ISSUES AND INSIGHTS
The two groups in question, EE-AW and ESC, were distributed to a far greater degree than WWITMan, did not have access to the wide range of communications tools seen in WWITMan, and had the practice of their communities extra to the everyday work. However, what we saw was in line with what we had seen in WWITMan, with the added dimension of viewing them from the point of view of a different type of CoP. In particular, it might be viewed as surprising that the social, human factors came out even more strongly as these groups were even more distributed that WWITMan.
As with WWITMan, ESC and EE-AW both exhibited a range of CoP factors. As suggested in Chapter III, they did not display all of the characteristics identified in the model in Figure 3.
Figure 3: EE-AW
Respondents from both communities emphasised the importance of stories in the community communications. For one of the ESC people, this was a matter of personal style as she is renowned as a storyteller, but other members of the active core consciously considered the use of stories in their communications. They made use of them in the active core in the creation of the presentation that was being designed to communicate with physically distributed members. According to an ESC respondent, "That's one of the most important things we were thinking about as we were doing the slides was having good stories and examples. We want to make this real for people"
EE-AW also consciously used stories in its communication, saying it has lots of war stories and that as it talks more and more, the stories propagate out through the community. The stories were about the CoP itself and as they spread through the CoP they contributed to the feeling of membership, of a common bond. Two respondents gave an example of one of their "stories"—about how some of them attended a conference:
Respondent 1: Our trip to Vancouver. That's one of our stories.
Respondent 2: Ah, true.
Respondent 1: We tell what they told us and what we saw when we were there. We actually took a digital camera along and got five or six pictures that we used in one of the presentations.
Respondent 2: We wrote a big trip report on it, you know maybe a nine-page trip report.
Respondent 1: So that was part of the story. Partly it illustrated, if you will, and —
Respondent 2: And it was a shared bond.
The situation regarding newcomers in EE-AW and ESC is rather different from WWITMan. WWITMan is a very small CoP, and people join for a specific purpose, as there is a formal structure to the group even though it is a CoP. EE-AW and ESC are both much larger, and anybody who is interested can join either group. Recruitment to EE-AW has tended to be through informal contact. Some people joined ESC as a result of attending the initial conference. Since then it has been more ad hoc and informal, both through physical contact and via the Web (www).
Well, sometimes it's word of mouth. Sometimes somebody will have heard from somebody else that there's this group or somebody will be forwarded an e-mail that was sent to the distribution and they'll get back to us and say ‘oh how do I get on this list?’ Sometimes people are just browsing the web and they'll find our page and there's a web form where people can sign up directly and be added to the mailing list…I'm always impressed, when I get a new member from [the organisation] Singapore. I just think that's really neat, that they could find us, just by looking, because they cared. (ESC Respondent)
As the practice of the two CoPs is different from the everyday work of the members, a newcomer to either would not have to learn technical domain knowledge. Membership was determined by motivation and desire. Each member will be able to contribute something different. Therefore, what newcomers have to learn will be softer elements, for example, the ways of speaking in the electronic forum, what issues have been raised already, etc. They will also need to learn who is who in the community; for example, there are major contributors whose names occur more frequently, and who are regarded as being the "active core."
Both CoPs had come into being by an internal motivation and interest on the part of the people who founded the CoP; that is, the CoPs were not started by an external body. Since then the two CoPs have continued to change and develop, both as they settle down in their early stages and as they continue to develop. In one of the interviews, an ESC member observed that they (the members) were not in a position to force the pace with what they wanted to do, but had to work gradually, evolving and changing people's attitudes as they develop over time.
