posted 1 Apr 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 7
Building virtual communities
Communities of practice are invaluable networks for developing and maintaining best practice, particularly in larger organisations. In this article, John Davies describes two Internet-based tools used at BT to support COPs in a virtual environment.
The importance of knowledge sharing and re-use in order to spread best practice and prevent duplication of effort has led to the emergence of the concept of communities of practice. Recent ethnographic studies of workplace practices indicate that the ways in which people actually work often differ fundamentally from how organisations describe that work in manuals, organisational charts and job descriptions. The term community of practice(1) describes an informal group where knowledge sharing takes place; essentially a group of people who are 'peers in the execution of real work' (2). These people are typically not a formal team but an informal network, each sharing in part a common agenda and shared interests.
As well as such local, geographically-based communities, trends towards flexible working and globalisation has led to interest in supporting global communities using internet technology. The challenge for modern organisations is to support such communities and make them effective, thereby building on knowledge assets and improving the effectiveness of both the community and the organisation.
This article details two systems developed at BT to support communities of practice. The first, Jasper, is an intranet-based tool with a web interface. The second system, Contact Space, represents more speculative, longer term research in the area of 3D collaborative virtual environments. Although every effort has been made to provide a detailed description of each system, as well as the outcomes from the various communities that have used Jasper and Contact Space, readers are referred to(3) for a more comprehensive report.
Jasper(4) is a web-based knowledge sharing environment comprised of a system of intelligent software agents, which hold details of the interests of their users in the form of profiles. The current version of Jasper (Jasper II) builds on an earlier version(5) and has incorporated some of the lessons we learned from trials of the original system. Jasper has the capability to summarise and automatically extract key words from web pages, and other sources of information, and it then shares this information with users in a community of practice whose profiles indicate similar interests.
Given the immense amount of information available on the web, it is preferable to avoid copying entire documents from the original location to a local server. To achieve this, Jasper extracts the important details from the page, including the summary and keywords, as well as the document title, its URL, and the date and time of access. This information is maintained locally and has two main purposes. Firstly, it gives the user an idea of the content of the document. Secondly, it is used for locally indexing the pages that have been stored. A quick link to the full version is also provided.
When a user shares information in the Jasper system, that user's agent automatically informs other users with matching profiles via e-mail. A reference is also added to every user's 'What's New?' page, along with a predicted interest rating. Furthermore, if the document does not match the profile of the user who shared it, then Jasper prompts that user to update their profile accordingly and suggests suitable additional keywords. In this way Jasper learns more about the user's interests as the system is utilised.
A large amount of the knowledge within an organisation may, of course, not be codified; it may be personal, context-specific and difficult to write down. When such tacit knowledge(6) is difficult to make explicit (codify), it becomes important to find new ways of transmitting the knowledge through the organisation. Failure to do so can lead to the loss of expertise when people leave, failure to benefit from the experience of others, needless duplication of a learning process, and so on. One way in which a system such as Jasper can encourage the sharing of tacit knowledge is by using its knowledge of the users within a community of practice to put people who would benefit from sharing their (tacit) knowledge in touch with one another automatically.
An important way in which new insights into problems can be developed is through 'weak ties', or informal contacts with other people(7/8). Everyone is connected to other people in social networks, made up of stronger or weaker ties. Stronger ties occur between close friends or parts of an organisation where contact is maintained constantly. Weak ties are those typified by a 'friend of a friend' contact, where a relationship is far more casual. Studies have shown that valuable knowledge is gathered through these weak ties (even over an anonymous medium such as electronic mail) and that weak ties are absolutely crucial to the flow of knowledge through large organisations. People and projects connected to others through weak ties are far more likely to succeed than those in isolation(9/10).
Though Jasper does not explicitly support weak ties, initial trials of Jasper have shown a number of features that help develop these ties in a community:
User profiles can be used by the Jasper system to enable people to find other users with similar interests. The user can request Jasper, via their web client, to show them a list of people with similar interests to themselves. Jasper then compares their profile with that of every user in the store and returns to the web client for the user a list of names of users whose interests closely match their own. Each name is represented as a hypertext link, which when clicked initiates an email message to the named user.
