Community of Practice twofer [Webber, FabRiders]

This is one of my rare twofers combining two posts that only loosely share a theme, and don’t justify a standalone post individually. 

The first is Emily Webber’s research:

Social group sizes, Dunbar’s number and implications for communities of practice

Through not-the-most-scientifically-rigorous method (a survey on Twitter) Webber collected ~150 responses on different communities of practices capturing information about their community size, number of leaders and frequency of meetings. The results are captured in the following graphs: 

  • Business communities of practice mimic natural social communities, sharing a similar fractal distribution of size. The intuition of drawing on insights from natural social communities when addressing issues with business organizations have existed for a while and provides some additional evidence for the validity of that analogy. 
  • There’s a notable community threshold at about 40 participants. Below that threshold it’s more likely to see purely democratic (leaderless) communities and they meet fairly frequently (monthly or less). Above that threshold it’s more likely to see more definitive “leader” roles and meeting frequency increases substantially. 

The 40 person threshold was interesting to me as it’s notably smaller than the Dunbar Number that’s estimated to be around 150. While it’s not discussed in the article, I’d hypothesize that the looser nature of the business community leads to the need to introduce structure in order to maintain them sooner (at smaller scale). 

The other piece I want to cover today is by FabRiders titled: 

What are we building: communities or networks?

It notes the recurring conflation of terms between “community” and “network” and posits that the short longevity of many efforts to create self-sustaining peer expertise exchanges is a result of unrealistic expectations for having those networks become real communities.

After providing a few “classical” formal definitions of community, they make a minimally compelling case for “network“ being a better framework for thinking about these groups than “community” arguing that:

We should not have expectations that a group of people coming together to share expertise will form a community, and in particular, that it will become self-sustaining… [peer expertise networks] provide an ability to establish connections that can deliver knowledge sharing in ways that strengthen the communities we are aiming to serve.

While there’s definitely some merit in this argument where the knowledge gain through that group is often used elsewhere, earlier in the post Paul Jame’s definition of a community is also covered: 

It is a group of people who are connected by durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship as important to their social identity and practice.

For many of us, our professional identity plays a big role in our overall sense of identity. While the criticism of it playing an outsized role is mostly justified, the activity that we spend such a large portion of our waking hours engaged in should play a meaningful role in our identity. 

So while other references to “communities”, for example around certain product brands, easily fail both tests, the professional community seems more complex. 

The distinction between a peer expertise network and a community is helpful, and I wish that the authors had provided clearer definitions of each. Yet as the article does point out, regardless of how the group is labeled, a clear and focused group purpose will be essential to its success. 

Community of Practice twofer [Webber, FabRiders]

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