EE-AW has noticed a more dramatic change as it develops—as its focus has shifted, there has been a change in the male/female ratio of members, as related by an EE-AW respondent:
We've had quite a lot of group change from January a year ago to where we are now. People early on you know dropping in, saying "Is this for me? Mmm no." When we changed to more of a hardware focus, we shifted from an almost entirely female group to an almost entirely male group, and that's been fascinating…and now that we're broadening, well this thing has gone on for, since last January, so it's been going on for a while but we've really picked up more men…in about August when we started picking up, well we got our thoughts crystallised enough as to what we actually want to do. We'd gotten out of the really vague and extraordinarily part-time exploration of what we wanted to do to more concrete. We recruited some team members. We got more of a hardware focus and suddenly it's, you know, it's this whole male energy thing, and now that we have broadened back out to encompassing the whole thing, not just the hardware piece but the other couple of pieces, now we've got some female members joining back in.
This refers to a feeling of identity as opposed to the development of individual identity within the community. Both communities have given themselves names. This creates a feeling of identity among the members who see themselves as belonging to the group. In particular EE-AW was very careful with the selection of its name.
The legitimation in each of the two communities under discussion appears to be directly related to interest and participation. A shared interest binds the members and, as one of the members expressed it, "We know who's in our tribe"—an example of the softer aspects of their knowledge. The different degrees of participation legitimate the membership of the core or extended family. There is an active core that is recognised by all members of the community as being "the core." This was demonstrated particularly well by one member of ESC's active core:
I'm one of the people who crops up all the time, and it's because I've sort of become a centre, a point of contact for folks, and in some ways I've become a filter for the mail that goes out, although what people don't realise is that I don't actually filter anything. They see a lot, people forward me messages, and I ask them, "Can I send this to the group?" Every message I get I ask, "Can I send this to the group?" and they say, "Go ahead." So I forward their message to the group, and then someone else says, "Oh, well if I want to send something to the group maybe I have to go through her to do it." So I think there's been a perception from some people that I have to send out messages, and it's hard for me to know, and it really is hard for me to gauge, being one of the people who sends out a lot of messages, but I also receive a lot of messages. It's hard for me to tell how other people who maybe aren't doing the same job I am perceive it. I sort of suspect from the way that people contact me and want to meet with me when they're in the area or send me their opinions, I suspect they view me as a leader because of that, because I send out all this mail. They think, "Oh, she must be somebody."
Participation and Peripherality
Although ESC and EE-AW are more distributed than WWITMan, the peripherality is not seen as a physical peripherality as was the case in WWITMan. The peripherality is seen more in the degrees of participation, as demonstrated by the remark of one EE-AW respondent: "There are some people in—I guess you'd call it our extended family—who read all of the email flying by who decide to drop in every once in a while for other specific things."
In both ESC and EE-AW, there were noticeable degrees of participation. EE-AW has 40 people on the mailing list and not all are heavily active. The members of the active core sometimes consciously decide what information should be restricted to the central core and what should be issued to the "extended family." This decision is made based on what they consider might be a boredom factor for the wider group. The ESC central core has also reached the point where it has had to distinguish between degrees of participation in the wider group, as related by an ESC core member:
In the past week we've come up with this need to distinguish certain levels of participation within the 130 people. It's the strangest thing, this hadn't been an issue at all, but suddenly we started getting a lot of conversation going, two or three threads at a rate of two to three mailings per day, and for some people, this is too much. So we've just sent out a notice this morning inviting people to choose their level of participation, which we hadn't previously had to do, but we've now distinguished. There's a monthly newsletter as a level of participation, and there's a "get all the memos, be involved in all the discussion threads ongoing" as a level of participation, and I think the degree to which the community is split into those two categories, we don't know how it'll go yet but there's certainly members of each.
As the two communities are distributed to such an extent, they suffer from the problems of distribution such as proximity and time zones. The time zone restricts the use of the phone and restricts the effectiveness of e-meetings as their members are scattered to too wide a degree. According to one EE-AW respondent:
If we hold meetings the time differences constrain somewhat when we can do some of our work. Like the group in Australia that we talk to, their day starts at 1:00 p.m. our time. And so we have to worry about those issues. We also have actually another person in Bristol, England, who's been working with us and so if we want to have him part of the conversation, either we have to do it early morning or he has to call in from at home.
