Section 3

Interaction versus Participation

Is it enough to interact 'within' a CoP? If we take the definition of interact as that which "act[s] in such a way as to have an effect on each other"[1] then this could be applied to the processes of sending and receiving email, with the related changes in cognitive structure. However, I can also interact with a CoP by subscribing to a discussion list and receiving postings to my inbox and do nothing more. Participation, on the other hand, means to "take part"[2], implying a higher level of interaction with the CoP on the part of the participant, that is, initiating and responding to messages in this domain. Though participation on the part of some members of the CoP could still benefit non-participants through their interaction with their inbox, we must view this in the light of Kollock's declaration of a social dilemma where "individually reasonable behaviour (gathering but not offering information) leads to collective disaster"[3].

Potential barriers to participation

Before moving on to discussing what may be offered by avoiding a 'collective disaster' (Section 4) I would like to explore some of the issues that may prove to be barriers to particpation in and exchange of knowledge within a Community of Practice.

Within a systems approach

It may be useful to consider a CoP again as a self-developing system with the participants forming the environment by discursive gestures. From here we can take another systems approach as that set out by Valusek and Fryback in relation to the "obstacles within, among and between participants"[4] in sharing information and knowledge.

'Within' are the limits of the individual's cognitive and behavioural capabilities on processing and responding to the information they receive. Some individuals in the CoP may not understand a thread as they had missed or forgotten its intial context. However, in the context of CMC humans are aided by 'external'[5] memory sources such as lists archived and accessible through web pages as KMS, or messages stored on a PC by virue of an email client. With regard to knowledge, codified explicit knowledge may be received (by email) but is not converted into tacit knowledge. This may be for lack of opportunity to practice what has been 'learnt'; lack of relevant contextual prior knowledge with which to combine the new knowledge; or for the saturation of potential sources of knowledge (information overload).

'Among' are the instances where, as an aspect of multiloguing, no agreement can be reached or messages in a thread contradict each other. Valusek and Fryback suggest that these cases require a referee, however the nature of distributed cognition and various differing world views leads us to consider that we may achieve more by agreeing to disagree: "justice [is] achieved through dissensus rather than consensus - that is, by preserving each person's power to deploy their narrative imagination"[6]. This is likely to impede the dissemination of knowledge through the CoP by virtue of the multiple interpretations in the process of codifying tacit knowledge; that is, the collective meaning creation carried out by the CoP's discursive gestures.

'Between' are the obstacles which impede communication amongst participants. The use of jargon or esoteric terms prevents clear communication and can strip a message of its meaning to any number of individuals in the CoP. Effective and efficient elocution is also important given the norms of discourse unit length employed. Differing perceptual and problem-solving approaches can further muddy communication and slow the flow of knowledge.

Notwithstanding the impact of the preceding obstacles, the scope of a CoP's ethos as inclusive and abductive in its approach should enable it to absorb such situations and learn from the experience.

Outside the systems approach


Over and above any meta issue concerned with discursive practices engendered by CMC, access to the CoP is of primary importance. 'Ease of use' when interfacing with others' utterances impacts on the possibility of a fully rationalised cognitive appreciation of the artefacts produced. Reading the contributions to the CoP via the Web (e.g. in an Internet cafe) does not present the same functionality associated with downloading messages to your PC to be read through an email client such as Outlook Express or Eudora. Such clients facilitate the process of organising and replying to messages by providing a text-editing environment where users, as potential participants, can iterate to themselves what has gone on before and draw threads together to be 'iterated' to the CoP, through 'copy', 'paste' and 'reply' functions (and thus create further meaning). Email clients also allow replies to be stored with the user able to choose when to send them. This allows for a further period of reflection, and thus the amending of statements which may not have been completely thought out.


Individual identity also plays a major part in participation. Participants in a CoP will be recognised for the contributions they have made. Kollock recognises persistence of an individual's identity as part of a "loose accounting system"[7] which allows for the acknowledging of past postings and impacts on a person's reputation within a CoP: "High quality information, impressive technical details in one's answers, a willingness to help others, and elegant writing can all work to increase one's prestige in the community"[8]. If prestige is so important to recognition, thus others, especially new members or those who contribute less, may be overwhelmed with the prospect of sending a message to the list. However, that discussions are inherently inclusive as a function of the medium should preclude timidity on the part of the users. This is especially so in the case of CoPs whose members may never meet face-to-face.

Trust the information?

Given that information may be as false as it may be true[9] it would be logical to assume that within the ethos of CoP there exists a belief in the trustworthiness of the information generated by its discursive interactions. Fukuyama (1995) alludes to the breakdown of traditional hierarchies and authority brought about by ICT, which has encouraged the need to trust others outside these traditional frameworks, and highlights that trust is what communties are built on: "trust is the expectation that arises within the community of regular, honest and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community"[10]. This concept of trust also extends to facilitating participation. If the CoP can be trusted not to flame[11] those who post messages and conduct discussion as reasoning rather than pure rebuttal then members are more likely to participate.

The non-hierarchical and inclusive nature of CoPs allows all information passing through to be vetted and verified by participants who can declare information to be true, false, dis- or misinformation. Thus the trustworthiness of information offered up by participants bears the scrutiny of peers, impacts on an individual's prestige and contributes to the forming of individual and collective identity.


Section 4: Artefacts as Public Goods and Generalised Exchange

1.The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)


3.Kollock in Smith and Kollock (1999), p.222.

4.Valusek and Fryback (1987).

5.Attributed to Newell and Simon in Davis (1987), p.241.

6.Beeson and Lynch (1995)

7.Kollock (1999), p.227.

8.Ibid, p.228.

9.Fox in Mingers (1996), p.203.

10.Fukuyama (1995), p.26. He continues in the next sentence: "Those norms can be about deep 'value' questions like the nature of God or justice, but they also encompass secular norms like professional standards and codes of behaviour".

11....The action of posting disparaging comments about another post or participant on the discussion list.