Can virtual work teams become virtual communities of practice?

by alison

*Quiz* No image , No photo! by purprin, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  purprin 

Wow, last week’s post generated a lot of great discussion that helped reframe my thinking leading up to the informative presentation on community by Dr. Schwier to our class on Tuesday.

In particular, I’m grateful for having gone into the presentation with Dr. Schwier’s comment from my last post echoing through my thoughts. The idea that we can only set up the conditions under which communities can form, develop and potentially thrive was particularly resonant for me. And it got me thinking—besides the benefits for organisations, what would be in it for potential community members (such as work units) to want to be a virtual community, let alone one that shares knowledge?

I suppose I was coming at this particular issue from a bit of a business-centric standpoint as HRD is a yet-to-be defined field that is dominated by this standpoint. (I should add that I personally try to apply a critical approach to my work as much as possible.)

Struggles of praxis and an undefined field aside, for my course project I’m thinking I’d like to inquire into the potential for a professional development-geared community to develop amongst two virtual learning unit teams (of which I am also a member). Could two these two virtual teams whose core work is in supporting organisational learning—and whose members theoretically should have similar vested interests—become a learning community? As I saw during Dr. Schwier’s presentation, there needs to be some sort of incentive there to encourage ‘intensity’, which is one feature of functioning communities. Dr. Schwier presented metrics for nonformal, formal and informal group intensity, or depth of interaction. Both the formal and informal groups showed great intensity in discussions in different patterns, the development of which demonstrated that community had developed. In the formal groups, this development was likely due to the ‘forced’ time spent together and in the informal groups the same is seen when topics are of interest to different members. In nonformal groups, the metrics showed a dearth of ‘real’ discussion—real community—being able to form. The reason being? Probably because there are no incentives that draw the group together. And as my colleague Laura Bechard rightly pointed out, the metrics hold great implications for the development of Communities of Practice.

So, in a virtual workplace with a responsibility towards learning, what would be the draw towards the development of a Community of Practice? I’m not certain that the site of our work would be enough as many of my coworkers do not specialise in learning, nor is that the focus specifically of their work or potential interests and career aspirations (much of it can be administrative in nature and driven by financial policy). Maybe the question is: What is perceived as a central need or point of inquiry amongst these two teams? I could be wrong, but I think the groups’ interests are potentially too divergent. Instead, I suspect that our sister learning consultant groups (we have four other groups of learning units across Canada) would be more likely to develop such a community due to the similarity of their work experiences.

What do you think? I’m off to check out what Daniel Pink has to say about motivation in the meantime…