ESC does not regard it as a problem, for most of the work is done in an active core. Participation by other members tends to be restricted to contribution to e-mail discussions. At other times people from the extended group may call in when they are in PA, in which case the distance problems are overcome.
Both groups do recognise the difficulties that a lack of proximity brings. They regard co-location as being with people they see every day. Although there are members of the active core in a neighboring town who can attend meetings and participate on a face-to-face basis, there is still a feeling that one and one-half miles hinders spontaneous ad hoc communication, which is where a lot of work is done.
As the two communities are so widely distributed and suffer the distance and time problems, it poses the question as to how they manage to survive without the range of media available to WWITMan. In the first place, ESC see the distribution as an opportunity not just a problem. An ESC respondent explained:
It's giving them a chance to bubble up a grass roots movement: The more people you have, the faster it will bubble to the surface, so the problem is it bubbles slower with fewer people who are distributed so they, you know you're always trying to unlock the door and go how can we get this to bubble up a lot faster?
Although both ESC and EE-AW are distributed CoPs with members all over the world, they still have a similar structure to WWITMan as they both have cores. These active cores can be people who participate the most, for example, there might be a hard core of contributors to an e-mail list. This is the case with ESC, but there is also another type of active core, evident in both ESC and EE-AW. This type of core does more than just contribute more to e-mail lists. This type of core has also been noticed by Wenger and Snyder (2000) as being a group that does much to maintain a CoP in a distributed environment: "Typically, it has a core of participants whose passion for the topic energizes the community and who provide intellectual and social leadership" (p. 141).
In both communities participation is the key to membership of the active core. This tended also to be enabled by proximity—the active core tended to be in relatively close proximity, if not co-located. The proximity has not caused the core to emerge, but it has enabled it. Proximity enables more frequent ad hoc interaction, face-to-face meetings are easier, and, as a result, closer relationships can be developed. Stage Two showed that relationships are developed more easily through face-to-face interaction, and the ESC and EE-AW respondents fully agreed with this. Therefore, the close relationships tended to be within the cores, and it tends to be easier to be a member of an active core when there is more opportunity for face-to-face interaction. As a result, people who are just outside of the co-location will call in when they can to meet members of the core. Due to budgetary restrictions, they cannot travel as often as they would like, but if they have to travel for another purpose, they will make a visit to meet core members as one leg of the trip, or if they are in PA, they will make a point of calling in.
The relatively close proximity of the active core members also means that having meetings is easier. The ESC core has a regular monthly meeting, and EE-AW holds core meetings as necessary.
Fanatic core plus occasional extended members. Well, we have set meetings, that are…usually called by me if it's the group which is "Oh boy! We've got enough on our plates. Let's get together and talk about it again," 'cause there's a lot that flies by on e-mail and voice mail when we aren't meeting, but…when there's enough that we have to talk about, I'll call a meeting first to get together. (EE-AW Respondent)
Neither ESC nor EE-AW has the benefit of the range of media that is available to WWITMan. As a result, they tend to rely on the telephone and voice mail, fax, e-mail, and the Internet. For wider distribution, e-mail and the Internet are the primary media. As with WWITMan, respondents expressed preferences for different media and expressed that their choice of media would depend on the task being undertaken and the context in which it was undertaken. MS NetMeeting and video conferencing were not regarded as being viable alternatives for two reasons:
the group is too widely dispersed to use NetMeeting or video conferencing satisfactorily; that is, they did not feel that they had sufficient people at a site to justify the use of such media; and
the set-up costs of NetMeeting and video conferencing are currently too high, that is, the systems are not easy enough to use.
