Friday 20 July 2012

Can communities of practice become too big?

A Matched Set This was a question I was asked recently - whether there is an upper size limit for Communities of Practice. This person wanted to set up an internal Community of Practice within a very large organisation, with potential membership of 40,000 people (it is a VERY large organisation), and they wanted to know whether such large online communities of practice were feasible, or were too big.

I had to think for a long time about this.

Then I remembered the community of School Leaders in the UK, and the excellent publication from the National College for School Leadership "100,000 heads are better than one (lessons from the worlds largest online learning community)".

Now I don't know if this really is the world's largest, but I can't think of a bigger example. The National College are responsible for developing capacity, capability and knowledge in the School Leaders of the UK, and they do an excellent job. They provide education, accreditation, guidance, conferences, a network of mentors and coaches, and a superbly developed online facility, with Q&A forums, personal pages, reference libraries, e-learning material, featured individuals, and a back-office of facilitators and supporting staff. They have over 100,000 people registered with them, each of them working in a leadership capacity within the schools and childrens' services of the UK.

When you look in detail at their online site, however, the picture gets a little more complex. Rather than a single community, there seems to be several sub communities. There is a community for new head teachers, helping them to learn rapidly, there is a very active community of School Business managers, there is a sub-group for Transition Stage leaders (leaders of Nursery schools), and so on. Within these online communities, not every member is active every month. The College recognises a group as "Buzzing" when 10% of the members visit in a month (more on this next week) - so even for a really active subgroup of 10,000, there might only be 1000 people visit in a month. So any one member may only visit on average just over once a year, but there are enough members to create a really active community, and to form a very valuable resource for the members when they DO visit.

So super-large online communities of practice are possible and a CoP of 40,000 looks entirely feasible. However

  • it will need a lot of facilitation and back-office support
  • it will need an excellent online site
  • it will almost certainly split into sub-communities
  • participation rates per member may be low, but
  • this may not matter too much.

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