Relating Community Activities to Technologies

[Edit Feb 23: The notes and recording link of this event can be found here:]

Next week I have the great pleasure of facilitating a webinar for some Dutch colleagues of mine. In preparation, they asked me to put together a bit of background to prepare folks for our conversation. I decided to share it on my blog as well, in case any of you, dear readers, had additional insights to add. In other words, walking the “network talk!” [Edit Feb 20 – see the great pre-event comment stream here:]

The group I’ll be conversing with is a group of 12 people who are involved in learning and change processes in their organizations or with their clients. (This reminds me of Beth Kanter’s Peeragogy.) They are on an 8 month learning journey and have been exploring things like social media  (which reminded me of this post on how I use social media – albeit a bit dated), communities of practice, online communities and the like. Now is the time to start weaving across those technological and process areas. So a perfect time for community technology stewardship!

As we prepared for the webinar, some of the random potential bits for discussion included the practice of tech stewardship, the pros and cons of  “hopping across technologies,” the tension between thinking about the platform AS the community instead of the people — especially distributed communities, what it means to ‘be together” as a distributed group, more on online facilitation, and how to identify community activities and tools useful in supporting those activities. The webinar will focus mostly on the latter and we’ll use the Activities Spidergram from “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities,” as a learning tool. But to set the stage, I wanted to write a bit about the other topics. Sort of a  lead in to the activities conversation. At the bottom of this post, I’ll link to all the artifacts we’ll use next week. And if someone prompts me, I’ll return after the webinar to post an update in the comments! (That means — show me you are interested/care!)

What it means to be together using technology

Groups, communities, pairs, networks are all about people connecting, being together in some way. In the “olden days” this meant being together face to face augmented by these artifacts which carried documentation of our being together called books, and letters that we slowly exchanged with each other via land based transport. Today we spend time with each other online — not just face to face. That may look like reading, replying to or retweeting messages via Twitter, interactions on Facebook, email, blogs, Skype, YouTube, Pinterest or any of hundreds of web based platforms. These platforms convey and hold the artifacts of our interactions. They are the digital traces of being together. But the EXPERIENCE of being together is something we create in our own minds as we navigate these artifacts. Without conversation with others, we may find our individual experiences of “being together” are, in fact, not at all similar. So the first key here is that being together, even technologically mediated,  implies that we have to reflect – at least a little bit – about shared or different experiences. Otherwise we may not be “being together.”  Sense-making is critical. So if I’m designing or facilitating a social strategy using online tools, I had better darn well design in process to facilitate reflection, sense-making and other similar types of conversations. Yes, conversations, which implies active listening — something you can’t always see or have in pure social media actions.

One of the tough things about all this is how to understand what is working. Is there really connection? We tend to compartmentalize the tech into things like page views. But does that tell us about our quality of being together? Of learning? Of getting things done? Not really. So in thinking about being together in this age, we need new frameworks for assessment. A nice intro to thinking about communities and how to evaluate them comes from a short video from the USAID KM Impact Challenge

Hopping across technologies

If you accept my first proposition that being together requires some sort of sense-making/reflective aspect, lets add on a layer of complication: hopping across different tools and technologies. So not only are we not face to face, but we don’t necessarily interact as a full group, nor on a single communications tool and this may (and usually does) vary over time.  Community’s technological configurations change over time. Let’s pick this apart a bit.

1. There is rarely just one tool. From Digital Habitats we framed the idea of configuration this way: “By configuration we mean the overall set of technologies that serve as a substrate for acommunity’s habitat at a given point in time—whether tools belong to a single platform,to multiple platforms, or are free-standing.”  For example, we may have a NING site, but we talk to each other on the telephone and no one every identified the telephone as an official community tool. 😉 Look around. Our configurations are rarely as simple as they look. Observe and notice what people are using. Explore if there is a shift from the official platform to others and use that usefully, rather than as a distraction.

