Here at FabRiders, we benefit greatly from our ability to share expertise with a network of technology capacity builders through which we have developed solidarity and close friendships. Recently, LevelUp asked us to help them think about how to improve engagement with the people who are interacting with their resource to deliver digital security trainings. This got us thinking more deeply about ‘communities of practice’ and we started a small research project with Kristin Antin to better understand best practices and how they work (see ‘Building a Healthy Network of Practice,’ below). We were fortunate to have conversations with Eddie Avila of Rising Voices, Hanane Boujemi of HIVOS, Allen Gunn (Gunner) from Aspiration, Heather Leson of the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) and Duane Raymond from FairSay, who helped shed a lot of insights for us. This article summarises what we found and is mainly for people who are trying to build online spaces for individuals to exchange knowledge and expertise.
Why ‘network’ might be a better framework than ‘community’
A large amount of work that we do is about strengthening and empowering communities, including those of us who are working at the intersection of human rights and technology. It’s not surprising that we are drawn to, identify with and utilise the word community frequently in the structures we interact with surrounding our work. However this may be doing a disservice to efforts aimed at supporting knowledge and expertise exchange. What we’ve uncovered in our limited research is we are too often applying the term ‘community’ on peer expertise exchange, and that is distracting from the ultimate purpose and healthy functioning of these types of spaces.
The term ‘community of practice’ was coined pre-internet and forming them remains popular, not just with practitioners but also with funders. However many ‘communities’ of practice are actually just ‘networks’, and the two terms have become conflated thanks to the rise of the terms “social networks” and “online community”, particularly in the aftermath of ‘web 2.0’ and the increase of the ability to connect and share information by peers. When these networks fail to act like communities, organisations that run them and the funders that fund them often lose interest in continuing to support them. At best they eventually become email blast lists for host organisations looking to do promotion or outreach about publications and events.
A helpful definition of community is comes from Paul James in his paper on Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Development: Other Paths for Papua New Guinea.
a social unit of any size that shares common values, or that is situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a village or town). It is a group of people who are connected by durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship as important to their social identity and practice.
David Spinks writes that in order for there to be a ‘sense of community’ four factors are needed:
- Membership – the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness
- Influence – members feeling that they have influence over the community and the community having influence over the members
- Integration and Fulfillment of Needs – by joining a community a member gets what they hoped to by joining
- Shared emotional connection – members will have a history of experiences together and the belief that there will be more experiences in the future. 
While we strive to create space that embodies these factors, people that belong to ‘communities of practice’ likely get a sense of community that is more strongly connected to their geographic location or shared characteristics (i.e, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc.). Their willingness to share and develop expertise is more about strengthening those communities rather than participating and contributing to communities devoted to expertise exchange. It might be more appropriate to use the term ‘network of practice’ rather than ‘community of practice’.
The Wikipedia entry for ‘Network of Practice’ best describes why the distinction from community is important:
In regards to defining a ‘network of practice’ “the term network implies a set of individuals who are connected through social relationships, whether they be strong or weak. Terms such as community tend to denote a stronger form of relationship, but networks refer to all networks of social relationships, be they weak or strong…. What distinguishes a network of practice from other networks is that the primary reason for the emergence of relationships within a network of practice is that individuals interact through information exchange in order to perform their work, asking for and sharing knowledge with each other.
As indicated above, networks of practice incorporate a range of informal, emergent networks, from communities of practice to electronic networks of practice…. Communities of practice are a localized and specialized subset of networks of practice, typically consisting of strong ties linking individuals engaged in a shared practice who typically interact in face-to-face situations. At the opposite end of the spectrum are electronic networks of practice, which are often referred to as virtual or electronic communities and consisting of weak ties. In electronic networks of practice, individuals may never get to know one another or meet face-to-face, and they generally coordinate through means such as blogs, electronic mailing lists, or bulletin boards.
It is also important to note that communities are always comprised of people while networks can also be comprised of machines. For this reason, Individuals may find it more appealing to join a ‘community’ rather than a ‘network’, since strong emotional connection and support is more compelling than simply being a node. However we should not have expectations that a group of people coming together to share expertise will form a community, and in particular, that it will become self-sustaining. Network members are not really equipped or motivated to contribute resources to their sustainability as they are likely to be focused on contributing to their own communities. Expectations for them to become self-sustaining will likely fall short. This is not to say that these networks are not vital and important. They are, as they provide an ability to establish connections that can deliver knowledge sharing in ways that strengthen the communities we are aiming to serve.
It might be more beneficial to focus on the ‘practice sharing’ element as opposed to whether to call them communities or network. Certainly there needs to be an element of commonality of contexts between members of a network, but greater emphasis needs to be put on supporting expertise exchange.
Building a healthy ‘network of practice’
In looking at various online platforms where peers are able to share expertise on methodologies and resources, we identified some key factors that contribute to their success:
- Focused and expressed purpose, that makes it clear to the participants who the network is for and what it is meant to be used for.
- Leaders, the people that have the biggest stake in the existence of the network and largely see the exchange of practice as being key to their ability to do their work. Leaders will help enforce rules and culture within the network. They are most likely to post questions and respond to others and openly share expertise. There is also likely to be someone who is in a ‘benevolent dictator’ role that will nudge, prod and celebrate participation by others, along with enforcing the rules. This benevolent dictator will have a clear understanding of the participants’ incentives to contribute their time and knowledge to this network, and they will leverage those incentives to encourage participation. (Incentives include: community as a trusted source of advice and ideas; to be seen as a leader in this field; to help others; to give back to the community; to learn; etc.)
- Clear and accessible rules and guidelines that are available and gently enforced by the benevolent dictator and the leadership. Guidelines give participants the ability to interact by assuring them how to do so and clarifying what is appropriate.
- Connection that allows for a deeper understanding of the participants contexts, objectives and challenges that will provide a foundation for exchange. The best way to provide connection is obviously face to face meetings, but there are other ways to accomplish this, that range from chat rooms, forums, web conference calls to more structured case studies.
- Trust that the other participants will not misuse, misappropriate or disrespect their contributions. Another important factor includes the participant’s trust that the information and advice received from this network is of good quality.
- Routine communications, such as posting particular kinds of content (i.e, job announcements on Friday)
- Surfacing knowledge via questions. Posts that share expertise as a response to a query are often the most useful to the network as a whole.
Any ‘network of practice’ still needs devoted time and resources. In particular, they need organisations and individuals to be motivated and see the network’s existence as being a critical element of their own long term strategies. What is absolutely critical is to be focused on what you are trying to accomplish by creating the space, and this is much more important than what you call it.
Certainly use of the term ‘community’ should be encouraged in the aspirational sense. You can and probably should strive to develop a network that has community qualities. You might also need to call it a community just to get people interested in joining as you will likely get a better response to a call to join a community rather than a network. But you will need to understand people’s abilities and motivations to participate in the space and developing a healthy, thriving ‘network of practice’ is a much more realistic goal.