This notion is extended to allow the user to view a set of other users who are interested in a given document. When Jasper presents a document to the user via their web client using the 'What's new?' facility, there is also a hyperlink presented, which when clicked will initiate a process in the Jasper system to match users against the document in question. Jasper determines which members of the community match the relevant document above a predetermined threshold figure, and then presents back to the user via their web client a list of user names. As before, these names are presented as hypertext links, allowing the user to initiate an email message to any or all of the users who match the document.
In this way, Jasper, while not claiming to actually capture tacit knowledge, provides an environment which actively encourages the sharing of tacit knowledge, perhaps by people who previously would not otherwise have been aware of each other's existence.
Contact Space(11) is a web-based three dimensional world, which is addressing problems and paradoxes discovered as part of the analysis of flexible workers in BT's remote working trials. Contact Space is not an application in which work is carried out, rather it is a space for 'hanging out' , a place to meet colleagues or people you 'ought' to interact with if only you worked in the same office or building. Contact Space aims to support the informal activities that are crucial in helping people to do their jobs, but which people do not necessarily associate with work. In fact, Contact Space makes use of normal desktop activity to help visualise and share those sense making and communication cues that are lost when we are no longer physically collocated. The Contact Space system is in fact built on the Jasper system and is structured around profiled users in communities of practice.
The spaces of a real workplace are represented in the forum metaphorically by different 'planes' in its three-dimensional structure, with planes assigned to a specific type of activity or area of interest. A user's avatar (their representation in the shared 3D world) moves from plane to plane in the forum either by choice, or automatically as they go about various activities. For example, one plane could represent the activity 'writing a business case' , another could be 'searching the Internet', and so on. Contact Space monitors users' activity and moves them to the most appropriate plane, though users always have the freedom to move themselves. Avatars that move closer to each other can communicate either by exchange of text messages, or directly by voice, and other avatars nearby can overhear the conversation unless the participants choose to make it private.
On each plane, there are 'interest zones', each of which represents a topic of interest to the community. Just as type of activity determines which plane people are on, so the subject of that activity determines which interest zone the avatar is moved to. The diagram shows avatars located in the space, positioned by the system depending on their desktop activity and subject matter. As the system moves the avatars around it also orientates the viewpoint or direction of view of the avatar towards other people in the space who have similar long-term interests (this knowledge about the long-term interests of the users being derived from the Jasper user profile).
Contact Space is envisaged as an 'always on' application, sitting on the desktop of geographically dispersed knowledge workers. It is an experiment in replacing 'virtually' that which is lost when we move away from physically collocated teams. A number of trials are ongoing and the results from these will influence the future development of the system.
There's no algorithm for community
At BT, we have had experience of using both Jasper and Contact Space in a number of communities. As the title of this section indicates (a succinct - and accurate - observation that originates, I believe, from Peter Kollock from the University of California in Los Angeles), there is no blueprint to guarantee a successful virtual community. But in our experience there are a number of pertinent factors, some of which are inter-related.
Reward collaborative behaviours
This can be done in a number of ways. Collaboration in appropriate communities can be written into job descriptions and/or personal objectives, and thus becomes part of an organisation's appraisal processes. Less formal approaches could include periodic recognition for the most effective contributions to a community, perhaps selected by a senior manager. Care needs to be exercised if using purely numeric measures (an example of this would be to measure the number of information items a user stores in Jasper). There can be a tendency for users to exploit these kind of metrics by flooding a system with items of questionable quality.
Consider job types and cultures
In practice, it is usually the case that many different sub-cultures exist within the overarching culture of a large organisation. One needs to understand the sub-culture (and, of course, the information needs) of candidate job groups in order assess the areas where communities of practice are likely to be most beneficial. In one organisation, we trialled a collaborative working solution with a community of engineers and a community of salespeople. The engineers' community flourished, while that of the salespeople was less successful. When we looked a little more closely at the nature of the communities, we uncovered certain attributes. The engineers' job spanned multiple customers, their motivation was tied to best quality solutions and the engineers were schooled in TQM and reuse of best practice. Conversely, the salespeople were usually concerned with only one customer, they were motivated by unique solutions and by 'being first' . In addition, the salespeople are competitive by personality (and selection), and their compensation schemes only serve to reinforce these competitive attitudes.Of course, this summary would not necessarily apply universally. Indeed, it does not even apply to all the members of the groups we were working with, but it nevertheless explains the success of one group and relative failure of the other.
