Section 2

What's the CLIMATE like in your community?

Having established that communication via email and discussion lists carries its own particular characteristics, it is therefore logical to investigate the context in which this (meaningful) communication takes place and to what ends. For the purpose of this study I am looking at Virtual Communities, and specifically Communities of Practice. 'Virtual Community' is the now generic term given to "computer-mediated social groups"[1] which refers to aggregates of people and is non-specific in denoting purpose other than social interaction. 'Communities of Practice' refers to "...a set of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping CoPs"[2] as first set out by Lave and Wenger. These relation are a result of the 'collective learning'[3] situated in the multilogue. As such they are practices which are products of the process of interaction, as much as the process of interaction itself.

As these definitions are relatively abstract as regards active purpose, we may look at what Michael Gurstein summarised in a posting to the Community Informatics discussion list[4]. He considers the list to be:

"the hub for an informal network --Community of Practice-- of those with an interest in community informatics -- researchers and practitioners...that being said, I see the content of the list being fair game for whatever might support, enhance, enable, promote etc. etc. such a network -- and that would include reposts (for information) and discussion, for collaborative meaning creation...something that I think is very important in an emerging area..."[5].

As such, the use of the term 'Virtual Communities' is more fitting when referring to the generalities of computer-mediated aggregates of people whereas 'Communities of Practice' seems more suited when referring those aggregates to their ends. The name 'Community of Practice' itself implies more than a human network mediated by computer: it implies action and application of the learning which takes place through interaction.

I have chosen to use the framework of CLIMATE (Community, Language, Interaction and Medium in the Analysis of Telepresence Environments)[6] as a, by no means absolute or linear, guide in exploring the essential tenets of CoPs. CLIMATE is a holistic approach to analysing requirements in the development of virtual environments and emphasises a user-friendly approach to their design and implementation. Whereas the authors chose to apply the framework to a synchronous text- and graphics-based environment, I have chosen to apply it to the asynchronous environment of email discussion lists.

Conkar et al's definition of virtual environment as "an artificially generated sense of physical presence and environment created through the use of the computer interface and the social contributions of users"[7] can serve as a basis for understanding some of the dynamics of CoPs as I approach them in this study. Whilst we are probably not under the illusion that we are anywhere else than in front of a computer screen when communicating with other users, the fact that we are able to communicate with other people within this environment highlights that such an environment exists and is developed through active participation; that is, meaningful discourse.


From a traditional, and historical, point of view the concept of 'community' has been constrained by geographical boundaries. Community has often had a physical location as the focus of its activities, e.g. town-square or promenade. A band of thieves guarding their treasure would have their stronghold as the focus of community life; equally, British bankers have the City of London as the focus of their financial community. More recently, the term 'community' has been extended to include ethnic and minority groups, as in the 'British Sikh community', and even the 'electronic community', in the sense of "aggregates of people who hardly know each other"[8] (though they may), and often, but not necessarily, linked to a specific location. For some the issue of what denotes or connotes a 'community' is a matter of contention. When speaking of community in the context of CoPs, I assume this to be "a web of of affect-laden relationships that encompasses a group of individuals - relationships that crisscross and reinforce one another, rather than simply a chain of one-to-one relationships...[which] require a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, mores, meanings and a shared historical identity - in short, a culture"[9]. This definition is useful to our understanding of virtual CoPs as it lacks any physical location connotations.

Community can be said to have as its ethereal tie ethos. Derived from the Greek word for 'habitual meeting place'[10][11]: "ethos is not measurable traits displayed by an individual; rather it is a complex set of characteristics constructed by a group, sanctioned by that group, and more readily recognisable to others who belong or share similar values or experiences"[12]. The ethos of community as it relates to CoPs is created by participation in the virtual environment and requires an understanding and practice of the pragmatics of its communication purposes: "people come to acquire a community ethos by inhabiting the space and learning its unique communication characteristics"[13]. Thus, using email as the medium, with its particularities set out in the previous section, has a large influence on the formation of a CoP's ethos.


As well as having noted the atomic properties of email in meaningful communication, its functionality as a communication tool (that is, an extension of and/or augmentation to human activity) must not be overlooked. Gurack draws our attention to Kaufer and Carley's work on medium in CMC: reach, asynchronicity, durability and multiplicity (Kaufer and Carley), as well as speed, time and specificity (Gurack) are highlighted as features of delivery in CMC[14].

Language and Identity

The 'Language' component of the CLIMATE approach suggests that "the use of shared meaning and syntax...[,] vocabulary, ontology and semantics"[15] is inherent in the interactive communication process of virtual environments and thus contributes to the development of ethos and individuals' identity within such an environment. Conkar et al further note that "symbols come to have a categorical relevance to aspects of culture [and] ritual..." and "categories of objects coded in the language reinforce community interaction"[16]. For example, participants in the MISTICA discussion list frequently use the symbol '@' to refer to themselves and the rest of the membership of the list, as in '¡Hola MISTIC@S!'. While this may be a play on words (at least in the Spanish language) it alludes to the role of gender in the MISTICA community[17] in the context of communicating in the cyber dimension: "...[it is necessary] to articulate culture and the perspective of gender at each stage of humanist sustainable development, since it is about producing permanent changes and transformations, creating new values and individual inwards thought-processes, and their assimilation into each being, disclaiming the still predominant patriarchal structures"[18]. Thus the use of '@' serves to reiterate the ethos of the MISTICA CoP by providing a simple and easily recognisable statement of commitment to the values which this symbol engenders.

