Building It, Getting Them to Come Redux – Communities of Practice

Last week, Jay Cross declared something we’ve thought true for a long time: Conversations are a better way to learn than reading blog entries, so I’m remapping my site [to] make it easier to learn from.

One of the most active conversations in Jay’s new Ning-based Internet Time Community is “How to start a community?

It’s sort of funny. We social constructivists have been long convinced that people learn best from one another.  For us, apprenticeship is the gold standard of learning environments – the training is as close as possible to the actual work for which the apprentice is being prepared, taking place, as it does, in the context of human relationship, the instruction can be tailored to the needs of the apprentice as those needs become apparent.

It’s just that it’s hard to scale the apprenticeship model to train, say, this year’s class of corporate lending recruits! We accept degradation of the training environment in exchange for being able to train large numbers of learners.

The Internet, together with some pretty sophisticated conversation-facilitation software, makes it possible for people to gather around any subject which interests them and discuss it with others who know and care about the same thing.

So why aren’t people moving in droves to join communities like Jay’s where they can converse with and learn from others who care about the things they care about?  Why are we, 30 years into network-mediated interpersonal communication, still puzzling over how to get people to come, to contribute, and to stay?

Some think it’s because most folks aren’t really all that interested in learning. Others point to the necessary writing and typing skills as a significant obstacle. Still others note that humans communicate better with all of the sensory cues available in face-to-face communication than they do with relatively context-poor text.

Me, I keep coming back to the relationship issue.  I’ll jump some pretty significant hurdles to develop and maintain a friendship or a collegial relationship which already means something to me.  Such relationships can be, and are formed in text environments, but most of us need regular doses of full-bandwidth human contact to form our most important relationships and to keep those relationships on track.  That’s why the convention and visitor’s bureaus have not been put out of business by the availability of cheap video-conferencing.

Online communities of practice, and their corporate brothers, online team space, can be invaluable facilitators of project work, and of the relationships which are invariably built out of the very human experience of working together toward a common goal.  But they can only serve shared interest. They can’t generate it.