Modes of participation:
Reflecting on a community conversation
John D. Smith
Thinking about participation: When we are in a conversation, we
are participating in different groups and in different ways all at the
same time. Handling all those differences can be easier if we stop to separate
some of the different aspects that are all mixed up in daily life.
The following is a portrayal of a conversation among a group of people
who are discussing how to use e-mail lists to increase participation in
learning events that they are sponsoring in a medium-sized high-technology
Format: The following conversation is presented in a format that
is borrowed from a learning history. The right hand column is drawn from
the minutes of the meeting, while the left hand column suggests questions
November 5th meeting of CoPoCoP: There were seven people
at this meeting of a community of community builders (called CoPoCoP).
The main characters are Ruth, who spent a lot of time several months ago
creating a public e-mail distribution list for the company's software community,
and Kerry, who was thinking of creating a similar one for another community.
The meeting notes from that date cover several other topics before and
after the conversation about e-mail distribution lists.
|What can spark community when you don't
run into people in the hallway?
||Notes: "Ruth brought up the question of how to
set up an e-mail distribution list. She and Kerry had deferred a
conversation they had started in a hallway conversation about setting one
up [for the community that Kerry is trying to set up] until today's CoPoCoP
meeting so that all of us could participate in the discussion."
|Kerry is hoping that the article will bring
some new ideas into her community. What factors would make that hope
||Notes: "Kerry's original question was 'what do I have to do to send
out an electronic copy of an article from Fortune magazine to a
bunch of people?' As we discussed her problem, questions of why,
how, when, etc., etc., etc. also began to emerge. We agreed that
an e-mail list may be necessary for a community to stay in touch, but it's
|What effect would Ruth's strategy of announcing
seminars to "everyone" have on the community's awareness of itself?
Does a community's senes of identity have anything to do with competence?
||Ruth: "Before I started working on the big e-mail
list I use for the software seminar series, everybody assumed that there
was no reason to send e-mail to the people who developed and
maintained software, who worked with both modern and ancient languages,
who worked with software running on our products and on other company's
products -- whether the software was given away for free with our products
or was sold separately. I wanted a list so I could send e-mails that
would reach everybody who worked on the company's software no matter
where they were in the entire company."
|If you were trying to identify "lost members"
of your community, what knowledge about the world you use?
||Ruth: "It was a huge clerical job to create the company software
list in the first place, involving tracking names and groups down in the
e-mail / phone directory, using all kinds of different information sources,
and using clues like the names of software products to find groups of people
who wrote or maintained software. (By the way, the corporate policies
and procedures manual on the company Intranet is the most reliable and
current information about who manages which groups, and figuring that out
is important so that the e-mail list could include people who work with
software and their bosses.)"
|A short discussion about some of the technical details of setting
up and using e-mail distribution lists isn't included here. The conversation
then turns to some of the social issues surrounding e-mail distribution
|It turned out that the software community
was unanimous in its disapproval of junk e-mail and was very careful to
avoid breaking a code of honor about sending out unwanted e-mail.
Why would adjacent communities have (or appear to have) different norms?
||Ruth: "Because I was concerned that the list not get a reputation as
a junk list, at first I turned the 'monitor' option 'on' in Majordomo.
Only specific people could send directly to the list (requiring me
to approve, i.e., 'monitor' list use). It has turned out that nobody
even tried to send mail to the list except Cheri and me, so I have turned
the 'monitor' option off. Recently the list has been use more frequently,
but no abuses have occurred."
|How would a community as diverse as this
company's software community ever come to use these artifacts in
a consistent or uniform way?
||Notes: "We talked about how, in the context of supporting a community
of practice, a distribution list can and should work with Web pages that
provide instructions for using the list, may record past events, may link
to other information resources such as an e-mail archive, etc."
Over the next several months the topic of e-mail distribution lists came
up regularly. Notes from these conversations were organized into
a knowledge base addressing e-mail distribution list software, set-up,
maintenance, use, and linkage to text repositories, covering both technical
and non-technical issues.
|Ruth repeatedly reminded everyone that
invitations to learning events like the software seminar series can be
light-hearted and entertaining, so that people enjoy being invited, even
if they don't have the time to participate.
||Notes: "We talked about what kinds of guidelines apply to the e-mail
that we send out to the communities of practice that we support.
What do we know about how humorous or verbose we should be?"
Here are some questions for discussion:
Other than those present, what kind of people might benefit from participating
in this conversation?
What is the difference between the knowledge about e-mail that Ruth
shares and the knowledge that people from the company's the technology
What simplifying assumptions do community builders have to make, based
on their role or identity?
Resources about learning histories
Kleiner, Art and Roth, George: "The Learning Initiative at the AutoCo Epsilon
Program," is an inspiration and example. Parts of it exist on the
Web (at: http://www.sol-ne.org/pra/pro/aut/index.html)
but the full-length version is highly recommended (it can be ordered at
The "Field Manual for the Learning Historian" is very useful. Again,
the first chapter is available on the Web (at http://ccs.mit.edu/lh/intro.html),
but the full-length version is highly recommended (it also can be ordered
Kleiner, Art and Roth, George: "How to Make Experience Your Company's Best
Teacher," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 75, No. 5, September-October
1997. An accessible and thorough introduction that focuses on the
significance of learning histories. A summary and ordering information
is available on the Web at: http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu/noframes/groups/hbr/sepoct97/97506.html.
Reflection Learning Associates, Inc. provides an excellent bibliography
that includes papers about the subject of learning histories, published
learning histories, antecedent models, theory, tools and methods.
Related materials are at http://www.fieldbook.com/rlearning.htm.
© John D. Smith, 1999.