Friday, 28 July 2017

When learners become teachers - how community roles shift over time

Community of practice members may start by being learners and end up being teachers who still learn.

Let's look at patterns of behaviour in a Community of Practice forum, or discussion area.

  • When a novice employee is very new to an organisation or to a topic, they are usually very quiet in a community forum. They are still learning the basics, which they get from training and from the community knowledge base, and they spend 100% of their community time watching and reading community discussion. They don't tend to ask questions on the forum - their questions are still fairly basic, and if they do ask, the answer is usually a version of "read the flipping manual".
  • After a while, and maybe quite quickly in some cases, the employee starts to face problems and issues that are not in the manual. That's when they start to ask questions of the Community, and begin to use the Community members themselves as a resource. They move from 100% lurking and reading, to (over time) mostly asking.
  • After a bit more time, the employees begin to find that they themselves can answer the questions of others. They have become practitioners, they understand the practice, and can share the lessons they have learned. This can happen relatively quickly as well - I remember interviewing one guy who was less than 2 years into the company, and a question came up on the community forum which was related to a special study he had just completed.  He answered this successfully, and reported how pleased he was to be able to "feed something back" to the CoP.
  • The more experienced members- now experts in their topic -  may take on a leadership role in the CoP, as core team members, or as subject matter experts, with accountability for teaching and for owning some of the Knowledge Assets of the Community.  However a good expert never stops learning. Only last week I saw, in a busy community forum, an expert asking for feedback, comments and advice on a document she had produced. Even the most advanced expert should spend some time asking, some time answering, and some time teaching.

Now lets map some demographics onto the diagram above. 

Imagine a far-eastern company, with many many young staff, and few experts. Here the bulk of the staff will be in the Red area in the diagram, with a few in the other segments. This CoP will act more like a Teaching CoP, with relatively little discussion and quite a lot of publishing.

Imagine a western engineering company, loaded with baby-boomers. Here a large proportion of the staff are in the blue, yellow and green segments. The bulk of community activity will be about discussion and dialogue, rather than about publishing and reading. 

As always, it's more complicated than any simple model will allow, and there is no "one size fits all" approach, but different communities of practice may operate in different ways in different settings, largely driven by the experience profile of the community members. 


Peter Staal said...

Dear Nick, is this always the case? I recently had a discussion about this with Stan Garfield. He claims that in any type of community you always have the 1-9-90 rule. This implies that it is useless to try and convert a lurker to a participator. I tend to agree with his arguments. So in other words the community roles are more or less fixed and even when experience grows a lurker will most likely remain a lurker. What are your ideas on this? See this blog by Stan as a reference:

Nick Milton said...

Hi Peter

It often depends on the degree of activity of the community moderator or facilitator. Most of the examples Stan refers to are online social media groups, linkedin groups etc, most or all of which are unmoderated, and which cover multiple organisations. These are different to the internal facilitated communities, which can obey different rules, and where the pressures (peer pressure as well as management pressure) are different to the internal pressures of the voluntary lone member.

Also what I am talking about here is development over a number of years, when the lurker/learners develop expertise of their own which they can share with others, rather than a short-term campaign to enrol the lurkers.

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