I had intended to give a brief synopsis and some comments on the remaining presentations that I heard at the KM Australia 2007 conference but I have decided to concentrate on the final presentation by Etienne Wenger.
Wenger is best known for his work on communities of practice (CoP). I have read some of his published work, particularly when I was introducing communities of practice to the workplace of my former employer. My experience with introducing communities of practice is available from my paper published in 2003 in the International Food and Agribusiness Review.
In the presentation by Wenger, he made the important point that CoP’s do NOT have to be places akin to “jolly neighbourhoods” (my expression) and that agreement within them was not always necessary for the communities to prosper and survive. In fact, Wenger said that a community is where there can be conflicting ideas discussed and participants do survive that conflict. Moreover, participants do not have to agree but stay together in order to learn from it. Robust debate within communities is something I would definitely encourage too.
Wenger highlighted the importance of social software to increase the level of interaction between people, thereby enhancing people networks and communication of ideas, collectively forming a type of community. The boundaries of communities are more dynamic with the new social software tools that are currently available. Moreover, there are new ways of belonging to communities and there are different levels of engagement. This sits well with what I reported from the Michel Bauwens presentation earlier in the conference with his comments on peer to peer networks.
An interesting story from Wenger illustrated the importance of imagination – how the practice of something can be part of something bigger than the activity itself. The story related to three stone cutters and how they defined their work practice for a particular job. The first stone cutter simply cut stone. The second stone cutter cut stone to specifications. The third stone cutter was building a cathedral. You can see that if we define our activities as part of the big picture, it is more likely that we, as individuals, can contribute to the broader experience of the whole group.
Wenger concluded by saying that engagement of practitioners within organisations can shape strategy. Indeed, one would hope that organisations tap into the collective intelligence of people within the organisation in stimulating and participatory ways, such as using CoP’s. I must say that unimaginative exhortations by senior management to e-mail new ideas via the intranet has not really gripped me in the past, especially the one dimensional nature of the communication. Practitioners can definitely help to shape strategy but organisations need to engage the conversation with them in more interactive and more compelling ways.
Overall, the conference should be regarded as a success, although there were two issues of concern. Firstly, there was unacceptably loud noise coming from the peripheral areas next to the presentation enclosures that sometimes made it difficult to hear what was being said by the presenters. The other comment doing the rounds was the relatively high number of vendor speaking slots in the conference programme, an issue that represents a difficult balancing act for conference organisers and sponsors. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the conference and the opportunity to meet friends and new people.
Lastly, I hope to catch up with people at the Institute for Information Management conference in Canberra on 15-16 August. Track me down and say hello.