Should a Public Service 'Community of Practice' be open to everyone in government?
Ellen Godfrey is a Senior Consultant with Delta Partners whose recent work has brought her to engage in some serious review of the concept of “Communities of Practice”. For those unfamiliar with Communities of Practice (CoP), the basic premise is that a group of people with a common interest around any particular topic will coalesce to share knowledge and gain information on that topic. Much discussion has taken place recently regarding the use of on-line CoP’s as the Public Service struggles to find ways to maintain institutional memory in the face of a massive wave of Baby Boomer retirements.
As she followed this line of research, she has developed some ideas that the internal wiki used by the Public Servants in Canada, GCpedia, might not be an appropriate venue as it does not provide for private communications between sub-groups.
To delve deeper into this topic, Ellen emailed her friend, Dr. Richard Smith, Professor of Communications at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Smith strongly disagrees and an enlightening discussion follows. Both have agreed to allow the full text of their exchange to be published here on our blog.
Enjoy – and please share your thoughts on this most interesting topic in the comments!
Hope you are enjoying this beautiful summer weather and that all is well with you. We are just beginning our Knowledge Transfer Project with a federal government department here in BC. I need to get a better sense of whether or not GCpedia can be of use for a community of practice -- as one tool for knowledge transfer. I am doubting it, as I hear that it can’t be partitioned. That is, if the group we are working with wanted to create their own CoP, it would have to be open to the entire civil service.
Ellen, Wiki’s don't partition. The concept doesn't exist in a "normal" wiki, but has been important in some situations, I guess, from business culture.
Your client might ask themselves why they want to exclude people from their community of practice. The answer to that question might reveal much that is hindering their progress from becoming one.
Not sure what you mean here. If you want to create a ‘safe place’ for folks who work in one section of a huge federal civil service, so they can share ideas about their specific practice, what’s wrong with that?
I’ve just read Etienne Wenger’s book on Community of Practice, which if you can get beyond the theoretical abstractions, is very informative. He talks about the key elements of a community of practice. One is boundaries (pdf). Another is identities. These are old sociological concepts you will be very familiar with. To get a true community going, both of these elements naturally arise. Especially in a workplace where people’s natural inclination is to not participate. These folks need a safe place to open up and to feel they are sharing with their group. I don’t yet know how many of the people in the unit are aficionados of the openness that those who flock to social media enjoy. Many are older, and work in an environment where change can put at risk their ability to do their jobs.
Not saying it is wrong, but questioning the premise. How is it unsafe to allow other members of the public service to see/edit your wiki?
If you want to talk boundary, put a name on the wiki. That can be the boundary. Canada has a boundary but it isn't impermeable. I think many people would regard permeability of boundaries as one of the best aspects. Would France be interesting if you couldn't go there?
I don't doubt that they might think that it would be safer to lock others out of their digital world, but in reality their physical world has plenty of permeability.
And, it may be true that nothing will happen if the boundary isn't created. The community may never thrive. But it isn't necessary to start out with that assumption.
The reality, in wikis, is that no one is going to notice or care if you start a page or pages. It is more like a park, with lots of green space. If you and your family set out a picnic and play some volleyball, it is almost a surety that no one will bother you. It isn't necessary to draw a big line around your picnic site. And, if someone should drop by, or if you happen to see a friend you'd like to invite into the game, wouldn't it be nice to just have that happen.
Again, I am not saying you have to drop the boundary, only that it may be the case that you can start without a boundary. Or try, anyway.
Suggest to those who need a boundary that they just try without one for a few days/weeks. See if anything bad happens. It won't. If it does, they can always put up a boundary.
You make very good points and I’d like to reflect on them. As you know, one of the biggest challenges for online Communities of Practice is getting sustained participation of enough members of the community so that the online site functions in a way that is truly useful to members of the work groups meant to benefit from it. And so that they stay interested. In addition, since the CoP is meant to aid Knowledge Transfer, we will want to design it so that it incents very busy people (many of whom do not have the habit of sharing on line) to put useful info on the wiki.
Many of the Communities of Practice Wikis that I have seen, started by enthusiasts within a work group, never spread beyond the founding enthusiasts. My experience, the literature, and a scan of gov’t online wikis shows that more die out within 2 years, without ever gaining the support of any beyond the original 4 – 6 founders than survive to spread.
We are particularly keen to gain the adherence of the 40 – 60 year olds who are leaving the organization, and contain valuable institutional know-how. I have some ideas on how to do this and should know more once we begin the interviews and learn the viewpoints of the people there. During the interviews, we will find out if people will feel uncomfortable posting if they think the entire civil service can read their posts and make judgments about the excellence (or lack thereof) of their knowledge. If there is a culture of not sharing knowledge, it will be a harder sell if the wiki is open beyond the work groups involved in the project.
My experience suggests that telling people few will actually look at the wiki, won’t help.
A few hypotheses (testable)
If numbers matter, then having it open may mean more numbers.
If quality matters, knowing others will read it may mean better quality.
If getting senior members to participate matters, then something that allows them to share for posterity and not a small group will improve their participation.
Senior members of the public service have more friends and colleagues outside their division than inside. Think about it - as you rise up, there are fewer like you until you are alone in your group - but there are others at your level across the public service. And so you network with those folks.
The reality is, most of all, NO ONE will come and see these pages except the people who care about them.
Second, ANYONE who messes with them is tracked. This is not anonymous; you have to have an ID to get in.
I would hold off for at least a year or two any expectation of "community of practice" or some sort of revelations of "how things really work around here." Instead, try to get useful but mundane things up there. Phone books, meeting meetings, agendas. Work your way up to meaningful, and knowledge. Start by getting information.
In an email a few hours later Richard added
I am irrepressibly and unremittingly optimistic about the positive side of people. I think, unless AND until there is a proven downside you should assume the best. In this case you can't really have much of a downside, given that the whole site is already protected.
Ellen Godfrey holds an MA in Conflict Analysis and Management and is a senior consultant at Delta Partners. She is currently on the board of the Vancouver Island Health Authority where lean design initiatives are profoundly improving health outcomes. Ellen brings 30 years of experience in leadership in the public and private sectors – having won a Canada medal for innovation in working with a worldwide, Fortune 100 clientele – to her views of change management.
Richard Smith is a professor at Simon Fraser University, in the School of Communication, and is publisher of the Canadian Journal of Communication. He is one of Canada’s leading voices on the subject of technology and society. His thoughts are available through many channels, including his blog or follow @smith on twitter. Full contact and biographical information is available here.