Organising your community of practice for action

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 30, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

There often comes a point in the life of a community of practice when the group really benefits from creating tangible things designed to improve the members’ practice. This point occurs sometime after the early days of formation after the members have worked out their domain, and they know who’s participating, how people get on with one another, and how members communicate.

Following is a simple approach designed to coordinate action within a CoP. I first spoke about this approach in relation to setting up a Quickplace environment, which in retrospect might have been a mistake because many people couldn’t see how the ideas where relevant if they weren’t using Quickplace or when technology isn’t in the community’s sights.

There are three parts to this approach:

  • discussion tables
  • a list of possible projects
  • small groups (ideally 3 people) working on things together

discussion table is when community members come together to discuss a topic related to the community’s domain. The community coordinator might organise discussion tables on a regular basis. They can be done face to face or be a facilitated online discussion. I think there should be no more than about 12 people in the conversation to ensure everyone is present and active. If there are more than 12 people interested in the discussion table topic then run multiple discussion tables. During the conversation one of the participants keeps a note of ideas involving members taking action to improve the member practice. For example, if you were part of a business narrative community and the topic was ‘running effective anecdote circles’ someone might suggest, “we should develop a anecdote circle facilitator’s kit” or “we should develop a members training program”. These ideas would be noted and added to the list of possible projects. A summary of the discussion table conservation is also distributed to the entire community.

The list of possible projects is a simple list of all the suggested projects and activities arising in the discussion tables and other forums. You might put the list online and allow members to vote on each suggested project. Members are encouraged to take on a project from this list in groups of 3 and ideally with people you haven’t work with before. This simple rule helps the community create new social networks. These small project teams might use an online collaboration space. Once they’ve completed their project they communicate the results to the entire community and store the outputs where members can access them.

The community therefore makes progress by hosting discussion tables and encouraging active and robust conversation that leads people to suggesting things that would be good to do as a community. The list of projects grows and some are tackled based on the energy and enthusiasm of members. The process of undertaking these projects in small groups creates new relationships which in turn creates new conversations and new ideas for future discussion tables.

Related posts:

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Cognitive Edge training with Dave Snowden

Posted by Andrew Rixon - June 29, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

Mark and I just returned from spending the last two days at the Cognitive Edge accreditation program run by Dave Snowden. Dave was in great form, and all fluffy bunny jokes aside, I found that Dave helped to bring theoretical focus and insight back into our ways of practice. One strong point I felt coming through was the appreciation of wicked problems (intractable problems).

A great quote I’ve come across on wicked problems is:

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

When it comes to considering problems around aspects like culture & culture change, organisational change, learning it is a common trap for people to think that getting more and more data, more and more analysis, will help to ‘solve’ the problem. Appreciating that such problems might in fact be wicked or intractable problems is the first step towards developing a whole new mindset for working towards what to do. The next step, in our opinion, and Dave’s is to then find ways to explore patterns and meaning. And there is no better way to get access to patterns and meaning then through story and narrative approaches. One great way which we have found helpful for organisations is to get started with Anecdote Circles.

A paradox which emerged for me earlier this year has been “Being happy with not knowing yet having the desire to know”. This paradox was reconfirmed for me over the last two days with Dave. It’s interesting that these approaches to ‘problems’ seem focussed on drawing out the time taken to action. Drawing out the time taken to decision making. Drawing out the time taken to gather stories of what’s going on. Drawing out the time taken for everyone to gain more perspectives on what’s going on.

How often do you find yourself rushing in to solve a problem? Maybe it’s time to take some time…Can you “be happy with not knowing yet maintain a desire to know” ?

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A new book on conversation gets a tougue lashing from Steve Denning

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 28, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

Last week I ordered Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller from Amazon. I’d heard the author interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live and it sounded interesting. Today I read Steve Denning’s stinging review which I thoroughly enjoyed. Denning didn’t like Miller’s inability to clearly make the case for declining conversations; his arguments lacked evidence according to Denning.

Denning, presumably based on Miller’s book, makes a number of useful observations about good conversation which are worth remembering when we sit down next to our next friendly chat.

