Alan Pollard (BCS president-elect) welcomed us and Conrad Taylor (KIDMM co-ordinator and organiser of the event) provided a very handy literature review and reading list and summarised concepts of knowledge and its management. He encouraged us to “turn data dumps into real knowledge stores”, referring to Etienne Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice and Karl Popper’s notions of “three worlds” (physical, internal/mental, and socio-cultural). The reification of knowledge was another theme and I was struck by the proposal that language is a reification of knowledge that enables participation.
As the spirit of the day was collaboration, we were seated “cabaret style” in small groups and encouraged to talk to each other and share ideas and formulate questions at the end of each presentation. This was a great way of meeting other delegates and giving the day an informal conversational feel.
Marilyn Leask (Brunel University) described her experiences building large-scale and international knowledge-sharing communities in education (TeacherNet, European SchoolNet, and I&DeA). She warned that projects that begin as community-based knowledge-sharing initiatives can be co-opted by the authorities and become accountability measurement instruments or mechanisms for disseminating information, rather than as spaces for true collaboration. It is therefore important to know what you are trying to achieve with your community and who will ultimately be responsible. It may not be appropriate to have community areas on a site that is ultimately a government tool – there are no wikis on TeacherNet – as private professional discussions cannot take place freely when there is government awareness, if not systematic monitoring, of what is being said.
Where funding is required, patience is necessary as projects can take many years to get going. Often it helps to “seed” an idea, leave it to germinate, and wait until enough people start asking why the idea has not already been acted on before funding can be obtained. It takes a critical mass of people accepting the idea to give it momentum.
Another good tip is to find “champions” of the idea and allow them to provide proof of concept. There will always be “late adopters” who are unwilling to participate and there is no point in trying to convince them in the early stages. It also helps to have knowledge-sharing and participation in community sites built into people’s job descriptions and time allowed for them to learn and join in within their normal working day, so that participation does not become yet another additional burden.
It is possible to provide return on investment (ROI) and value for money figures – for example by using costs of purchasing documents from the British Library (about £30 each) or costs of re-writing existing policy documents unnecessarily (often in the region of £5,000-£10,000).
Lindsay Rees-Jones and Ed Mitchell from CILIP talked about the discussion forums and blog spaces they had created for CILIP members. They pointed out that members of the community are contributing a valuable resource – their time – and so need to feel they receive some benefits in return. It is important to ensure social as well as technical cross-sections to make communities work and establishing behaviours, protocols, and processes is more important for administrators than proposing topics for discussion.
The two presenters agreed that participation needs to be part of job roles, not a voluntary extra, and that buy-in will start slowly, with just a few early adopters, but that others will follow. They also felt that quality of content is more important than the number of contributors.
They found it useful to have some “walled gardens” that were kept completely private and some public and semi-public areas for different groups and different purposes. They also pointed out a difference between networks and communities – networks radiate out from a person, whereas communities occur collectively and separately from any individual.
Jan Wyllie (Open Intelligence Ltd) talked about a knowledge community formed in the mid-1990s to produce the “Tomorrow’s Company Inquiry” report for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). Content was gathered through paper-based questionnaires and letters (mainly sent by fax). Content analysis was used along with a pre-existing taxonomy to identify shared meanings and structure the content. However, a purpose-built taxonomy might have been preferable. Classification is a powerful tool in knowledge discovery, as well as organisation, allowing key questions to be brought to the surface of complex and large collections of information.
Using social networks to organise knowledge is a powerful way of rating discussion – by monitoring who is discussing a subject as well as what is being discussed, a far more detailed picture of trends in thinking and emergent topics can be produced.
Christopher Dean (Airbus SAS) described building knowledge-sharing communities within industry. He classified communities into three types – organic, declared, and manufactured. Organic communities typically grow in a stepped manner – a “punctuated equilibrium” – with bursts of growth followed by plateaus. For communities to succeed, membership needs to be an attractive proposition, with perceived benefits (such as socialising, co-learning, co-production); affordable (in terms of costs and risks – which may be in time as well as money); and voluntary (easy to join and leave). Communities are more successful when they have a clear purpose and attract “birds of a feather” rather than arise out of a process of “herding cats”. Empires fall when their citizens stop believing in them and communities tend to wither when they cease to have a clear purpose.
Communities can be disappointed when an imbalance arises between the state of knowledge within the community and within the wider organisation, as specialist communities often find that things they take for granted are not understood by outsiders.
Dialogic design is a hot new topic concerned with teaching people to participate effectively.
Sabine McNeill (3D Metrics) talked about creating communities to raise political issues and lobby governments. Focusing on a proposal for “Green Credit for Green Growth” and the “Forum for Stable Currencies she described the process of moving from data through knowledge to wisdom. She described online communities as being forums for “software-aided thinking”. She also talked about the community-building value in schemes like LETS that sidestep the problems associated with the wider economic system and environmental destruction.
In our groups we then took part in an entertaining card-sorting exercise to identify key features and requirements for a new knowledge-sharing software tool and website to be built for KIDMM by Susan Payne (De Montfort University). I thoroughly enjoyed this, although unsurprisingly – given that I was amongst expert taxonomists – we tended to focus on classification issues! Susan presented her plans for the Know*Ware software and called for participation and collaboration in its creation.
To round off, there was a panel session which focused on how the Know*Ware tool would be built and what its aims should be.