There’s a very interesting thread going on at Com-Prac, instigated by Joitske Hulsebosch, which got me writing again (no mean feat these days). She’s exploring «dysfunctionality symptoms» in communities of practice. Indeed I expect Joitske’s work with it will result in something very interesting, but meanwhile here’s the last answer I wrote, slightly aliterated and expanded.
«What I meant is that there may be many levels to look at to find dysfunctionality, the higher the easier to see (and the most terminal):
1. Executive level: They’re glaring. The CoP is terminally dysfunctional if it is not doing what it’s funded or authorized for; of if it is not doing what we (members, founders) signed up for. That’s a result, not even a symptom. And it usually results in people voting with their feet or their wallet, killing the CoP.
2. Community management level: There are several things (indicators, symptoms) that can tell us that the CoP is not working smoothly, and most may be managed away with the right levers. Some of those symptoms are:
– Participation concentration. A 10% of members with some degree of participation can be reasonable sometimes. If it’s less, the CoP is walking dead (probably a long-declining group), an artificial construct (which never existed in fact but many people got signed in to), or in very serious trouble due to excessive barriers to participation.
– Answer assymetry. If the most active CoP members pointedly do not answer all (or most) questions, but stick to those from a few people (themselves and friends, usually) you have either an invaded CoP on the defensive, or an aggresive clique behaviour that will kill it.
– Social awkwardness. Relationships and conversations are strained, resulting in botched social initiatives, lack of cohesion, little esprit de corps. Something is under people’s skins and pulling the CoP apart.
– Herd behaviour. CoP members follow their leaders blindly and massively, and in some cases with aggresivity. The worst examples are groupthink, «political correctness» and guru worship, which kill innovation and significant practice development. This kind of CoP evolves into a thought sect, not a CoP.
– Subject hijacking. Either through invasion (from some non-subject-concerned people) or through drift (lack of interest or relevance of the main subject), another subject creeps into the mainstream conversations and stays there. This can be a natural evolution of the practice (or of the CoP), or can be unwelcome by the old core (which should lead to a split). The worst is when it’s simply a case of a CoP talking about offtopics instead of their practice («how’s the family?»).
– Work relevance. For any of the above reasons and for many more, a CoP may be unable to provide help to practitioners: it may grow irrelevant. If people feel the CoP is no longer generating stimulating debate, turning up useful advice or catalysing initiatives… they will leave.
3. Culture level: the ultimate causes of trouble are usually here. In the part that Steve kicked: what’s this about, what are we doing and what for, what’s importante for us. Having that clear allows forceful action (in design, moderation, activities) and usually helps to avoid weed infestation (dysfunction). Usually. Not having that, and the «institutional framework» that goes with it, is serious dysfunctionality. Some key elements that had better not be missing:
– Serious and relevant goals the members really care about (and are willing to put ten minutes of their time for).
– A cooperative volunteering spirit, open to helping others (OK, not blindly, but good-naturedly).
– An affinity with fellow members (having something in common is key, liking them is best, having met helps both).
– Member ownership of the community (a feeling of belonging and being a relevant part of something you like).
– Implicated, active and coherent moderation (it helps if it’s happy too).
– Clear and well-defined rules, accepted as fair and acted upon.
– Aligned processes (the ways the institution gets things done).
– Efficient channels (the machine part).
– Sensible relationship with the funding part (a clear understanding of what is expected from the CoP, and general agreeement upon its fairness).
Curing dysfunctionality here takes long work by specialists… and/or by very inspired, implicated members and moderators.»
I don’t know if it will be helpful, but it was a good way to put some things in writing that I’ve been thinking for a long while. Until it can go into something more structured, the blog will have to do.