
    Oh and btw I haven’t *yet* gone on leave. This was a long blogging break for other reasons. But I think I found the motivation and inspiration again, which is what matters 🙂

  6. Hi Ewen, Welcome back. Fun post to start your after-summer. Actually I checked the date of your before last post … June 11 or so. In Dutch “Het leukste wat je kan worden is jezelf” (The nicest person you can become is yourself”. So, 1st, ‘let CoPs die’. Wel, the trick is often to make assumable a CoP lives let alone sustainable. The best strategy for KM is to ‘send people’. So chose CoPs wisely 🙂 On nice, I say its meant to be about politics / power. The powers to be are avers to stirring. Yep, we need more ‘just do it’ mixed with guerrilla KM. CHeers, Jaap

  7. Makes a lot of sense.
    [Always] question what you do, how you do it and why you do it. Not for the sake of questioning per se, but to ensure it is [still] the best way to do it, or more importantly, if it is [still] appropriate to do it.

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