As the first step of concluding this work I would like to offer a short critique of the approach I took in looking at the phenomena of Communities of Practice. Having finally narrowed down my initial idea for my dissertation from being an assessment of the social impact of ICT in general (!) to a study of CoPs, I still had to deal with the abstract nature of the literature surrounding computer mediated social interactions. Moreover, I discovered that on embarking on my decided course of action I was required to do a huge amount of background research into the theories expounded in the relevant literature. Whilst I was already aware if the inter-disciplinary nature of Information Systems I was not quite prepared for the discipline hopping I ended up doing.
I had thought of choosing a specific, well-known and respected methodology on which to base my approach to CoPs. However, having looked at Soft Systems Methodology as the most obvious choice for dealing with holons (human activity systems), I was not convinced that such an approach could get to grips with what I had in mind. Also, if the big theories were already there, why hadn't my initial research into them turned up anything useful? (I think somewhere along the line I got my selective functions twisted?!). What was clear to me was the desire to explore CoPs as meaning-constituting systems producing public goods. I didn't feel that any approach which would analyse and then cut up and reorganise things if that was how it would make it better would apply to informal networks of people contributing out of their own time and effort. After finally getting to grips with semiotic theory as set out by Shank and Cunningham I came across Mingers' work on a course module. This was such a clear explanation of the semantic and pragmatic aspects of IS that I felt that this would be a suitable tool in my approach to CoPs. In fact I think that Habermas' idea of a universally pragmatic approach to communicative action holds pretty high ground as regards any approach to investigating IS and outside of academia as well.
That I didn't manage to consider online CoP interactions in comparison with face-to-face meetings and how they may enhance or worsen social interactions is something I regret. However, logically, I was dealing with the processes of communication in the generation of meaning so I don't think it would have fitted. I regret also how I was unable to link in CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) or my own experience with working to social ends.
While my approach could be said to be a little haphazard as regards finding the end to means I wouldn't describe it as ethnomethodological. It hasn't been my purpose to shock old ladies in supermarkets or actually find out how many angels do fit on the head of a pin. The task which I set myself was to inform myself and make myself more knowledgeable as regards the dynamics of IS and CoPs, and I do feel I have achieved that. What I would do next time is be a little more linear in my approach!
We have seen how symbols and their manipulation are inherent to both computerised information systems and human communication. Their use highlights the subjective nature of communication and the generation of meaning through their interpretation by humans. A pragmatic approach to communicative action and the ongoing process of negotiating meaning allows us to understand our reality and share and augment this understanding with others through our social interactions.
An overview of Mackays' Conditional Probability Matrix allows us to understand the cognitive processes involved in receiving a message. Moreover, that it is our subjectivity and our perception of the world (Umwelt) that is the focus of any desired change in cognitive state rather than our behaviour allows us to consider the nature of public goods in the light of the generosity of the sender.
The concept of abductive multiloguing seen as best suited to describing the way in which we deal with the hypothetical interjections on a discussion list also leads us to appreciate the inclusive nature of this mode of communication. The fact that abduction is inherent in the process highlights that we are continually learning through our experiences in generating meaning both within ourselves and through the interpretations of our own interpretations by others.
The fact that we adhere to the CoP's ethos by responding in a manner which reflects the neutrality of the terain but which also guides us to reasoning suggests that we could well take on board some of these concepts and apply them to life off-line in our social interactions. This is all the more heightened when considering the closeness of the style of delivery to our traditional oral communication.
The CLIMATE methodology permits us to explore the basic building blocks of online CoPs. The concept of community (including both community and individual identity) is highlighted as fundamental in encouraging and maintaining participation. Language is also central to this point when considered with the need for common understanding through pragmatic communication.
As a further aside to language, given the richness of diversity that can be expressed through a multitude of languages, I believe we are missing the potential for increased interaction, and thus, understanding, through the current inability of the majority to effectively communicate with speakers of other languages. Machine translators do exist, but my experience of them is to garble more than they help. With the continuing decrease in the number of (UK) students studying languages (and perhaps quotas) it is worrying to reflect on how we are distancing ourselves from a world rich in experiences of which an understanding of and participation from would inevitably help in developing public goods and ultimately improve the social reality.
The use and concept of Knowledge Management Systems in facilitating a CoP's activities has left me still perplexed as to whether narratives in a CoP are tacit or explicit knowledge. Being a community there are the nuances of socialising associated when taking part in interactions, thus fulfilling the theoretical requirements for the sharing of tacit knowledge according to the knowledge conversion process. However, the requirements for externalisation are also met through the use of words and inevitably 'metaphors, analogies, concepts, hypotheses or models'. The first three of which are pretty hard to avoid when participating in a meaning-constituting system. Also, now the knowledge is codified and thus hard, how can it effectively be put to use? Although this is now hard knowledge, it still exhibits its tacit nature by virtue of its narrative form (and its need to be formalised). If a synthesis of all these scraps of knowledge from the community memory was made would it then be properly explicit?
Interaction was highlighted as contrasting with participation as low input to a CoP impacts on the creation of public goods. I described some of the barriers to participation from and outside of a systems perspective. I believe an understanding of these barriers by participants and members would help in promoting participation and in achieving clear and effective communication. For example, articulating points of view or explaining concepts in clear and simple language which would be inclusive to all, rather than only to those esoterically versed, would increase the amount of understanding. Furthermore, 'dissensus rather than consensus' is an accurate representation of our reality where one proposed solution to a problem may not be universally practical or applicable. Therefore, a CoP's ethos should be inclusive of the difference in opinions held by its members; that is, its membership should welcome and encourage different perspectives to be aired in order that the full scope of ideas can reach an audience whose social realities can be improved by the broadest possible range of informative comment. Having said that, these differing opinions must be presented in a way which reflects an inclusive ethos and would encourage further participation.
I explored the aspect of trust to show the feedback mechanisms that exist within the meaning-constituting system of the CoP. These feedback mechanisms would also allow for assuring that the CoP's ethos is respected. Whilst it could be argued that such a 'system' was self-regulating, I still believe that some 'moderation' is still required. Many discussion lists have a moderator whose responsibility is to ensure that the discussion remains within the CoP's focus, this is, often, more of a faciliatory role than a control function. In an environment of reasoned discussion it could be assumed that there would be no need for this, yet you still find someone plugging their business until they are 'moderated'!
Whilst semiotics plays its part in understanding meaning-creation, the most important aspect of CoPs is that distributed cognition can help in the creation of a public good. A public good does not require external direction to be produced, it can be the product of an individual's desire. However, through collaborative meaning-creation it is likely that the potential audience of beneficiaries is likely to increase through the sharing of thoughts and ideas and thus, the augmentation of the memetic value of the good. A physical location is no longer required for public good production; networked individuals and, by inference, groups, can enjoy the labour of others and through the appreciation of such a gift economy can reciprocate as and when they can.
The ease by which a public good can be created in the cyber dimension highlights the ease by which social action can be manifested. That these public goods are also the product of collective (inter)actions is also a testament to human potential and desire for the improvement of the social reality. The gift economy in which these goods are exchanged is one where financial benefit is not considered and not a motivation. Though these CoPs may be globally distanced and hold in common only the collective creation of meaning, the effect of these networked individuals is immeasurable due to the multiple connections that they have with others by which they can share their newly formed (and still nascent) knowledge.