Saturday, June 10

Roles in CoP's

In my role as blogmeister for LCB I've done a lot of reading in the communities of practice literature to gain a better understanding of how online communities work. What can be done to enhance the community? What causes high quality interaction or 4L Model.gifcommunity disfunction and collapse.

One model I've developed is around the roles and interactions members of a community have as participants in that community. I thought I'd share my model with the LCB community for feedback and discussion. My 4L Model (Linking, Lurking, Learning, Leading) was spawned by comments made by John Seeley Brown in an interview with Marcia Connors for LineZine.Further influence came from the work of Lave, Wenger and McDermott.

The graphic to the right demonstrates the four types of roles in an online community. Any prospering community will have participants in each of these roles. Note that the lines between the roles are blurred. What role a participant is playing in the community is both determined and defined by the participant. Thus, it is not possible to strictly define the roles. In fact, any one participant can simultaneously play different roles on different topics within the same community. (ie, the leader of an organization often becomes a linking participant to areas they previously may have not paid attention to.)

While the roles can't be strictly defined, they do have basic characteristics which can be identified.

Linking  These are visitors who find a community by one means or another. They may have have bookmarked the site or added it to their RSS reader. They are in a “testing” mode to determine if this community if of interest to them and worth giving more of the time and attention.

Lurking  Often the largest segment of a community, these individuals pay attention to the activity of the group and occasionally participate in various activities. Wenger calls this group Legitimate Peripheral Participants (LPP). They may be interested in greater involvement, but either don’t feel worthy or don’t know how. For others the content may only be peripheral to their work.

Learning  These are regular visitors who contribute to the community regularly. They are considered “members” of the community. Occasionally , they may take on a project or event leadership role as either an “audition” for a more core role or as a way to lead despite overall time unavailability.

Leading  At the core of a community are the Leaders of that community. Leadership is a matter of commitment and willingness to contribute on a consistent basis. Leaders may or may not be designated via title. Roles, other than community coordinator, may evolve as needed. Wenger says it is the responsibility of leadership to “build a fire” of activity that is strong enough to draw people to the community and encourage greater participation.

Movement from one role to another is a learning process in which participants encourage and model roles for each other in what Seeley Brown refers to as a cognitive apprenticeship.  Thus it's incumbent upon the community to provide opportunities for participants to learn from each other and to "try on" new roles. 

So what do you think?  Does this make sense?  I'm curious what the LCB community thinks as to how well LCB tends to the various roles in our community.  Are we a community?  Should we be?

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Peter Isackson said...

Excellent summary of CoP behavior, Dave, and good question for the group (i.e. community). In many ways, both historically and operationally, this is not a community, but it certainly has the potential of becoming one. One of the reasons for which it fails to be a CoP is -- in my view -- a certain vagueness in the goal. LCB hesitates between being a community blog -- seeking to develop original reflection among a wide range of professionals -- and a publishing platform for the chosen few, and the self-chosen among them. In a way that's true of all CoP blogs and forums, but possibly because of the ASTD link, the effect is exacerbated.

The 4 Ls concept is a wonderful contribution to the field, a great mnemonic device, but perhaps the LCB experience indicates that there may be a fifth one we don't often talk about, one which might encompass and justify the four others: Loving. The affective commitment should exist not only for the inevitably narcissistic leaders (self-love shading into group love) but also among the three other Ls (and particularly the Learners).

In environments that are meant to be productive without imposed constraints, love is the most powerful motivating factor. I know it isn't considered "professional" to talk about such things, but psychology certain has something to contribute to the affair.

Jane said...

Great to read your post Dave.

I would ask you to consider one of your comments, however. You refer to 'Lurking' as being LPP (the emphasis from your perspective being the peripheral nature of the lurker's involvement) and yet my understanding of Lave & Wenger's discussion of LPP is that all involvement within the CoP is peripheral but to varying degrees as the learner moves from novice towards expert.

Ben Watson said...

Most people forget about the role of the 'troublemaker' in effective CoPs. Simply put, controversy provokes the leaders ('builders' as I call them) which in turn engages the lurkers (or the more polite term 'readers'). All too often CoPs shy away from controversy but good builders will focus the flamewars into a conversation of value for the membership (building a fire?).

A good CoP will have different plans to engage all 3 types (readers, troublemakers, builders) as all 3 will be motivated by different reasons.

Also remember that I may be a reader in one CoP and a builder in another, all dependent on my comfort level of my existing level of knowledge in that subject area.

That said, most large scale CoPs (>1000) will have well over 95% of it's membership as readers.

A blog however is not a community though team-based blogs like this one are one step closer.

Dave Lee said...

Great feedback so far everyone. Thanks. Peter, I agree with you in concept, but I think the term "Loving" might find a bit of pushback in some cultures (like the US where we shy away from love being used to describe relationships between colleagues).

Jane I agree with your clarification of LPP's. LPP's do range throughout the community. I tried to represent this with the very blurred boundaries of my diagram.