2. Togetherness does not imply only full group interactions. Side conversations and “back channel” are an intrinsic and important part of a community’s communication ecosystem.  We talk about “capturing” knowledge and having everything in one place, but the reality is that communities have all types of conversations and interactions. Some should stay small and private. Some should be captured and shared. And some will just happen. The key is that people are connected enough so that they DO happen. The interaction has primacy over the container or the captured artifacts … even if this seems counter-intuitive at times.

3. People start where they are technologically comfortable, and move to what serves them over time. Now this may seem like a repetition of #1, but what I’m getting at here is change in technologies is actually part of the life-cycle of many communities rather than an aberration or fatal disruption. (Though, yeah, it can be fatal, but less often than we might expect!) The key lesson here is start where people are “now” and let the needs of the community, its appetite (or not) for experimentation and change drive the platform evolution.

4. A change in technology may intrinsically change the interaction.  In our research for “Digital Habitats” we noticed that not only did technology change communities, but communities changed technologies. When members wanted or needed something, they invented new ways of using tools or scrounged for new ones.  When the motivation to do something together becomes more urgent and compelling than the platform, it’s affordances or constraints, you know something good is going on. So attention to the community’s domain, community and practice (see that video above!) should be front and center. Technology supports.

 Technology stewardship

So if technology changes what it means to be together, if technology choices change over time, it is logical that stewarding that technology becomes part of the life of the community and there is an association between the people who do this and a role — a role we call technology steward. Technology stewards are people who know enough about technology to help scan for, select and implement tools and enough about their community to know what they need and what they want/can tolerate. This is not the traditional IT person or pure geek, but someone who straddles these two domains of knowledge and practice. They are bridgers. (You might enjoy this 6 minute audio from Etienne Wenger, John Smith and I on tech stewardship. ) For example, consider the person who can observe how others use a tool (even if it is different than how they themselves do), notice how it can be valuable to the community and share that practice with others. (An ethnographer!) You have to know the tool, but to observe and understand the practice — that is the magical sweet spot. (For an example, see John Smith’s post on Skype.)  Most of us who find ourselves in this role are in it accidentally. I think that is significant!

Community activities and their technological support

So this leads me to the bridge to our webinar next week. Flowing directly out of this idea of technology stewardship is the need for ways to identify important community activities as a precursor to selecting and deploying tools. In the work writing Digital Habitats we identified 9 community orientations which comprise sets of activities that we found happening pretty commonly across different kinds of communities. This slide deck gives a brief overview.

A couple of key things the spidergram exercise has taught me are: 1) observe your community with an open mind rather than through your own preferences. I, for example, love asynchronous conversations, yet in many of my communities, they would not thrive without telephone calls. 2) You can’t prioritize all 9 orientations all at once, but they may shift over time. This impacts community leadership, facilitation, and technology. So as always, this is not primarily about the tech, but about the community. That seems like a “no brainer” yet time and time again we fall into the technology seduction trap! That leads us to community facilitation, but we’ll have to save that for another day!


I’ll be asking the group to read Chapter 6 of Digital Habitats and then begin to fill out a spidergram for a group or community they belong to or work with. I’m also inviting them to post questions here or over at their group blog. But for the rest of you, what sort of advice would you offer for those trying to steward technology for their community? Post in the comments, please!



It Is Here! Group Pattern Language Deck

I’m thrilled to learn that the Group Pattern Language Project has released the Group Pattern Language deck  ….and happy to add the deck as an an update to this post from 2010: Facilitation Card Decks.

I was part of the initial team, but honestly, I struggled with the discipline of writing patterns. My brain kept on spotting exceptions so I fell off the wagon after the first meeting. But I kept supporting from the side because I sensed this team really got something I simply could not grasp. Now their hard work has borne fruit. Here are a few snippets from the web page.

