Monday, 31 May 2010

Communities of practice

I was surprised recently to hear a senior colleague refer to communities of practice as though they are a passing fad. The language may have been around for less than twenty years, but communities of practice are as old as human society itself. So what made my colleague think they are a passing fad, and – implicitly – something new?

I think the answer lies in digital technology, the growth of which has empowered communities of practice on a global scale, given them greater prominence, and provided them with lots of new tools and resources. As the tools and resources improve, I think we can expect to see further growth in communities of practice – they’ve become easier to get involved in, easier to manage, and more sustainable.

Communities of practice, as Etienne Wenger explains, are groups of people with not just shared interests, but a shared stake in applying those interests to both practical and theoretical activity. They have a big emphasis on learning, and on sharing the results of learning.

Websites featuring resource sharing and collaborative tools, such as Wikis, blogs, discussion forums, live chat and virtual classrooms, are the new things. Some people – perhaps my colleague – confuse these tools and resources with the community itself, and of course we can expect the tools and resources to change. But as long as the purpose for a community existing remains, its members will keep in touch, stick together, and find new ways to collaborate and share learning.

Some applications of digital technology are fads, and will pass. I happen to believe Twitter is one of them (a subject for another post, if ever there was one), but I’m confident that communities of practice will continue to go from strength to strength.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Emotional metadata

I took part in a workshop last week where the facilitator made reference, en passim, to “emotional metadata”. I immediately thought of Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking Emotional Intelligence, but there’s no reference to it in Goleman’s book, and I haven’t come across any reference to metadata in this context before. (For those unfamiliar with the concept of metadata, it’s basically data about data, or, crudely, how we label data on the Web to enable searches using those terms.)

I was surprised to find emotional metadata is quite a common phrase, yielding 391 Google hits – or 161,000 if you take away the quotation marks. But on browsing those, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. In essence, the idea seems to be about developing search routes based on how people feel about stuff, rather than more information-based definitions. This sounds potentially useful, in that we can use it to find related information that makes users feel happy, or nostalgic, or anxious – or whatever. But I’ve yet to see a demonstrably useful application.

In principle, I’m open to any tools that help us gain deeper understanding based on emotional rather than intellectual responses. By coincidence the day after the workshop where this came up, I participated in another, where the facilitator showed a variant of the diagram (left). He was making the point that our feelings influence our thinking, which in turn influences our behaviour. But I think the diagram is flawed, and the point may be made more strongly – sometimes thinking doesn’t come into it at all, and our behaviour is driven purely (even passionately) by our feelings.

This suggests to me we should all be paying more attention to the concept of emotional metadata, and what we can learn from it.