The concept of LPP was created by Lave & Wenger to lessen the impact that the negative aspects of the term "lurking" carries. Lurkers, similar to Ben's troublemakers, are a tremendous asset to a community - if you are careful heed their feedback and to watch their behavior. Lurkers "vote with their feet." Do something interesting and they will flock to your community. Put forward boring content, or nonsense, or don't update your content for months and there will be a big sucking sound as the lurkers go elsewhere to learn.

I agree with Ben that troublemakers are vital to a communities long-term success. Any organization, online or real world, corporate entity or neighborhood knitting group will eventually stagnate and rot away if it doesn't remain open to diverse opinions. But I wonder if troublemakers aren't more a personality found in any or all of the four (or three) groupings of participants.

Finally, Ben's classification of builders calls out an important piece that's missing in my model. Who's job is it to build the community? The community coordinator? (which I intentionally left out of this description of the model for brevity sake.) The leaders? Do the learners build it as a part of their learning?

I think I'd lean towards suggesting that every participant in one way or another adds to the effort. The community coordinator and leaders might do alot of heavy lifting by drafting initial content and core beliefs. Learners (and their mentors and facilitators) add to the structure bringing new ideas and perspectives, debating old, and creating new content for the community. Lurkers can add through brief interactions with communities in comments, forums, or surveys and the pedestrian vote I mentioned above. Finally, linkers impact communities as well by increasing the visibility of the community in Google searches and Technorati listings, Blogrolls and Cocomment citings. In fact, they truly constitute the community's marketing department.

Sorry about the long response. I chose one long one over four little ones. But this is what blogs, if not communities, are about!

Your humble blogmeister

Unknown said...

Hi, I am in intermittent lurker here and student of CoP's. I think that your basic idea is interesting and I have some feedback.

First, using Learning as a 'stage' and also saying learning is how you shift stages is a confusing doubling of the word.

Also, I second your hesitation to use 'love'. It comes across too touchy-feely, and frankly, I belong to CoP's that I do not love. I still feel strong connection to them and share practice with them, but I am there because of necessity or situation. (For example, my grad student CoP)

As far as having 'leaders' at the center, it feels counter to the reification/participation dynamic that Wenger points out in his book. Unless a huge number of members are leaders - which is idealistic and counter to the responses of the others here - proposing central leadership seems to downplay the impact of participation by the community members. For me, the dynamic of reification and participation is one of the strongest ways to track a CoP's existence through time...looking at artifacts and how they change in response to the participation of the members. Maybe it's my own idealism, but I see CoP's as more decentralized than what you are proposing.

Finally, I think that your model overlooks something: the practice that joins the community. I know its in our nature as Learning evangelists (I think its fair to throw you in that group. I know I am) to focus on learning in a CoP as the purpose of the group. CoP's are great places to learn a practice and strive towards mastery. But the purpose of a CoP is the practice. It's getting stuff done, rather than learning about stuff. Learning is how different members get more done, or get stuff done better, but in the end, CoP is about doing. Or practice, if you will. Focusing on the learning loses some of the power that a CoP can have.

Hope these thoughts help you refine your model.

Dave Lee said...

Thanks JOE. Great feedback. Your reminder that CoP's are not focused on learning but upon doing is a great one. I think it extends beyond CoP's in to almost every arena that we learning professionals work in. It's generally not about us. We may be a key facilitator of the process at times, but it's all still in the service of the work to be done.

Thank you for your comment about centralization. I'm definitely in agreement with you and will work to clarify my model. I see the center positioning of "leadership" in the model more as the nexus of where the core work gets done and less about roles and positions.

If the CoP is going to consider revising it's mission statement, it's unlikely that a Linking participant who checks in on what's going on every 3 or 4 months is going to lead such a task.

But to support your position, a Lurking participant can make a proposal that could change the direction and purpose of the entire community. (or pull membership away from a community who's leadership has become to inwardly focused.)

Unknown said...


In support of your centralization, I think that it is unlikely that a self-referential CoP forms without strong leadership. However, my reading of Wenger is that CoP's are there whether we refer to them or not. I am not sure how leadership evolves in a non-self-aware group.

Having said that, in order to be an online CoP, we do need some infrastructure, which requires some self-organization. With that in mind, the ideas that you put forward for leadership as central/full participants and the peripheral-ity progressing out to lurkers makes a lot of sense.
Indeed, the full participants are more likely to deliberatly shape the group that lurkers or linkers.

Anonymous said...

I had a problem distinguishing between collective intelligence and communities of practice. Ellyssa Kroski the author of "The Hype and the Hullabaloo of Web 2.0" says that Collective Intelligence "is achieved when a critical mass of participation is reached within a site or system, allowing the participants to act as a filter for what is valuable". They almost describe it as a spiritual process where everyone shares one mindset or idea. Communities of Practice seem to be different in that it allows for everyone's input no matter how polar the opinions are. I also can see how different levels of participation can be useful. In each level, anyone is able to learn an grow. I believe that in some form, communities of practice have been around for a very long time in some form. There have always been people willing to share what they have learned in the name of progression., but who knew what to call it. I look forward to reading more from your communities of