Postings to a discussion list are generally received with the name of the discussion list at the beginning of the subject line wither in full or as an acronym within square brackets, for example, the subject line of a message from the Community Informatics discussion list would start with: '[CI]:...'. This serves to highlight the content of your inbox; as a readily recognisable symbol it is used as a functionary handle in the selection from what there is to be read. A message identified as from a particular CoP may provoke more interest than one from another and get read: a product of an individual's selective cognitive processes.

Whilst exploring the language dimension of the CLIMATE framework, we should also consider the call for the Net to be multilingual in La Sociedad Digital's (The Digital Society) 'Manifesto for the Digital Society'[19]. The MISTICA project has had since its conception the foresight to try and incorporate four languages in its communications[20]: English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, with the view to including other indigenous languages of the Latin American and Caribbean region where its activities are focused. Due to lack of resources this has not always been practical to do this which has seen participants fall back on Spanish to communicate, the predominate language of the region and participants. With multiloguing purporting to be an inclusive mode of communication, it remains that communication in this mode is still limited generally to speakers of the same language(s).

Communities and the management of knowledge: a Knowledge Spiral approach

Having viewed CoPs in the context of information as data plus meaning: the sending of messages composed of data (words and symbols) interpreted by humans to provide meaningful information, the next step in the epistemological chain is to make the inference from information to knowledge in the context of CoPs. Information as an exchanged public good fits the view that "information is commodity capable of yielding knowledge.."[21]. Knowledge itself is seen as "a dynamic human process of justifying personal belief toward the 'truth'"[22]: this acknowledges the subjective nature of knowledge, information and associated values by placing them in the human context. Information as misinformation can be still be used in holding a 'justified true belief'[23] until the truth is made known or teased out by further interactive discursive gestures as part of the human feedback mechanisms in the meaning-constituting systems[24] of CoPs. "Thus information is a flow of messages, while knowledge is created by that very flow of information, anchored in the beliefs and commitment of its holder"[25].

Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) theory of organisational knowledge creation considers two traditionally explored areas of knowledge. Firstly, tacit knowledge is "that which is known"[26] and resides within the individual as 'experience' or 'know-how'. It is therefore difficult to codify and put in a format that would facilitate its communication to another. Secondly, explicit knowledge is also 'that which is known' but "is transmittable in formal, systematic language"[27] such as manuals and written procedures. The transferal of tacit and explicit knowledge is viewed as a result of human interaction deploying four modes of 'knowledge conversion'[28] which emphasise the transferal of knowledge as a process of social interaction. This concept of knowledge conversion is of particular relevance to CoPs as they are essentially concerned with the spread of knowledge within their communities and peripheries.

The mode of 'socialization' involves the transfer of tacit knowledge through interaction with knowledgeable practitioners where experience can be picked up through a 'hands-on' approach. In a computer-mediated CoP, this mode of conversion would expect to gain little in knowledge transfer as the non-formalised practices of actually 'doing the job' are context-specific and practitioners tend to be isolated by distance from the context where such a socialization would take place.

'Externalization' is the conversion of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge through "metaphors, analogies, concepts, hypotheses, or models"[29]. A posting to the CI list about the dependent variable in community informatics initiated a thread which involved much reflective participation, the interjection of numerous other possible theories plus many analogies and metaphors which initiated another thread; the two running the course of about 40 messages[30]. The use of narrative to describe internally-coded knowledge in the context of where the practices (or procedures) take place enables the potential transfer of knowledge. This conversion stage would be more likely to generate knowledge in a virtual CoP as the mode of language used to externalise is one that is common to the communicative practices of the CoP.

Explicit knowledge is 'combined' with other explicit knowledge in the third mode of conversion to augment the memetic value of the sources selected: a message to a discussion list stating 'facts' about the appropriation of ICT in Latin America accompanied by a link to a web-based database will reinforce the declaration espoused. Equally, the primary artefact can be combined with any suitable form of explicit knowledge as it is in the context of other knowledge that the true value of both sources of knowledge is realised.

The final mode of conversion described by Nonaka and Takeuchi is that of 'internalisation': the conversion of explicit to (personal) tacit knowledge. This is the culmination of the three preceding modes which lead up to the individual assimilating the knowledge as his own experience through the use of artefacts containing explicit knowledge and the actual performance of the practices described.

