I found Communities of Practice (CoP) by Etienne Wenger to be one of those strange books that lots of people told me I must read – and it is relevant to taxonomy work (although this post digresses) – but when I did read it, it all seemed so totally obvious I could hardly believe it had taken until the 1980s to be formulated. Barbara Rogoff and Jean Lave also pioneered the thinking, but I feel sure the ideas must date back at least to medieval trade guilds. It is one of the odd features of academia that sometimes the obvious has simply not been noticed and it is the recognition of the obvious that is revolutionary.
The core ideas are that we don’t just learn about doing something or even how to do something, we learn to be a person that does those things, and this shapes our identities. So, I can get my editorial assistants to read Judith Butcher on copy editing to teach them about editing, I can give them practical exercises so they learn how to copy edit, but it is only after they have been given real copy editing work, amongst other copy editors, that they experience how copy editors behave, and so learn how to be copy editors. Learning is therefore a continuous lifelong process.
In the UK there has traditionally been a divide between learning about (academic) and learning how (vocational), with learning to be happening outside the educational system, in workplaces (e.g. via apprenticeships). Wenger emphasises the need to encourage learning to be, and of course it is vital, but politically it worries me that too much responsibility for this is currently falling on academia and not enough on employers (I’m probably misrepresenting Wenger here). As an employer I think I ought to invest in training new staff (and in ongoing staff development), mainly because I can train staff to be exactly the way they need to be in the specific employment context. There is no practical way that a national education system could be so specific, unless it only caters to a handful of big corporations, which don’t need the help or the additional social power. On the other hand, I really don’t want to have to teach new staff lots of learning about – grammar and spelling, for example – that can be taught perfectly well in the classroom.
I think a civilised society should be willing to pay collectively for some essentially uncommercialised public spaces (e.g. universities) where people can just think in order to get better at thinking. A vocational element is great (I have personally enjoyed and benefited from the vocational aspects of my course) but part of my motivation for returning to university was to have time to explore questions and experiment with ideas without limiting myself to only those that I could show in advance would bring in some cash.
How does all this relate to taxonomy work? A taxonomy may be needed within a single community of practice, in which case recognising the user group as a CoP may help make sense of the project and the terminology required. Conversely, a taxonomy may need to be a boundary object between CoPs, perhaps even linking numerous CoPs together. By recognising and identifying different CoPs in an organisation, a taxonomist can get a picture of the different dialects and practices that exist and need to be taken into account.
A new taxonomist also needs to learn to be a taxonomist, and the taxonomy communities of practice (both specific and theoretical) already out there play a vital role in this process.
The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid is an info classic. It’s one of those delightful books that manages to be very erudite, cover a huge range of theory, but reads effortlessly and even had me laughing out loud from time to time. (My favourite anecdote was that BT’s answer to homeworkers’ sense of isolation was to pipe a soundtrack of canned background noise and chatter into their offices!)
Essentially, the book argues that information and information technology cannot be separated from its social context and ignoring the human factors in technology adoption and use leads to fundamental misunderstandings of what it can and does do. This may mean overestimating the potential of information technology to change pre-existing institutions and practices, on both a personal and collective scale, and underestimating the ability of people to adapt technology to suit their ends rather than those envisaged by the technologists.
The authors argue that many “infoenthusiasts” miss subtleties of communication, such as the implicit social negotiations that take place in face-to-face conversations or the social meanings conveyed by a document printed on high quality paper or a book with expensive leather binding. Such nuances are easily lost when the words from such communications are removed from their original context and placed in a new environment – such as an electronic database.
Similarly, although personalisation is often touted as a great advance – you can have your own uniquley customised version of a website or a newspaper – such personalisation diminishes the power of the information source to act as a binding-point for a community. If we all have different versions of the newspaper, then we can’t assume we share common knowledge of the same stories. We then have to put additional work into reconnecting and recreating our knowledge communities, so the benefits of personalisation do not come without costs.
The importance of negotiation, collaboration, and improvisation is argued to be highly significant but extremely hard to build into automated systems. The social nature of language and the complexities of learning how to be a member of a community of practice, including knowing when to break or bend rules, are also essential to how human beings operate but extremely difficult to replicate in technological systems.
The theme of balance runs throughout the book – for example between the need to control processes while allowing freedom for innovation in companies or between the need for communication amongst companies and the need to protect intellectual property (knowledge in companies was often either seen as too “sticky” – hard to transfer and use – or too “leaky” – flowing too easily to competitors). At an institutional level, balance is needed between the importance of stability for building trust and openness to evolution (the perception of the value of a degree is bound up with the established reputation of an educational institution).
I found this very interesting, as my brother has been trying to persuade me that Daoism with its emphasis on things moving gradually from one state to another is a more productive way at looking at complex systems than the Aristotelian view that something can be in one category, or its opposite, but never both at once. (Here is a sisterly plug for an article he has written on the application of Daoist ideas to environmentalism). It also fits in with the idea of balancing the stability of an ordered taxonomy with the fast-flowing nature of folksonomies and of finding a way of using social media to support rather than compete with more formalised knowledge management practice. Brown and Duguid say: “For all the advantages of fluidity, we should not forget that fixity still has its charms. Most of us prefer the checks we receive and the contracts we write to remain stable”, which seems particularly apt given the global credit crisis!