It’s hard to believe that it was only 13 months ago that the 14 of us Jim Joseph Fellows met in Los Angeles for the first time. We knew the name of our fellowship, Leading Educators On-line, and we knew that each of us would be responsible for starting and leading an on-line Community of Practice (CoP). But other than a few preparatory articles and internet-based asynchronous discussions about them, we were pretty clueless what they really meant.
And so, not surprisingly, we spent much of our first retreat together learning with CoP experts like Nava Frank and Nancy White. A great deal of our discussion centered around what initially seemed like a very elementary concept: Exactly what is a community? Lots of ideas and definitions were put forth. Most of them had to do with the people within a community having something in common: a common purpose, a common goal, a common heritage. We never really came to a conclusion, and the discussion continued at our Israel treat last December. I remember one of our teachers suggesting that perhaps everyone who pays taxes belongs to the community of taxpayers. As you can imagine, that garnered a great deal of lively discussion.
Now here we are, over a year into our fellowship, and each of us has already launched or is preparing to launch a CoP. My particular CoP is extremely outcome driven: We are planning the upcoming Jewish Educators Assembly annual conference (the theme is technology) using the CoP model. On paper, we look pretty perfect. We have several teams working and have been using google groups as our asynchronous platform. We have dozens of discussion threads, share documents and videos, and have worked out speakers and a schedule through web 2.0 collaborative tools. Every few weeks since July we have had team web conferences, using DimDim as our synchronous platform. By most standards we have been extremely successful and productive, and the conference is pretty much planned and the registration materials have gone out.
But something doesn’t quite feel right. Yes, we are clearly meeting our common and goal and purpose – the JEA conference will be a great one. And there have been many benefits of doing the planning as an on-line CoP, including fresh ideas and getting many more “average” members involved. But most of the time, it feels like we are just a committee that happens to be “meeting” on the web. It doesn’t feel like a “community” to me.
Contrast this to the fellowship itself. Nowhere in the description of this fellowship did it ever talk about the fellowship itself becoming a CoP, merely that we would learn how to start our own. And yet, somewhere along the line, without even really trying, we all realized we were, in fact, a CoP.
So what makes a group a community rather than just a bunch of people with some commonality or another? I have come to the rather obvious conclusion that in order to be a community, the members have to care about and feel obligated to one another. Once the 14 of us started to care about each other, we couldn’t help become a community. Similarly, although I don’t necessarily like everyone who goes to my shul, I feel obligated to make shiva calls, or go to a Bat Mitzvah, etc… That’s why a shul is a community, and not just a gathering of people.
Somehow, whatever the issue, the weekly Parsha always manages to convey an answer, and this issue of community is no exception. This week, we begin the story of Jacob’s family. While clearly a family, Jacob’s 12 sons do not start out as B’nei Yisrael, a community. Rather, there is sibling rivalry, hatred, jealousy, and all sorts of divisive issues. The brothers don’t really care about each other, and certainly feel no obligation to one another. By the end of the story, the brothers put aside all their issues and began to care about each other. Certainly, they begin to feel obligated to each other. Only then, in Egypt ironically enough, do they truly become the community of B’nai Yisrael.
We spend a great deal of time worrying about how to facilitate a CoP, how to be the technology steward, how to draw in the outliers, which platforms to choose. Yet to me, these are not the real challenges. For me, creating this vitally important sense of community is the real challenge of a CoP that exists only virtually.
Any ideas, anyone?