“In terms of
revenue generation, if you want to understand the value of a
community, you have to follow the story of the knowledge that is
generated,” he says. “Through a mix of formal interviews and
testimonies, you have to engage the practitioners in telling you
the story of how the activities of the community have translated
into new and better performance. When you do that, most communities
come up with very good ROI.
“Communities of practice have both a short-term value and long-term value,” he continues. “In the short term, the people within the group help each other solve problems. They share and learn what can be reused across the membership of the community.
“There is also long-term value: Over time [communities of practice] increase their capacity. By solving problems together, they develop a repertoire of stories and issues they have solved. This becomes part of their capability.”
“But, how much effort do you want to put into measuring this?” he asks. “People often ask me, ‘Can you measure the value of the community?’ I say, ‘No problem.’ But measurement doesn’t come for free! Good measurement has to follow the course the story will take you. It takes time. To assemble the information that will allow you to see exactly how much this community has saved over a year is not impossible. But, you have to follow the stories.”
Wenger says that through this process of analyzing the stories – called “systematic anecdotal evidence” – organizations have their first real chance of seeing the value of communities of practice and of viewing knowledge in qualitative, not quantitative, terms. “There is a tradition in intellectual capital of attempting to quantify knowledge – for example, counting how many people have taken a course or how many knowledge documents have been assembled and so forth,” Wenger comments. “In fact, the value of knowledge is a flow from knowledge producing activity to performance and back.”
In this learning cycle, Wenger says, the practitioners are involved both in their work and in their communities of practice. This interchange promotes the forming of new ideas at work that individuals then bring to the communities to develop. They then go back to work and apply the refined ideas to performance, and the cycle continues, building upon itself with each iteration.
Wenger does not shy away from the impact this approach portends. Attuning organizations to authentic forms of learning, making them building grounds for human interaction and the generation of social practice has repercussions that extend far beyond the marketplace. As Cultivating Communities of Practice states: “Firms that understand how to translate the power of communities into successful knowledge organizations will be the architects of tomorrow – not only because they will be more successful in the marketplace, but also because they will serve as a learning laboratory for exploring how to design the world as a learning system.”
“When you start thinking about it, it is very transformative, changing the status
of the organization from source to convener,” Wenger says. “It shifts the power but in a way that is closer to the way things really work. In the world, professionals do not just buy what they are told at face value. They listen. Then they check it out with colleagues and against their own better judgment. They decide if and how they will apply what they are told. But many organizations do not operate this way. They operate as if they were the ultimate source of knowledge.
“What I am describing is a new way of doing business,” he concludes. “I am talking about changing the designs of our organizations so that they are more in line with our behavior. … This is where the value is created in organizations that successfully contribute to the marketplace and ultimately to our world.”
More information on Etienne Wenger can be found on the Internet at www.EWenger.com. Wenger is the founder of CPSquare, a community of practice that studies communities of practice. CPSquare is an open organization that includes people from both public and private sectors who are gathering, sharing, and learning together. It may be found at www.CPSquare.com
Seth Kahan, a speaker and executive consultant, also is a Center for Association Leadership Visionary. He may be reached through his Web site, www.SethKahan.com
Copyright 2004 Seth Kahan. Reprint with attribution allowed.
Commentary, by Jeff De Cagna
It is not merely the distributed nature of communities that makes them a challenge to “manage” in the conventional sense of the term. The real challenge – and opportunity – that communities create is the need for organizations to strengthen their capacity for understanding and embracing difference. As Etienne Wenger contends, “a person’s identity is [his or her] engagement in the world,” and that identity is far more unique and complex than what is suggested by the relatively onedimensional industry or professional affiliations we offer. To put it another way, not everyone who belongs to an organization is the same, even if they all have similar jobs or work in the same field.
Of course, this is not exactly a new thought, yet many associations seem comfortable operating on the curious assumption that their stakeholders’ inherent diversity of identity, and thus experience and perspective, is something to be managed away. How else might we explain the fixation that associations appear to have with building consensus when what frequently is required to advance is courageous, if sometimes unpopular, decision making? It appears that the fundamental premise of the association, as we have come to live it as an organizational form, is that the very act of “associating” must by definition be about what makes us the same without much room for what makes us different.
This rather limited view of associating may serve us well in creating “a sense of community” (i.e., a feeling of “belonging” or “shared interest” in the broader organization). But it will work less well in the endeavor to cultivate and sustain communities as a form of organization, because the latter are as complicated as the people who live within them. A genuine community, be it geographic, interest-based, or professional, is composed of different people with different hopes and different views, as well as things in common. Sometimes ideas and perspectives shared in communities are in tension with one another, and sometimes they are in direct conflict. And that is a good thing, because a robust yet flexible community architecture creates a rich context for exploring difference within a framework of shared purpose. Communities create meaning by liberating their members from the constraints of the centralized organization and by facilitating discourse that is real – and quite possibly transformative – for individual members, for the community, and for the organization as a whole.
Etienne Wenger and Seth Kahan ably challenge us to test our assumptions about what community means and how it forms. Smart associations already are acting to fully embrace community as an element of a strategy to leverage knowledge, organize for innovation, and support members in their quests to create value for themselves. Those organizations have learned (or are learning) a lesson of inestimable importance: That which makes us different is as much a source of extraordinary possibility as what brings us together. It is a basic premise of the American democratic tradition, of which associations are a part, and an important reminder for an association community in search of relevance in the 21st century.
Jeff De Cagna is chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC inArlington, Virginia and special advisor, content development for the Journal of Association Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Kahan consults and speaks on topics that include: communities of
practice, business performance, collective intelligence, tacit
knowledge, business collaboration, business learning, knowledge
management, business storytelling, organizational storytelling,
business community, business communities, organizational community,
knowledge and learning, knowledge and community, knowledge
community, knowledge communities, performance improvement,
visionary leadership, social potential, institutional community
building, and internal communications.