Tag Archives: communication

A Community of Practice Is More Than a Website

November 1, 2011

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A community of practice (CoP) is, according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession.

Over the last year or so, the term communities of practice has entered the social media buzzword lexicon along with virtual collaboration, engagement, platforms, and Enterprise 2.0. Senior leaders want to establish them, new employees are being told to join them, and middle managers are being told to support them, but what, exactly are they?

Nowhere in the definition above does it mention the words website, wiki, blog, or social network. Nowhere does it say that it has to be virtual or physical or even either/or. There is no reference to the tools that are used to facilitate the communication and collaboration, nor is there a defined set of characteristics that define how a community of practice works or what topics they discuss.

A group of people who share an interest, a craft and/or a profession. Sounds pretty simple, right? Sounds like we might already be members of dozens of communities of practice – at work, at church, at school, etc. It’s just a group of people communicating and collaborating openly around a topic that they all care about. CoPs have existed for as long as people have had a desire to learn from each other.

Whether your organization knows it or not, your company/government agency is already filled with CoPs. Just because all of their communication and collaboration doesn’t happen to occur on your designated SharePoint site doesn’t mean that people aren’t already communicating and collaborating around a shared topic of interest. Whether it’s the group of new hires who coordinate the monthly happy hours or the new parents who get together over lunch to discuss work/life balance, communities of practice are alive and well within most organizations. They just might not be the ones with a unique URL on the Intranet.

Are you creating a community of practice or are you just creating another website? How does your CoP stack up to some of these statements?

  • People voluntarily spend time helping others in a community of practice. People visit a website to download what they need.
  • CoPs focus on adding value to their members. Websites focus on getting new users.
  • The success of a CoP is measured in anecdotes, efficiencies, and employee satisfaction. The success of a website is measured by hits, visits, and referrals.
  • The members of a CoP volunteer their expertise to create new tech features. A website has paid developers who add new features.
  • A CoP is built around conversation. A website is built around content.

Communities of practice have been around for decades, and for decades, they’ve helped countless organizations navigate major changes, increase productivity, cut duplication, and make work more enjoyable. In many cases, the use of social media has enhanced these CoPs by providing more tools and opportunities for people to connect with other people. Unfortunately, social media has also given rise to zombie communities filled with content on blogs, forums, and wikis, but which lack any actual human interaction. What are you building?

For more about Communities of Practice, check out Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, 2002 by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder.

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Seven Things About Social Media That You’re Not Going to Learn in College

April 5, 2011

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I talk a lot about the need to do a better job of integrating social media into the world of higher education. That’s why when my my alma mater asked me to speak at their annual Communication Week this year, I jumped at the opportunity (well, that and I was able to take my daughter to see her grandparents for the weekend). Because these students are already learning the basics of social media in their core communication classes, I didn’t want to do yet another Social Media 101 type presentation. Instead, I wanted to help them understand that even though they may learn what Twitter is, how to use it, and some case studies, there’s nothing like doing it in the real world. That’s why I gave a presentation last Friday titled “The 7 Things About Social Media That You’re Not Going to Learn in College.”

Here’s the presentation I gave, with the key takeaways below:

1. I am not an audience, a public, a viewer, a demographic or a user – I am an actual PERSON with a VOICE
Throw out what you learned in Mass Communications 101 and instead focus on what you learned in Human Communications or Interpersonal Communications. You’re better off knowing and understanding the fundamental principles behind communicating with someone face-to-face than trying to replicate the influence that the War of the Worlds broadcast had on the American public. The megaphone approach doesn’t work when everyone has a megaphone. Learn to interact with actual human beings instead of nameless audiences and users.

2. I don’t care how many friends, followers, likes, or blog comments you have
I really don’t, not when anyone can go and game the system by buying thousands of Twitter followers or Facebook fans. Whether you have 100 or 10,000 followers is irrelevant to me. I want to know that you’ve at least tried to use Twitter/Facebook/blogs/Foursquare for a purpose other than getting more people at your Edward Forty-hands parties. Having demonstrated social media experience on your resume is great, but not because I care about the numbers, but because it shows me that you’re willing and able to try something new. It shows me you’re willing to take a risk and follow through. So don’t tell me that you have 10,000 Facebook likes, tell me how you used Facebook to increase the donations to a local animal shelter. Using social media in a professional context is hard, especially if you’re not learning it in class. I understand that – that’s why I care more about the effort than the numbers.

3. “Social Media” is not a career option
The New Media Director is just a means to an end.  Sure, there’s lots of demand now, but what happens when social media is no longer the new hot thing? You can’t JUST be a social media specialist. That’s a short-term role, much like the “email consultants” that sprouted up 15 years ago. I always tell people that I’m not a social media consultant – I’m a communications consultant who knows how to use social media.

4. Some people just aren’t cut out for the job
Not everyone has the personality or interpersonal communications skills to take full advantage of the full potential of social media. Are you comfortable introducing yourself to new people? Telling someone you really liked their work? Building a relationship with someone without having an ulterior motive? Disagreeing with someone in a very public way without offending them? Knowing how to apologize? Comfortable with having every aspect of your professional life available for public criticism?  It takes a special kind of self-confidence and self-awareness to be really good at using social media to effect some sort of impact. I can teach someone how to tweet, but it’s much more difficult to teach someone how to really enjoy getting to know other people.

5. Your innovative, awesome, ground-breaking, and cutting edge ideas aren’t as innovative, awesome, ground-breaking, and cutting edge  as you think
Most of corporate America has VERY little knowledge of social media for business purposes, so by simply proposing that you use Twitter as part of your marketing plan during your internship, you may end up becoming THE social media subject matter expert. Here’s a news flash – you’re not.  Senior leadership, your boss, your peers – they may very well start referring to you as a guru, ninja, SME, etc. but just because you know the basics doesn’t mean you’re an expert. In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell defines an “Expert” as someone with ten years or 10,000 hours of experience. Twitter just turned five years old. You do the math. You MUST continue to learn, to network, to read, to listen because that’s the only way you’re going to keep up.

6. You’re always on and everything is public
Your day will not end just because it’s 5:00 PM. That picture of you doing bodyshots off that waitress? Your boss, your clients, your peers – assume they’ll all see it. It doesn’t matter that it’s up there on your “personal” account or because it happened while you were on vacation. Your online life is your online life, both professional and personal. Your name and face will be freely available to everyone online – are you comfortable with a client recognizing you at the bar on Saturday night?

7. You’re going to come across a lot of jerks – don’t be one of them
Ever meet someone and the first thing they do is tell you all about how they graduated magna cum laude from Harvard or Yale? Or, they throw around their job title? Or, how much money they have? Or how they’ve got this great idea you have to invest in? Maybe you have a friend who never has money and needs you to spot him when you guys go out?  How about that guy who always seems to have an ulterior motive – he always needs a favor, some money, a ride, a recommendation? Do you LIKE being around them? Do you WANT to do them any favors? You can’t hide anymore – you can’t lie, you can’t be a jerk. People talk….about you, about your work, about how you talk about them.  Everyone is connected – that guy whose blog post you stole last week?  He’s probably in a Facebook group with your client, and guess who’s going to see him complaining about you?

Ultimately though, none of this matters because you’re not going to have a choice. While the tools that we talk about will change over time, the kinds of communication that social media enables isn’t going away. As communications students, you can either start learning about social media now and be a forward-thinker or be forced to learn it later on the job where you’re expected to know it already.

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