Welcome to, the website about the Group Pattern Language Project’s exciting new deck of 91 full-colour cards to help facilitators and participants make their group process work more effective. The deck is accompanied by a 5-panel explanatory legend card and a booklet describing the purpose of the deck, how it evolved, and some ideas for games and other activities using the deck.

The cards, besides being quite lovely to look at, are a great way to stimulate our thinking about how we interact with others, how we design gatherings and how we work together. Look at a few of their suggestions on the about page.

Suggested Uses:

1.  For group learning or teaching of facilitation skills
Deal out the cards randomly, so that each person is holding a portion of the deck.  Have someone read, tell, or invent a story about an event:
(a) that was well-facilitated,
(b) that was poorly facilitated, or
(c) that they will be facilitating in the near future.
Have participants call out when the cards in their hands correspond to patterns that:
(a) were used in the well-facilitated event,
(b) could have been used to improve the poorly-facilitated event, or
(c) might be used in the upcoming event.

2.  For post-event reflection and debriefing
Lay out all the cards so everyone can see them.
Tell the story of the recent event.  As you do, identify which patterns were invoked and which might have been more effectively invoked.

3.  For a team preparing for a facilitated event
Place a large display board at the front of the room.  In the rows, list the nine categories; in the columns, list time stages:  “pre-event planning,” “beginning of the event,” “middle of the event,” “ending of the event,” “follow-up.”
Sort the cards by category.  Hand out the category stacks to individuals or groups on the team.
Have someone describe the upcoming event:  the objective, background, possible obstacles to success, etc.
Invite team members to select patterns in their category that could be used at each stage, and post the corresponding card in the appropriate row or column of the board (using a non-permanent adhesive).
Once complete, review the full arrangement on the board and discuss as a group whether it presents an appropriate strategy for the upcoming event.

4.  For intuitive guidance—using the cards as an oracle or fortune-teller
Can be done as part of preparing for an event or a during a break.
Focus on the situation you are seeking guidance for, turning it over in your mind.  Draw one card to give you inspiration for how to proceed.  Or choose a tableau to apply.  For example, five cards might represent, in sequence:  (a) the context/past situation, (b) current influences, (c) the current challenge you face, (d) unexpected future influences, and (e) outcome/resolution.
Use the cards personally or as a group to divine your current situation, future fortune, or what to do next.  Let your minds and imaginations and the group conversation guide you to what it all means, and have fun with it!

5.  For creating a case study to present in a class or workshop
On a board or flipchart, create a blank Storyboard with dates and/or times shown across the top.
In time sequence, tell the story of what happened, writing key events and facts on the Storyboard.  As you do, post the card for the pattern that was used at that key point onto the Storyboard (using a non-permanent adhesive).

6.  Assignments during a group session
As people walk in the door, or once everyone has assembled, give each person one random card and ask them to take responsibility for bringing that pattern into the group session as needed.

7.  For self-assessment and self-directed learning
Lay out all the cards.  Identify which patterns you feel most competent using, and which you would like to become better at.
A.  Personal Development Activity
Each week, select one pattern from the second list, and think about how you have used it in the past, could have used it, and might use it in future.  Keep it in a place where it’s visible and refer back to it at various points during the week.  Research situations where it has been used in an exemplary way.  Make a point of observing when it gets used in an event or activity you participate in, and how the facilitator effectively invoked it (or not).  (NB: If you are a facilitation teacher, you might similarly assign certain patterns to your students to study and research.)
B.  Group Development Activity
Sit in a circle around the cards laid out.  Give each person one or two sets of tokens (coins, paperclips, etc.).  Invite each person to lay tokens on: (a) the patterns they feel strong in already, and (b) the patterns they would like to get better at.  Take turns sharing about why you chose the patterns you did.  Teach each other by having the more competent group members tell stories and suggest approaches and exercises, and go to this website for further resources.

8.  Methodology Mapping
If you are an experienced practitioner of a particular process method (e.g.  Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search, etc.), you can use the cards to map that method.  Choose 5-12 cards that you think are most important or that tell the story of how that method works.  Then from that set, choose 1-3 cards to put at the very centre, the patterns that express the vital core of that method.  Use this to explain the method to others, from among your colleagues or on our website.