The respondents in EE-AW and ESC were in agreement that face-to-face interaction is important, or even essential, for the development of relationships or maintaining the momentum. As one ESC respondent explained:
You may communicate or exchange ideas, but in terms of actually forming some joint plans and goals, and sharing each others ideas so you get some synergy between, you know, really building on each other's ideas, I think that you really need the face-to-face for that, at least occasionally, then you can start doing some of it separately. But unless you get the few face-to-faces in between, I think you lose the focus or lose the intention.
In the case of ESC, the community did begin with a face-to-face event, the conference, and one of the respondents, at least, said she felt the benefit of having met people at least once, but, in general, the wider distribution of these communities makes it difficult to have face-to-face interaction. The benefits of face-to-face communication were therefore felt primarily within the active cores.
You need a couple doses of more intense interaction. My experience is that we, spending that one day working on the slides, will probably hold together our team for much better and much longer than several one-hour meetings. (ESC Respondent)
The motivation/interest/desire was encountered in WWITMan as being something that helps maintain the community. In the case of ESC and EE-AW, this becomes even more important, or even critical. One ESC respondent expressed this issue as follows:
I think this is one of those issues where people's souls and hearts believe in this issue, and so that's what's keeping people going, too. It's a real core belief, and almost a feeling of urgency that something has to be done and why doesn't everyone else see this, and therefore we need to make it more clear, I mean I'm quite a zealot I suppose.
The shared passion, common interest, and motivation fuel the community and keep it going. They help maintain the momentum and carry the community over the difficulties of distributed working. The motivation, desire, and passion made up a strong recurrent theme with all the respondents from ESC and EEAW. In fact, both CoPs came into being as a result of a common interest, and anybody who wishes to be a member will have the shared interest. If someone does not have the motivation, they will leave; therefore; the membership consists of motivated and committed people. One EE-AW respondent explained:
In my experience, this has been the most harmonious group I've ever worked in which has been really wild and I think it's because, you know, nobody's assigned to do this so we found each other and we have this common passion really for education, and you know, if people decide they have a problem with what's going on they dropped out.
As the two communities are widely distributed and communicate mainly via the World Wide Web and e-mail, it would perhaps be expected that having a task focus might not help as much as in the case of WWITMan. This was indeed true for the wider community, but the active core found that having a joint task did help in that it pulled the individual members together, gave them impetus, and improved participation:
If there's a specific task, for example, in our communications team, putting together the final version of a slide set required all day. We got a sit here together and pound it out meeting, and we can't do it over the phone 'cause we have to have these visuals. (ESC Respondent)
The fact that the effect of a task focus is not as widespread as in WWITMan is overcome by the very strong motivation, interest, and desire of the members.
Regular, Frequent Interaction
This was not really a possibility for the wider groups in EE-AW and ESC. It was only possible within the active cores; however, one of the ESC members made an observation that emphasised the importance of regular, frequent interaction where possible:
I have a staff that sits at three different sites, you know within the south San Francisco Bay area, but one of the things that I've noticed, ever since we instituted Monday morning conference calls where we just talk—not even about anything work, what's going on, what's the calendar, who's doing what—is that if we don't have the conference call, if we have them people always complain about having to be in the conference call, but if we don't have them everybody suddenly starts feeling disconnected. And it isn't the fact that we don't need to see each other real time, we can even realise that someone is dozing on half the conference call, sleeping or you know, they're not totally there, but somehow just having that chance to know that you could interact really seems to keep the group together.
A Shared Artefact
As ESC and EE-AW were so different from WWITMan, it was interesting to note that shared artefacts still played an important role in the communities. As with WWITMan, there was one particular artefact that came to our attention and that played a variety of roles, both intended and unintended. In each CoP the artefact in question was a slide presentation (for example, PowerPoint). The slide presentations were intended as communication tools, but the community members also found that, like the planning document in WWITMan, they played other roles:
they were stimulative (they were expressly designed to ignite something in the receiver);
the slides also drove meetings (in the active core);
during work on the slide presentations and during the use of them, issues arose from the process and were discussed;
the slides caused people to reflect; and
finally, the slide presentations were a catalyst for collaboration in that everyone took something away to work on.
