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This (note below) from a colleague, Bill Snyder, who co-authored a recent
book on communities of practice. He's not a SOCNETer but was interested in
the recent thread on this--by Rogerio et al.--and wanted to be helpful.
He's really up on media applications and action environments, among other
subtopics.

Some may be review, but he's come at these issues as a consultant more than
an educator-researcher, and I think the contrast is useful ....

Best -- Xav

_________________________________

Rogerio,

Here are some thoughts and resources in response to your question regarding
learning aspects of social networks (and related point about computer
mediation).  Since the Lave & Wenger, 1991 work that you cite, much has
been written?and learned from experience?about community-based approaches
to learning.  Five points below offer definitions of several of the terms
in your question?then some implications and resources:

1.    Distinction of social network and community of practice: Communities
are always social networks, but many social networks would not qualify as
communities (where members feel a collective sense of belonging and
identity).  Communities of practice, by definition, consist of members
informally bound by their shared interest in learning about a common set of
problems and related skills/methods?e.g., Linux software-development
collaborators, a collegial group of school principals, or the local
neighborhood skateboarders.
2.    Communities of practice exist along a spectrum of coherence and
visibility.  They may be invisible and ad hoc, or operate as strategically
important stewards of knowledge in their domain (like many scientific
communities; SNA enthusiasts on this listserv operate somewhere along that
spectrum).  For example, a community of nationally renown heart surgeons
(called "The Travelers" because need to travel to convene) meets several
times a year for their own professional development.  Recently they invited
executives from medical suppliers, hospitals, and payers, as well as policy
makers to talk about emerging issues in the field such as reimbursement
rates, the diminished applicant pool, revolutionary stent technology, etc.
3.    Social networks may or may not focus on learning.  They may serve
mainly to get leads on jobs or help members garner social or political
influence?or find a spouse!  Communities of practice by definition?at
whatever stage of development?always focus on learning related to members'
practice.
4.    Hence, if a "learning community" is about enhancing members' practice
(not merely sharing opinions or ideas about a practice?film fans, for
example), then it qualifies as a community of practice.  If a social
network focuses on practitioner learning, it also qualifies as a
community?to the extent there is shared interest in common issues, peer
interactions, and a collective sense of belonging.
5.    Organizations include various structural forms?including business
units; operational and project teams; informal networks; ad hoc and
strategic communities, etc.  Consider the distinctive functions of networks
vis--vis communities:
a.    Social networks help bridge communities that are focusing on distinct
domains, and thus catalyze new ones.  For example, network brokers helped
catalyze the field (and relevant community) of psycho-neuro-immunologists.
b.    Social networks can help cultivate links across project teams for
ideas, methods, staffing or sponsorship.  Such links may or may not
catalyze a community.  At DaimlerChrysler, engineers on separate teams
found a growing number of problems/opportunities related to electronics in
rear-view mirrors.  After months of increasingly frequent informal phone
calls and ad hoc meetings, they declared themselves a "tech club."  (DCX
parlance for community.)

   Implications: If the special education professionals have issues they
   want to explore together?relevant to their practice?it makes sense to
   apply both community-of-practice and SNA methods to foster development.

   If they are distributed, it certainly makes sense to use
   computer-mediated methods.  Experience shows best approaches are
   multi-media ones.  Often best technology?and sufficient?is combination
   of a interactive teleconference calls and a moderated listerv (plus
   email/phone).  If group is going to deal with complicated, thorny
   issues?then need face-to-face to build trust--for at least a core group
   of members.  Websites, peer visits, collaborative space, etc. all help
   fill out the ecology.  Key success factor by far in mature communities
   (distributed or otherwise) is an effective "community coordinator"
   (/core group) with time to organize activities, moderate on-line spaces,
   connect members with mutual interests, etc.

Resources:

For excellent paper on SNA methods applied to knowledge sharing/application
context (including communities of practice), see: Cross, et al., 2002 in
Organizational Dynamics (I have pre-pub copy?don't have exact reference.)

For recent work on communities of practice and intentional development
methods, see Wenger, et al., "Cultivating Communities of Practice," 2002,
HBS Press.  Also, Wenger & Snyder, "Communities of practice: The
organizational frontier," 2000, HBR.

For arguments and methods related to multimedia approaches for virtual
learning among students and teachers, see work by Chris Dede at Harvard
School of Education:
http://hugse9.harvard.edu/gsedata/Resource_pkg.profile?vperson_id=311

See also Duncan Watts (2003), in "6 Degrees" where he poses challenge of
knowledge-sharing social networks: "Although we still don't fully
understand the problem, it appears that a good strategy for building
organizations that are capable of solving complex problems is to train
individuals to react to ambiguity by searching through their social
networks, rather than forcing them to build and contribute to centrally
designed problem-solving tools and databases" (p. 289).  While
community-of-practice practitioners do not claim to have solved the
problem, we think we've made some good progress in this area.

For introduction to a community of practice on community-of-practice
approaches, see: www.cpsquare.org


Bill Snyder
Social Capital Group

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