These modes take place sequentially[31] and their assimilation into the body of knowledge that is the CoP comes about through the ongoing discursive gestures of the participants as they attempt to articulate an understanding and create knowledge according to their own 'prior knowledge and expectations'. Nonaka and Takeuchi allude to the 'Knowledge Spiral'[32]: a graphic representation of the four modes of conversion. Through the ongoing iteration of the four conversion processes, the taking on board of new ideas (thus, new knowledge) becomes an automatic process of continual situated learning for the CoP.

The ability of knowledge to reside outside of an individual, and thus be explicit, allows us to consider Knowledge Management Systems (KMS) as "information systems specifically designed to facilitate the sharing and integration of knowledge"[33]. The KMS of the MISTICA CoP[34] serves as a prime example: the contributions to the discussion list are augmented by a 'community memory' in the form of archives of previous contributions. As well as this, it acts as a repository for articles related to the topics of discussion not sent out directly to the community and also to the objectives of the CoP. However, knowledge has been noted as being 'sticky'[35]. Even though it may exist in postings to the list and within the KMS, its free flow through the community is inhibited by obstacles 'among, between and within' as set out in Section 3.


Within the CLIMATE framework, the final tenet to explore is that of 'Interaction'. Conkar et al describe interaction as "using [the] processes of distributed cognition and artefact sharing [which] involves the development of an externalised (as opposed to internalised) mental framework that is shared between the users of the same system. This framework is cemented through its application to an artefact(s) which becomes a representational reminder or cue to the users of the system"[36]. This description alludes to the multiloguing mode of communication where participants communicate through the creation of an artefact (an email or posting to a list), whose initial structure is reformed and augmented by participants and presented back to the community. Often the initial message or portion thereof is included in the reposting to serve as a 'reminder' or 'cue' to focus the discussion; replies to postings normally refer to the subject of the initial message as in: '[CI]: RE: A quiet word... (Re: the CI list)'[37].

So here we see the use of an artefact as a tool for iteration: "that curious repetition/non-repetition, a 'happening again' which is not repeating what happened before, that ability of locutions to be separated from the initial context which gave them birth, and apparently 'repeated' - only apparently, though, as each 'repetition' is inevitably a renewal, a rebirth, a rejuvenation, sucking the life juices of other contexts and other intentions"[38]. This iterative (and thus not reiterative) process provides a framework for the development of the thread being discussed by referring to its original intention and context, and its being put in other contexts and to other intentions by other participants each of whom are motivated by their own intentions and Weltanschauung: a product of distributed cognition.


Section 3: Interaction versus Participation

1.Rheingold (1998)

2.Lave and Wenger in Kimble, Hildreth and Wright (2001)

3.Wenger (1998), p.45

4.See Appendix 2.

5.Gurstein (2002).

6.Conkar et al. (1998), p.388.

7.Ibid, p.389.

8.Etzioni (1999).


10.Gurack (1999), p.247.

11.See Appendix 1 - Bohío project

12.Reynolds in Gurack (1999), p.247.

13.Gurack (1999), p.247.


15.Conkar et al. (1999), p.390.


17....Spanish uses the endings o/a to refer to male and female genders respectively. For example, a waiter is 'camerero', whereas a waitress is 'camerera'. The use of '@' in 'MISTIC@' is therefore inclusive of both genders, and thus neuter, as well as 'miembr@' (member); 'tod@s' (all); and 'usuari@' (user), emphasising the neutrality of gender as a tenet of the MISTICA ethos.

18.Pimienta (2001), 5.5.4. (My translation from the Spanish).

19.La Sociedad Digital (2002).

20.See Appendix 1 for details of the EMEC methodology.

21.Dretske in Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), p.58.

22.Ibid. Emphasis as original.


24.Luhmann in Mingers (1996), p.200.

25.Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), p.58.

26.Grant in Mclure Wasko and Faraj (2000).

27.Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), p.59.

28.Ibid, p.61.

29.Ibid, p.64.

30.See Harris (2001).

31.... Subsequent field research in knowledge elicitation techniques has lead me to believe that the process is in fact non-sequential. Ideas can be put forward and discussed in a CoP, possibly leading to revision of an individual's Umwelt, but the internalisation process may or not be realised depending on whether the recipient of an email decides to or can act on the information. Nonaka and Takeuchi suggest that internalisation is "closely related to 'learning by doing'"(p.69) or to allude to the domain: 'by practice'. In the context of virtual CoPs, it could mean that it is enough to create yet another discursive gesture for internalisation to be achieved, yet what the CoP is all about is not merely text-creation. Moreover, the existence of the other three described processes in the continued development of threads (unthwarted by any non-internalisation) suggests that internalisation can be skipped without detriment to knowledge transfer taking place.

32.Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), p.70. See also Appendix 4

33.Alavi and Leidner in McLure Wasko and Faraj (2000), p.156.

34.See Appendix 1.

35.Mclure Wasko and Faraj (2000), p.156.

36.Conkar et al. (1999), p.390.

37.Gurstein (2002).

38.Baumann (1993), p.102.