Computer-mediated intellectual activities and CoPs

July 18, 2008 at 2:25 pm 2 comments

From Technology Review July/August 2008 – Matt Mahoney

Robert Fano knew that the true power of computing lay in its ability to connect people.
In 1970, MIT Ford Professor of Engineering Robert Fano wrote an essay for Technology Review called “Computers in Human Society–For Good or Ill?”

He believed that the computer’s potential lay not in its computational power but in its ability to foster “intellectual communication” and collaboration. (His insight proved true not just for intellectual communication for but every other kind, too.

“Very quickly, [the network] became the storage of knowledge of the community. It was an amazing phenomenon.” The network could, as Fano explained in his essay, become a reservoir for all kinds of research, one accessible to many users.

Intellectual activities have an important common feature–their cooperative nature. One man builds upon the work of others, or he uses data generated by the activities of others, or his own activities generate data which will be used by others. In other words, interaction between people is fundamental to intellectual activities. Thus, if a computer system is to assist people in their intellectual activities, it must facilitate intellectual communication among them.”

I can see a ‘software-first’ pitfall here: you can’t install software and expect the intellectual activities to begin. I think computer-mediated collaborative intellectual pursuits occur where people are already engaged in intellectual pursuits.

A related, a sort of discouraging article in KMworld sort of suggests that premise.

Beginning with the promising title “Building CoPs for knowledge flow” by Dave Snowden [where CoPs stands for Communities of practice – they’re not talking about Robocop turned librarian] he points out that Wenger‘s work with communities of practice are hard to implement in practice, suggesting that CoPs work great in theory, yet those communities Wenger studied had occurred naturally, they hadn’t perhaps followed a recipe book to create them…. as a business might ‘implement’ them.

Snowden suggests a bottom-up rather than top-down route. Rather than a corporate initiative, then, you should bubble CoPs up from below.

He starts by suggesting blogs to do this.

I think blogs are a great way to keep a corporation up to date on projects and initiatives, for example, but I don’t see how a bunch of blogs, each with their own unique voice, encourages community. I guess people would read each others blogs, link between them, comment on each other’s blogs… But who’s got time to follow the link trails as well as type out a post a day…. I guess I don’t really ‘get’ blogs yet.

He continues, suggesting some other things – not just blogs – like document repositories, teaching people how to link to the repository, search engines, helping people move from email attachments to centralized systems… All good things, I suppose, to enable better information retrieval, but I don’t see how it fosters community yet.

The paragraph that sort of bothered me: “Before you know it, you’ll have a searchable, and connected knowledge management system, which adapts quickly to changing context in a way that formal communities never can. If you introduce wikis and change some e-mail behavior, you will have a sustainable KM program.”

So KM = blogs, document control, training, search, and wikis. [see Mr. Snowden’s comments below]

I guess these are all important for information retrieval, and all would enable KM. Of course, technology is important in a KM effort. Even though KM does not equal technology it is an important part of managing our information-overloaded environment.

However, I think communities are enabled by have a spot to put things, but I don’t see the spot to put things as defining the community.

Perhaps things are different with a community covering a large geographical scope where face-to-face community meetings would be difficult.

It’s worth checking out Wenger’s site… And in “Knowledge management as a doughnut:Shaping your knowledge strategy through. communities of practice” he points out that communities of practice are a critical part of knowledge management and KM is the responsibility of those who actually use the knowledge in their activities.

Another practical description of CoPs is available here: Keys to Successful Communities of Practice (Networks)


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, KM.

Links from readings All-star Tips from Starr’s The Personal Organizing Workbook

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dave Snowden  |  July 18, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Just for the record I did not say that KM = blogs, document control, training, search, and wikis

    The bottom up approach is about creating social interaction from which you get shared context (which is critical to KM)

  • 2. futhermet  |  July 19, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Thank you for visiting and for your comments, Mr. Snowden!

    My “KM=” comment was a gross simplification of your article and I will continue to try and understand how to use social computing in a KM effort.

    When I read the last paragraph, I interpreted it as “install wikis and you’ve got a KM program,” and that sent flags up.

    In a corporate environment where email attachments are still “tricky” for some, and hyperlinks are indistinguishable from magic, it’s hard to imagine an intra-blogosphere.

    They are perhaps passe but we’ve had minor success with message boards that allow interaction through email: the message board allows a threaded, archived, and searchable view of a complete discussion, viewable by the entire community, yet people can continue and interact through their comforting email window.


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