It has become something of a cliché in KM circles that 'technology is only 20% of the solution, the rest is culture'. While the sentiment that we need a wider perspective than one purely focussed on technology is indisputably correct, it reveals the assumption of a dichotomy between technology and organisational culture, which does not in fact exist. Rather, technology-based tools are among the many artefacts entwined with culture, the use of which both affects and is affected by the prevailing cultural environment. A holistic view is required and technology plays a larger part in cultural factors than is sometimes acknowledged. We should never ignore the possibility of the introduction of a new technological capability driving new behaviours. For instance, in a geographically-dispersed team exhibiting a low level of collaborative behaviour, the introduction of the right tools can increase the level of collaboration significantly. A good discussion of the inter-relationship between technology and culture can be found at(12).
In a number of communities, we have seen great benefit in assigning 'early adopters' a facilitation role. In Jasper, for example, this would typically involve the facilitator sharing items of the right content (and at the right technical level) on a regular basis, particularly during the early stages of the tool's use. This helps to generate a momentum within the community and encourages participation from others.
Offer an appropriate 'training wrap'
Clearly, training of users is a key issue and should encompass both the technical aspects of using the tools in questions, and also some explanation and motivation for the support of communities of practice at the personal and organisational level.
Identify a senior management champion
It is often the case that senior management buy-in and active promotion is very helpful. A degree of care must be taken, however, to ensure that involvement from senior figures does not jeopardise the informal nature of the communities. Studies at Xerox found that informality was key to creating trust and led to a greater tendency towards information exchange(2).
Both Jasper and Contact Space represent internet-based tools for supporting virtual communities. BT is using Jasper internally with many communities and is trialling the system with selected external customers, while Contact Space is currently being tested internally, and the lessons being learned are driving changes to the system ahead of external trials. the ubiquity of internet technology and awareness of the importance of sharing knowledge have driven an increasing interest in support for virtual communities of practice within organisations across the board. Our experience at BT suggests that the key factors in this process, and in determining the success or otherwise of a community of practice, are the cultural characteristics of the community itself.
Thanks to Tom Boyle and Dan Moorhead for valuable discussions on the nature of communities of practice. Some of the factors for successful virtual communities originate with Tom's work. Andrew McGrath has led the design of the Contact Space and most of the novel ideas therein are his.
1. Wenger, E 'Communities of Practice', Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK 1998
2. Seely-Brown, J & Duguid P 'Organisational Learning and Communities of Practice' http://www.parc.xerox.com/ops/members/brown/papers/orglearning.html, Organsiation Science, Vol 2 No 1 (February 1991)
3. Davies J, 'Supporting Virtual Communities of Practice', in 'Industrial Knowledge Management', R Roy (editor), Springer-Verlag, London, forthcoming
4. Davies J & Stewart, R S. 'Knolwedge Sharing over WWW,WebNet 98, Florida, USA, November 1998. Available at: http://www.labs.bt.com/library/archive/webnet_98_1/index.htm
5. Daview, J Weeks R & Revett. M 'Jasper: Communicating Information Agents for WWW, 4th International WWW Conference, Boston, USA, December 1995
6. Polyani, M 'The Tacit Dimension' Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1967
7. Granovetter, M 'The Strength of Weak Ties' American Journal of Sociology, 87, pp 1360-1380
8. Granovetter, M 'The Strength of Weak Ties' A Network Theory Revisited' in 'Social Structure and Network Analysis' Marsden P and Nan, L (Editors), Sage Publications, California 1982
9. Constant D, Sproull L and Kiesler S 'The Kindness of Strangers: The Usefulness of Electronic Weak Ties for Technical Advice' Organisation Science Vol 7 Issue 2 P119-135, 1996
10. Hansen M T, 'The Search-Transfer Problem: the Role of Weak Ties in Sharing Knowledge Across Organisation Subunits', Working Paper, Harvard Business School 1997
11. McGrath A 'The Forum' Siggroup Bulletin, Volume Nineteen, Number Three, December 1998. ACM Press, New York, pp 21-25. See also http://www.bt.com/oinnovation/exhibition/forum/whitepaper.htm
Dr John Davies is the Head of Knowledge Management Research at British Telecommunications plc. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org