Wednesday 21 July 2010

How communities transcend the social

Once upon a time, we all relied on what we as individuals knew.

Certainly this was true at school - we relied on what we held in our own heads to be able to write our term papers or pass our exams.

When we got to work, we found that this was not enough, and we started to build personal and social networks of people we had met, people we knew and people we trusted. We found that they would share their knowledge with us, and that gave us access to much more knowledge - maybe the knowledge of dozens of people.

Now there are Communities of Practice in many or most organisations. The great thing about these communities, is that they can give us access to knowledge beyond our personal networks,. They can give us access to knowledge from people we have no social tie to. People we have never met, never seen, and probably never will. Access to knowledge from hundreds of people - into the thousands sometimes.

The issue of trust in these communities is an interesting one. There is no way we can know these people - the limit seems to be about 150 people in a social group, so the community expands way beyond this. We can't know them, so can we trust them? And if we can't trust them, then will we use their knowledge?

The way communities seem to work, is that people trust the process and trust the system. They trust "the community" rather than the individuals. If the community coordinator makes sure that the community is a safe place to be, and that questions and pleas for help are answered promptly and not laughed at or ignored, then people will trust the community itself, even if they only know a fraction of the people.

  • When I access my own knowledge, I access the knowledge of 1
  • When I access the knowledge of my personal network, I access the knowledge of dozens
  • When I access the knowledge of the community, I access the knowledge of hundreds.

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