Psst. I see knowledge communities. Pass it on

2003-11-18
Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

Life used to be so simple — get up, go to work, come home, and repeat. It was a time when our interactions were mainly limited by our face-to-face communications, letter writing abilities and phones. But we're not in Kansas any more. And the Internet has changed the way that we will communicate forever. Today, we can be in touch 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from anywhere in the world.which primes the pump for the knowledge community.

Before you cringe at the notion of another mandatory networking activity, let me explain the concept of knowledge community. Basically, in life, people tend to gravitate towards others who have complementary knowledge, and often these individuals will form a group because they share common work practices, interests, or aims. If their communications prove useful over time, they may formalize the arrangement, giving themselves a group name, and establishing a regular system of interchange. The purpose of this self-organized community is to create and communicate knowledge — much of it done virtually. So there you have it — a knowledge community, where membership is not mandatory but sought.

Unlike the socialist view of community in which the development of the individual is considered secondary to the common good, knowledge communities exist mainly for the benefit of each individual member. The processes involved in collaboration are designed to empower members of the community to enrich themselves and other members in a multiplicity of non-monetary ways (sometimes in addition to monetary rewards, sometimes not). Nobody in the knowledge community can be in possession of the truth. Knowledge communities are inquiring entities, always open to new intelligence about the world and able to think anew in order to adapt to increasing chaos.

As we've said, community implies a common interest — and it is the pursuit of this common interest that the knowledge-leveraging infrastructure must support. Whether the common interest is to deal with a situation, avoid something, maintain something, or accomplish something, the common interest serves as the basis for the purpose and vision of the community. In the knowledge community, every participant is able to interact and receive feedback from every other participant, making humility a prerequisite for participating. But the extent to which knowledge leveraging can occur within the community is dependent on the nature of the interactions. Certain principles are at the core of these interactions, they include:

  • Geographic Distribution: Community participants are most likely geographically distributed. The community must support multiple modes of interaction to accommodate the preferences and learning styles of the individual members.
  • Purpose, Mission, Vision, and Values: The community is not likely to begin with a clear and precise shared definition of its purpose, mission, vision, and values. The infrastructure must facilitate interactions between members of the community, external contributors, and facilitators to develop a clear and consistent understanding of the principles of the community.
  • Changing Participants: Community members, external contributors, and facilitators will change over time. The community must be structured to support this natural evolution.
  • Personal Development: In order to support the evolution of the body of knowledge, individual members of the community must personally develop.
  • Feedback: Community members must be able to provide feedback on both content and participants — and the feedback mechanism must be supported by the infrastructure.

And as communities develop, the following methods can be undertaken to ensure members flourish:

  • Take the pulse of the whole group at frequent intervals to create a feedback loop for improvement.
  • Create periodic opportunities for novices and newcomers to join conversations.
  • Summarize and tease out pending and intriguing questions in ongoing conversations.
  • For project communities, determine what the quiet members can contribute and connect them to tasks that need to be done.
  • Keep the importance of the community in the foreground.
  • Understand and apply the difference between manage and cultivate.
  • Let members know that different levels of participation are welcome and acceptable.

Sounds a bit overwhelming, huh? But amazingly, we have all been immersed in knowledge communities at one point or another — most of us as blissfully unaware of their existence as we are of the air that we breathe. In fact, several such communities have cropped up right in our backyard — including the Triangle InterNetworkers and webdesign-l. Approaching its five year anniversary, the InterNetworkers (www.ibiblio.org/internetworkers) is a knowledge community comprised of a loosely knit group of technology workers in the Triangle who share everything from technical expertise to restaurant critiques. Created in 1997 by hesketh.com's CTO, Steven Champeon, WebDesign-L (www.webdesign-l.com) is a community of web designers and developers who share knowledge on most any topic related to the Web as a profession or as a labor of love and boasts a membership of over 2,000 participants. Even though these communities vary in focus — with one being more social and the other more professional — both are great examples of the organic growth of the virtual knowledge community through interactions of knowledge sharing with participants who understand and support each other.

In the new self-conscious knowledge communities, purposes can arise from virtually any common interest. Unlike traditional organizations, knowledge communities do not have single purposes, such as making a profit or playing a game. They have multiple purposes around a common interest. Often, the boundaries between commerce and volunteerism, work and play, or managers and workers are blurred.

So what's the value of the knowledge community? The bottom line is that the quality of knowledge communities and the high performance teams, which should flourish within them, are increasingly seen as crucial to both successful collaboration and successful competition. At the same time, in the burgeoning world of electronic commerce, knowledge communities are becoming a major factor in future business growth in a wide variety of industries.

The rise in awareness of the significance of knowledge communities comes at a time when all organizations in business, government and the voluntary sector are facing unprecedented economic uncertainty and accelerating technological change. Electronic commerce is growing much faster than was expected, while global economic conditions are throwing up challenges, such as price deflation, which the current generation of business and government policymakers have never had to face before.

It is when things do not go as expected that the old routines become risky and dangerous, rather than the safest and least risky option. An effectively functioning knowledge-based community embarking on the unknown future in the spirit of inquiry is more likely to adapt to changing conditions, than carrying on process driven operations as long as possible.

The real boost, though, will come when knowledge communities begin to benefit from shared information management and interpretive intelligence practiced according to professional standards. If the optimum benefits of knowledge communities are to be achieved, then the teaching and supply of these kinds of skills will be in very high demand, as will the types of knowledge management tools, which assist in this kind development.