9.  In the middle of an event when the group is stuck
The deck can be used for “getting unstuck” in a variety of ways—by having the group reflect and talk about patterns that might be invoked (perhaps handing out the cards and/or displaying the full list of patterns), by guerrilla facilitation of someone in the group describing an “escape pattern” and then leading the group to invoke it, or by drawing an “oracle” card as in use (4) above.

I immediately wanted to start trying some of these ideas and will use the deck in some upcoming work.

Because I love the people who made these cards, I went out and bought 10 sets … some to use, some to give to clients and some to set free. I want to give four sets away to readers of this blog who help get the word out about the deck.

If you would like a set, please post a blog post about the deck and how you might use it, then leave a link in the comments. Make sure you include a valid email address when you submit your comment (only I will see it) as I’ll use that to contact you to get your address/mail you the deck. First four, folks! Starting NOW!

 Edit: January 12th. The Decks have arrived (THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL) so I’m going to put a deadline of noon PST, January 18th on my offer so I can then send the decks along!)

Social Artists, Connecting the Dots and Steve

Last week while I was on the road, in response to the Tweets and two online events for #change11, I received a wonderful email from one of my online friends, Steve Crandall (aka “imaginary friends” which means we have not yet met F2F) which warmed the cockles of my heart…some real life stories about “social artists” which was. One of the core ideas I hoped to chew on this week with the good folks of #change11. (If you are lost about the meaning of #change 11, look here and here.) Steve wrote:

Hi Nancy

I was looking at your video conference on social artistry. The role of the listener/synthesizer is very important. We had one in an inventor’s circle at Bell Labs – of the four of us was one person who rarely offered the new core ideas, but rather would listen to the three of us hash things out for an hour quietly and then say ‘let me see if I understand this”   he was enormously broad and connections none of us had imagined would surface giving new directions. He also had rich connections to other people where he served in a similar role. He was far and away the most important guy in our group. I should note that he was older and his background was *extremely* diverse.

It reminded me of an old notion that Bonnie Nardi and I had on the “library gene” — the folks who navigate content for the rest of us. We measured it for music and found they were about as common as numbers people talk about for literature. There was speculation that perhaps this type of person exists to curate social graphs as well as technical graphs — I’m certain they exist. I know one at Pixar who is spectacular. In theory a group leader should have some of these skills – in practice I think they are rare (at least natively perhaps people can learn)



I immediately wrote him back before I headed, yet again, to the airport and asked if I could share his email alnd if he might join us for our second session on friday at 9am PDT. Here’s what he wrote:

Feel free to post Nancy

I don’t know my schedule on Friday – I may be traveling – but I can offer more detail if you like. I’m very interested in this class of person.

Early on in my Bell Labs career I spent some time working with the silicon production people at the Western Electric Allentown PA Works. A dingy place that was built in WWII, but was the leading edge of AT&T’s electronic production at the time. The silicon process was had a lot of black magic and art in it. People roughy understood it, but there was a considerable amount of tuning and local knowledge – small changes often led to expensive disasters. There was a guy who was technically a process manager, but his unconventional habit of walking around and asking everyone deep questions was allowed as he had the respect of people. He would bring together very disparate people (that’s how I got involved – I was giving a talk at Murray HIll in NJ that he visited and he thought I needed to look at something in Allentown – it wasn’t a problem for them, but he wanted to plant seeds and involve people who might be useful in the future. Unofficially he was known as “the major of Allentown”. He successfully tied about 25 groups of technologists together. I’m still astounded at his curiosity and connections.