In particular, the groups found that having the presentations helped maintain the momentum of the group—they added a task focus to the active core.
As with WWITMan, the active core used the softer aspects of its knowledge to design an artefact as a communication tool. In this case, it was explicitly intended to cross the CoP boundaries to communicate with people outside the CoP. The slide set was e-mailed to some people, and it was placed on the intranet site so it was available to anybody within the organisation who might be interested. However, it was felt very strongly that although the presentation could stand by itself, it was preferable for it to be used in conjunction with real-time communication by a community member. It was primarily intended for community members to walk non-members through it, possibly guiding interpretations:
…[it is] intended to be presented at talks rather than someone just reading it. Needs a presenter, someone from the community for guidance. (ESC Respondent)
It was not likely that the community member would be a member of the active core. The presentation was being designed so that any member of the community could take it in order to "spread the word" as (s)he wished. Having a member of the community work with the presentation helps maintain the participation/reification balance.
This supports Wenger (1998) who makes the same point: "In order to take advantage of the complementarity of participating and reification, it is often a good idea to have artefacts and people travel together. Accompanied artefacts stand a better chance of bridging practices" (pp. 111-112).
In both of the communities the slide sets were propagated across different media and states. ESC's slide set was initially created as a first pass by a member in San Diego. He then e-mailed it to another active core member in Palo Alto who refined the slides and used them in a meeting. She got some feedback and refined them again. The creation of the slide presentation was providing a task focus and encouraging participation even though the members were not meeting. However, the members of the active core then decided it would be a good idea to have a standard set of slides that could perhaps accompany a video. Having this task focus enabled them to set aside a day where the core could get together and work on them. They expected to complete the task in two hours but, according to one ESC respondent, found that:
By the end of the day we'd looked at every slide and decided what sort of things we wanted to be different, assigned somebody to do every one of them, and then people took the assignments to go somewhere. So we set some guidance, you know, this is what should be on the slide, this is what should be here, this is the information we need to gather and it needs to go here, and so the people who took the notes took that away and are working, or actually I think have done all their slides now.
Having spent the whole day discussing the slides and the issues that arose from the slide set, they made some changes and different people took parts of the presentation away to work on. At the time of the case study, the slides were almost due to be finished, but it was not anticipated that the presentation would remain static. It was intended that it would continue to develop and that at a later stage it would have gone through further iterations.
EE-AW's active core also works on its slide shows. However, EE-AW also tends to include more people via e-mail from the wider family. Occasionally someone will want to participate so much he or she will make a journey to meet the active core:
We have a few people who occasionally throw in stuff, like we have the person in Atlanta who…threw some stuff in and she decided to come out here by herself…to be present for a presentation that we had with an external vendor that wants to work with us and then had some brief conversations with a number of us while she was out here. She came out on Friday and then went back some time during the weekend. And then Steve throws in stuff from time-to-time and other people do too, so the community is mostly quiescent, but if we touch on an area of their expertise and their knowledge then they'll, sort of it lights up a little bulb, and they send us some stuff and then they're quiescent again until we cycle around to that area again. Like displays is an issue that we've talked about a lot, or battery life or things like that. So as we touch on those issues, people who are following that technology throw in some comments about what the state of that technology is. (EE-AW Respondent)
Although the participation in the creation of the slides is extended to some members of the wider "family" the bulk of the work is still undertaken in the active core. Individual members will work on a section, mail it to a central person who will collate all of them. Thus the slide set will undergo a number of iterations.
As in WWITMan, the members of both communities felt that they learned a variety of things from working together on creating the slide presentation; for example, they learned about communication and presentation skills from each other. Just as seen with WWITMan, the benefit is not simply from having an artefact, but it comes from the process of creating and using it.