  • an open-minded exploration of multiple viewpoints makes for a good conversation
  • a single-minded attempt to destroy others’ ideas kills conversations
  • good conversations include amusing banter
  • conversation works best among equals
  • conversations have been a rare phenomenon

This is a timely topic for me because in one hour I will be recording a podcast with Patrick Lambe, Nancy White, Matthew Moore and Kaye Vivian where we plan to have a series of informal conversations on knowledge management related topics. I’ll let you know how we go.

I would also say that I have noticed that people in organisation rarely seem to have (or make) the time for conversation. Most talking is done to achieve a task which must reduce the ability for people to explore new ideas, innovate and revitalise their thinking.


Getting started with Anecdote Circles

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 28, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling

We’ve spoken about anecdote circles a bit on this blog (here, here and here) and people have asked us how they can get started with using the technique. So, to help you start collecting your company stories we’ve created the following service:

Let me know what you think.

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How to search every library catalogue in Australia

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 26, 2006
Filed in Communication

Just found a excellent online service provided by the National Library of Australia which allows you to search all Australian library catalogues. It’s called Libraries Australia.


Expertise location without technology

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 26, 2006
Filed in Insight

Some of my favourite bloggers are talking about expertise location recently. Jack Vinson provides a good summary. Luis Suarez riffs off Dennis McDonald, who has a couple of posts on the topic (here and here). All these posts make good points about expertise location and each is written from the perspective that an organisation can enhance its expertise locating capabilities with the use of technology. I agree with their ideas but just for a moment I would like to explore an alternative perspective: what if we put effort in helping individuals find relevant expertise when they need it and without the use of technology? What would people need to learn? Imagine the increased effectiveness of an organisation if the individuals could do this well.

My first suggestion to an expertise hunter is let the expertise find you. It’s easy. Just talk about your need. Have you ever needed to find a new dentist? Did you go silently looking through the yellow pages and were confronted with hundreds of names and had no idea which one to choose? Or did you mention your need in passing at every opportunity; “actually I’m looking for a new dentist at the moment. It’s a killer to find a good one.” I’ll bet the latter strategy resulted in more useful recommendations—of course this technique assumes you are talking to people.

The next expertise locating skill I’d help people develop is what I call pre-emptive expertise location. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Yesterday the family and I took a ride into the countryside and visited Dromkeen, a children’s literature museum. It was illustrator day and Katie Byrne was talking to the kids about the illustrations she has done for a new set of books. I thought, “Wow, what a talent!” and asked for her contact details. I didn’t exactly know how I might need this talent in the future but knew it might be hard to find her again when I did. Gathering potential expertise around you is an effective technique.

We all know that social networks are important for locating expertise. The sense I get, however, from people writing on this topic is that effort in building the connection is only needed at the time when the expertise is sought. This couldn’t be further than the truth. To be good at finding expertise you need to be connected before you need the expertise. If you are not the social butterfly you need to get out your butterfly net and find yourself one (or a whole collection). Join communities, know the connectors (here are some ways to finding connectors) and get good at noticing expertise.

Hmmm, how do you notice expertise? Firstly we need an idea of what we think expertise is. Gary Klein says this of experts:

“Experts see the world differently. They see things the rest of us cannot. Often experts do not realise that the rest of us are unable to detect what seems obvious to them.”

This is one of the reasons why finding expertise can be tough and perhaps explains why the expertise location software industry has been less than stellar. That is, expertise is more than simply possessing a skill. Klein describes eight aspects of expertise which I’ve summarised but would recommend you read Klein.

  1. Patterns: with experience experts can discern patterns that are invisible to novices. They have a good sense of what’s typical and can therefore detect the extraordinary.
  2. Anomalies: experts are surprised when a key event is absent while novices don’t know what is supposed to happen and therefore don’t pick up on the anomaly.
  3. The way things work: experts have mental models of how things work—how teams are supposed to work, equipment is supposed to function, power and politics is normally wielded.
  4. Opportunities and improvisations: Experts can imagine possibilities that contradict the prevailing viewpoint and data. They can also apply patterns from one context to a new situation creating new approaches and techniques.
  5. Past and future: experts can predict what might happen in the future. Just ask a grade 5 teacher about what the kids will be like at the beginning and the end of the year.
  6. Fine discriminations: experts can see differences which remain invisible to novices. Just think of expert wine tasters.
  7. Self aware: experts are aware of their own thought processes.
  8. Decision makers: experts can make decisions under time pressure.