The phrase “connect the dots” means a lot to me. We generally think of it in idea space, but it is clearly present in other areas I think SSTEM only education is a mistake as it focuses too much, bu that is a different subject. I don’t know if you saw it, but here is a general post on this type of person (although it doesn’t get into the social graph navigators and librarian gene people)

You know, Steve is a “connect the dots” sorta guy. Yes, a social artist! More on social artists in the next few days as I continue to synthesize what I learned last week from the MOOC Change11.

P.S. Edit on Tuesday — you might enjoy Steve’s second and very thoughtful blog, Omenti.

Follow-up from the Leadership Learning Community Webinar

Last Monday I was a guest of the Leadership Learning Community for an short online gathering. The description was pretty loose and they expected around 50 people to show up.

Communities, Networks and Engagement: Finding a Place for Action
We have so many online tools at our disposal to theoretically connect and activate engagement with others. But what happens when we say “we’re building an online community” but few engage? When is it worth the work and effort? What are our options? And if we build it, what are some starting points to help us work towards successful engagement?

We were using a GoToWebinar platform, which I’ll admit, I don’t like because it is really a broadcast tool, with no peer to peer interaction and all participant interaction funneled to one person (and there were four of us involved in producing the event, so lots of forwarding, etc.)  I decided to abandon a more formal presentation style to try and engage people from the start because after all, this was what the webinar was about! So we started with some polls, and then with my host, Grady McGonagill, we took questions during the presentation and Grady and I diverged into conversation as well. Consequently, I did not get through the material. So I promised to follow up with the slides, resources and answers to any outstanding questions we did not get to. Thus this blog post. Here we go…


