Build Information Sharing Communities in Your Company

By Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William M. Snyder
Wed, May 15, 2002

CIO — In Silicon Valley, a community of circuit designers meets for a lively debate about the merits of two different designs developed by one of the participants. Huddling together over the circuit diagrams, they analyze possible faults, discuss issues of efficiency, propose alternatives, tease out each other’s assumptions and make the case for their view. Their energy is palpable to both the regular participants and visitors. Although many factors, such as management support or an urgent problem, can inspire a community, nothing can substitute for this sense of aliveness.

How do you design for aliveness? It is different from most organizational design, which traditionally focuses on creating structures, systems and roles that achieve relatively fixed organizational goals and fit well with other structural elements of the organization. The

goal of designing for aliveness is to bring out the community’s own internal direction, character and energy.

What is the role of design for a "human institution" that is, by definition, natural, spontaneous and self-directed? How do you guide such an institution to realize itself, to become alive? From our experience we have derived seven principles.

1 Design for Evolution

Because communities of practice are organic, designing them is more a matter of shepherding their evolution than creating them from scratch. As the community grows, new members bring new interests and may pull the focus of the community in different directions. Changes in the organization influence the relative importance of the community and place new demands on it. For example, an IT community that was only marginally important to an organization suddenly became critical as the company discovered the potential of a few e-business pilots.

Community design often involves fewer elements at the beginning than does a traditional organization design. In one case, the coordinator and core members had many ideas of what the community could become. Rather than introduce those ideas to the community as a whole, they started with a very simple structure of regular weekly meetings. They did not capture meeting notes, put up a website or speculate with the group on "where this is going." Their first goal was to draw potential members to the community. Once people were engaged in the topic and had begun to build relationships, the core members began introducing other elements of community structure one at a time.

Physical structures?such as roads and parks?can precipitate the development of a town. Similarly, social and organizational structures, such as a community coordinator or problem-solving meetings, can precipitate the evolution of a community.

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