OK, so how do we notice all these characteristics? Gossip. Yes, gossip. Now it’s important to remember that gossip is simply when we talk about someone when they are not present at the conversation—that is, gossip is not always negative. So gossip is when people tell stories about others that retell what happened. Hearing stories about the performance of others is the second best way to notice expertise. The best way is to work with them. Consequently to become an expert in locating expertise you need a variety of experiences with a range of people. With an amount of self reflection and a preponderance for asking questions you can develop your expertise-locating capability.

OK, you probably can tell that these are very preliminary thoughts. I wonder what else you might do to help people develop their individual capability to find expertise.

Some related posts:

Klein, G. 1998. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.


Getting Management Buy-in For KM

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 23, 2006
Filed in News

Patrick Lambe and the folks at Straits Knowledge have setup a small narrative project to capture stories about the times when management buy-in for KM was obtained or denied. Please add your stories here.


A lens into Social Networks Analysis and Sensemaking

Posted by Andrew Rixon - June 22, 2006
Filed in News

InnovationI’ve recently created a squidoo lens around the popular topic of Social Network Analysis and Sensemaking.

You can find my lens here: Social Network Analysis and Sensemaking.

I hope you find it useful. I’d love to hear any feedback or thoughts you have.

Maybe you might be interested in coming along to our free seminars exploring this topic.

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Perspectives on problem solving

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 22, 2006
Filed in Communication

Magnifying glassIndividuals and organisations have many ways of tackling problems. A paper ‘Describing 16 Habits of Mind’ describes the following perceptual orientations that one can take when engaged in problem-solving:

  • Ego-centric: perceiving the problem from our personal point of view.
  • Allo-centric: perceiving the problem through another persons’ perspective through empathy, predicting how others are feeling and anticipating potential misunderstandings.
  • Macro-centric: taking a ‘big-picture’ or birds-eye view of the problem, applying our intuitive, holistic and conceptual abilities. This approach helps tackle problems despite incomplete information and engages our abilities to perceive patterns, to jump across gaps in our knowledge and to act even when some of the pieces are missing.
  • Micro-centric: a ‘worms-eye’ view of the problem that examines the individual pieces that make up the whole, and upon which much of our science, technology and enterprises rely. This approach involves logical analytical computation, a search for causality and ‘correct answers’ and it requires attention to detail, precision and orderly progressions.

Effectiveness comes when these various orientations are applied as appropriate for each situation.  Relating this to previous posts, I think the first and last bullet points describe ‘left brain’ problem solving and the second and third points reflect ‘sensemaking’ or ‘right brain’ approaches. Our work at Anecdote focusses on helping organisations with their sensemaking capabilities, building confidence in their intuition and helping them to be comfortable with not-knowing.


Why positive stories are important – The City of Port Phillip’s Non Crime Line

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 21, 2006
Filed in Communication

NonCrimeLineAre you more likely to be punished for taking risks at work or will you receive accolades? According to the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, your prediction depends on what you remember happening to others, regardless of what really happens in your organisation. If you remember lots of stories of people being punished for risk-taking, and you are unable to recall accolades, you will expect punishment. It’s why people buy lotto tickets because only the winners are reported, and for every winner there are thousands and sometimes millions of unreported losers. Here is an engaging talk Daniel gave recently on this topic: “How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times.” 23MB MP3 Link (Thanks Boing Boing)

The City of Port Phillip is tackling a similar problem. Crime in Port Phillip has been dropping for years yet when people are surveyed about crime rates citizens believe crime is increasing. Why? Because crimes are reported while good stories go unnoticed. To remedy this imbalance the City of Port Phillip has launched (today) the Non Crime Hotline where the good citizens of Port Phillip can call in with their positive stories. These stories are then published on their website and in the local newspapers.

A similar intervention was recently designed by one of our business narrative clients on this very issue of risk taking. Their intervention was to find and publicise stories of where risk-taking paid off and was positively recognised.

Do you have situations in your organisation where the general perception is dictated by the squeaky wheel rather than what really happening? Love to hear your examples.

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