  • Any tips or recommended resources for facilitating hybrid online/phone focus groups with smaller groups (5-15 max)? Also, any recommendations re: optimal group size for this sort of interaction? If the group is all online – you are lucky. The most challenging groups are mixed online and offline. For facilitating, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. 1) Think multi-modality. Audio alone doesn’t work well for a lot of us to stay engaged. Have a visual element – a shared Google doc or presentation, a wiki/chat room in or use the white board in a web meeting tool. Of course, this visual aspect needs to be relevant. I really like pairing chat rooms w/ audio (be it on phone, skype or whatever) where people can talk to each other without having to wait for audio “air time.” This does challenge some people who are less comfortable multitasking. You might consider methods like “the clock” both for phone and web meetings (see here and here). 2) Think 7 minute chunks. Break things up alternating content sharing with interacting, visual with audio. Remember, it is hard to pay attention when our bodies are not in the same place. 3) Group size issues are similar to those F2F. Once you get over 5 or 6 it is harder for everyone to have a chance to speak up. With some web tools, you can do break out rooms — just like F2F!
  • How do you balance “quality control” with network engagement/ participation/ responsibility? I was very intrigued by this question. It is probably helpful to figure out what we mean by quality control. I’ll take a guess and someone chime in if I get it wrong. I’m assuming this is about content — did a member give correct or useful advice. Was the data shared accurate, etc. My experience is that in communities where people care about what they are working with (the “domain”) they also care about quality and help weed out the “iffy” stuff. The key is to cultivate habits of critical thinking and useful practices to apply that thinking (which means civility!) If we are talking about “quality people” I’m assuming this means attracting people who know something about the domain. Again, if the learning matters, you will attract good people. It can feel, however, like a leap of faith. One word? LEAP!
  • We have persons in developing countries as well as in places where the internet is not an issue… this produces a big challenge to overcome to connect the majority of them. How do you engage them? How do you make them feel part of the community (normally they believe and put money, but not always participate). Again, I need to be careful in my interpretation of this question! When we work globally, we have both similarities and differences to account for. First, if there is clarity on shared domain (what the group is interested in an how it is concretely relevant to them today!) you are ahead of the game. Many global communities I’ve been involved with have very broad, generic domains. While no one could disagree with them, they were so broad everyone deprioritized their participation. A big tent may hold many people, but a big tent can also be empty. Consider focusing the domain in a way that carries relevance for people NOW. Then make the tent bigger later. Second, cultural diversity (linguistic, national, professional, gender, etc.) can be harder to detect online, but can trip us up faster. I find making these differences discuss-able little bit by little bit helps. Encourage people to share their ways of working and interacting. Compare and contrast a bit. This helps people find common ground and know when to “cut some slack” for others’ behaviors which they may not — ahem — love themselves! Finally, talk about participation — don’t assume it. Ask for small, doable things from people to build that sense of and experience of engagement. Don’t ask for TOO much — people are busy no matter where they live! Small bites are tasty! (See also the next two questions)
  • Do you have any recommendations for technology when your community is spread around the world? In my experience where bandwidth and electricity are limiting elements the most effective technology is email based technology. The use of text on mobile phones is the first technology that might unseat email. There are also community rhythm issues when you have people coming from diverse bandwidth contexts. For example, when you have a mix of folks who are “always online and reply quickly to messages AND people who are online once a week or every two weeks, you can get a lot of asymmetry in participation with those on less feeling left out and “late to the party.” If this happens to you, encourage the always-on folks to slow down. It’s good practice for us “fast fast fast” people!
  • What does diversity mean in this discussion?  How does class diversity and online access play a role?  How do multilingual networks connect and thrive?  What hosting platform handles multilingual groups best? Diversity means MANY things and some have different implications than others. Lets start with linguistic diversity. I have used platforms that have multilingual interfaces — and which one will work for you depends on what languages you need. But the user interface is just step one. That helps people get online. But the key is having a) critical mass within each linguistic group for ongoing interaction and b) “bridgers” who help summarize and translate. I’ve blogged a bit about this issue and you can read some of the articles here.
  • Can you repeat at some point how to access the wiki? I mentioned two wikis. One was my online facilitation resources wiki here. The other is the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, a collaborative effort to capture a variety of online and offline methods.
  • CPsquare doesn’t give much on their initial website — any chance you all can give more guidance on how to connect to it? It is hard to get a sense of all the wonderful things that happen around CP2. First, it is important to know it is a membership community. You can see the blog for free, but ya gotta join, ok?  For example, there is the quarterly “Foundations of Communities of Practice” online workshop which is a deep dive into CoPs. John Smith, the community steward, told me to mention”help in real time” which is a discussion board for Q&A with fabulous people resources, the month telecon on “shadow the leader” where the community hears about the community leadership practices of one person over the arc of a year  (currently Marc Coenders on evolving his evolving business model), the R&D series on student projects where mostly PhD candidates support each other and then when drafts of work are ready, the community offers feedback. For more details, read CP2 blog for news and updates. My shorthand? CP2 is a place to engage with others who care about communities of practice!

Have other questions or thoughts? Chime in with a comment.

Message From Meetup/Community Thoughts

KM4Dev members

I thought this was worth sharing as I know many of you, dear readers, are as passionate about community as I am. Plus I’m preparing for a round of gatherings of communities that are very significant in my life in the coming weeks. In that spirit considers what triggers us to connect. What has catalyzed significant community engagement for you?

To: nancyw at fullcirc dot com
Subject: 9/11 & us

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don’t write to our whole community often, but this week is special because it’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many people don’t know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought local community doesn’t matter much if we’ve got the internet
and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I hoped they wouldn’t bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they’d normally ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being neighborly.

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet — and grow local communities?

We didn’t know if it would work. Most people thought it was a crazy idea — especially because terrorism is designed to make people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it’s working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups,Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups… a wild variety of 100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common — except one thing.

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me. They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and motivate each other, they babysit each other’s kids and find other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace together. They make friends and form powerful community. It’s powerful stuff.

It’s a wonderful revolution in local community, and it’s thanks to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it weren’t for 9/11.

9/11 didn’t make us too scared to go outside or talk to strangers. 9/11 didn’t rip us apart. No, we’re building new community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we’re just getting started with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ)Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup New York CitySeptember 2011

Do something, Learn something, Share something, Change something – Meetup.