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iSimulate and the golden rules for building CoPs

The World Bank’s latest online tool is looking great. More specifically, it looks like an impressive bait for the macroeconomist in the wild (or in business, or in academia). I’ve just taken it, hook and all, and look forward to the account activation.

But let’s stick to the topic. Thanks to a message by Gauresh Rajadhyaksha at Joitske Hulsebosch’s blog (in a very relevant post, too), I’ve been pottering around the place and registering for the «private beta service». It’s interesting in more ways than one (this 2006 document highlights the origin and workings of the idea), but since it’s intrinsic value will be lost to non-dismal-scientists, let’s head to the part that will be useful to CoP managers and promoters.

Mr Rajadhyaksh’s presentation of the social side of iSimulate (the last link above) highlights an object lesson in community building, IMHO. On paper, they have hit all bases:

–  Offer a distinctive bait. They’re actually giving away access to the World Bank models and data in a convenient web interface. Not every CoP builder can do that, but every one should seek to find something relevant to would-be members, something useful, directly related to the domain, something that is a traffic real draw in itself. It can be articles, it can be services, it can be whatever as long as it’s significant.

In other words, a front-loaded CoP promotion initiative works better than one that expects would-be members to do all the work of building the initial content and usefulness.

Engage users in building something together, and make it easy. I have yet to test it, but on paper they have done it too. By encouraging users to upload complementary datasets and models, as well as tinkering with the available ones to run their own simulations, they are opening the way to building significantly valuable resources through user contribution and sharing. Just as any CoP worth its salt will stress building their own sort of knowledge objects, be them link lists or papers or useful discussion threads.

In other words, users (CoP members) are not customers but collaborators. This perspective is key. At iSimulate it is stressed by building environments in which all those tinkerings and innovations can be commented and shared, but also by the proclaimed goal to build something greater that the original resource.

Allow for particular perspectives. The ground covered by iSimulate users is large, and the uses of those simulations are very varied. In other words, there are many distinct subdomains with different possible conversations. The service caters to this by offering public and private work areas and «project blogs» incardinated in the platform.

In other words, they are giving elbow room to the emergence of an ecosystem of interest groups, that should ultimately allow the community to organise meaningfully around topics and projects. Their approach seems more hands-off than I’d reccomend (many found-your-own-group projects get tangled and abandoned) but then, the target group and their use of the resource are not conventional.

Promote recognition. Another nail they seem to be hitting with definite intent is the reputation-building driver for participation. In most professional fields it will be harder, but academics (and freelance consultants) can often be goaded into very productive sharing by making sure that their contributions are visible to parties that can be interested in more of them (i.e. faculties or prospective customers). Not all CoP members care that much, but everyone likes at least a bit of recognition… and resents the lack of it.

In their case, this means a very serious focus on attribution to the author of the perspective or the originator of the dataset. Balancing attribution and co-creation is a difficult act, since the originator need not be the person ultimately making the most relevant contribution (indeed it may be the work of many), but it needs to be got right to fend off the risk of a diaspora toward independent blogs or closed working groups.

Reach out. Last but not least, using the grapevine (blogs, personal networks) as they seem to be doing is a good start. When founding a CoP, you don’t need massive attention, but you do need to get the eye of as many of the people that you want to either form the core, or to start directing others your way. Bloggers in your domain are a good start. Related communities or networks are another. People with a close interest in the bait material (in this case, World Bank economists themselves, who seem to be using it and to have used its predecessor). All the usual mass promotion channels come later.

The practice that seems to make the difference is making it direct, and making it personal. Interesting people in a project is better done by giving it a face and a voice, someone who can answer questions and ask for help, a person (or a team) who can convey the goals and the motivations and get other involved. At the early stage, it works much better than any number of press comuniqués.

Let’s see what happens

On paper, iSimulate can become a very interesting resource and the core of a very relevant community of practice (or more). I’ll be following it… and I hope to participate as a member, as far as time and abilities allow. One sometimes wishes not to have gone to work so far from traditional economics as I have.

One sometimes wishes not to have turned down a contract to act as «knowledge analyst» at a similar World Bank project last year, too. Not least because (as the iSimulate social design shows, and I had the chance to find out during the interviews) they actually seem to know what they’re doing.

But transplanting the family was not in the book. More’s the pity, and here’s wishing them the best of luck :-).


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