A collaborative work model: The Practise Community

Carlo Bruno*

“The research and innovation community platform”, a meeting space between experts inspired, as stated in its presentation, to the principles of the Community of Practice “Europe’s research and innovation community platform is a unique space bringing together researchers from the EU and beyond”.

The event aimed to “kick off the formation of a community of practice among cultural heritage professionals and demonstrate how the European collaborative cloud for cultural heritage can be useful in their daily work”.

The budget provided by Horizon Europe is € 110 million until 2025, and is dedicated to supporting the development and creation of the community, to promote cooperation and co-creation between the cultural sectors, creative and technological and help safeguard Europe’s cultural treasures through a digital infrastructure.

Does Europe rely on “A cloud for All”?

The European Union has therefore placed great emphasis on this new project, declaring that “European collaborative cultural heritage cloud will be a unique digital infrastructure that will enable unprecedented cross-disciplinary and large-scale collaboration between cultural heritage professionals across the EU through tools cutting-edge digital media”.

On this occasion, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel expressed the hope that Europe’s cultural heritage would enter a new digital dimension, underlining how this project can make European cultural heritage a world leader in the use of digital technologies to create value for the benefits of all citizens. The presentation of the event includes an invitation to all professionals in the field of Cultural Heritage who wish to be involved in this effort to participate in the initiative.

The tone of the announcements, faithfully reported here, seem to imply that the European Union attaches much credit to this methodology of work and sharing of knowledge.

Community Theory of Practice, the beginnings

However, the Community of Practice is not an absolute novelty, on the contrary. This theory was already developed in the 80s as a training methodology in remote distributed environments, naturally with all the limitations that technologies had those years. Nevertheless, it was established in some professional fields that referred to large multinationals that, in this way, wanted to encourage the sharing of knowledge in the company.

Between the late 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, the explosion of the web and the birth of some applications that exploited its potential, typically at the beginning mail, blogging and among the most advanced online trading (the Exchange was one of the first realities worldwide interconnected in real time) favored the birth of a new phenomenon whose mechanisms were inspired by the Community of Practice: social networking.

In the short span of a few years, but to be considered geological eras for the web, some giants, such as Myspace (2003), were quickly rendered obsolete by applications such as Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) more open to the construction of open networks.

As I anticipated many application dynamics of these social networks were (and are) inspired by the Community of Practice. Their success and what was called the phenomenon “web 2.0” has been determined by the ability to identify mechanisms of user involvement for primarily playful purposes, but it is not complicated to infer that collaborative methodologies can contribute to making internal processes more efficient, including in the production field, in research and training.

The cultivation of a network requires the virtualization of work environments, time and energy to manage such spaces, it is therefore obvious that the adoption of such schemes within a structure could also raise the doubt that there was a risk of introducing new phenomena of “distraction” instead of improvements and new opportunities. Encouraging digital interaction and leaving more organizational freedom to individuals could make people think about the loss of some forms of control and above all the increase of the commitment to activities that are not (apparently) strictly productive.

The phenomenon of social networking, however, is largely based on a theory born in the industrial field to make the training process of staff more efficient.

The pandemic emergency has also helped to overturn many of these beliefs. The objective need to virtualize the work environment has shown that the dreaded reduction in productivity was not automatically expected. Indeed. The increased efficiency of the groups has largely compensated for some individual contractions of commitment.

The real added value has therefore materialized in the distribution of skills thanks to the greater sharing of information. Work is less and less individual and more and more collaborative.

Community of Practice vs Specialization

Theory, as we said, is that of the “Community of Practice”, born in the 80’s and relaunched in the early 90’s by Wenger and Lave. It is based on overcoming the concept of close and direct relationship, between student and expert in the learning of professional knowledge.

This mechanism (of the close relationship) produces separation and specialization, which on the one hand allows a subject to acquire know-how and be faster and faster in his work on the other makes him a “slave” of his focus.

The world of technology.

The ability to intervene quickly on a procedure, of which there may be little business know-how and/or documentation, often penalizes participation in new projects, for which paradoxically are advantaged less experienced people and less tied to the daily production process. As you know, participation in new projects is a source of motivation and therefore experience, linking people to ongoing projects (such as the maintenance of old procedures) not very motivating, ends up being perceived as a handicap. This specialization is really a handicap for the organization because it makes essential some holders of a particular know-how.

The absence of an adequate project shift-over and/or sharing of skills then results in the loss of such know-how when an individual leaves the organization.

This independently from the value for the same company represented from the service of which it takes care. In addition, the advent of web technologies has introduced many more variables in the preparation of a solution, determined by the increasing number of software that must be integrated to prepare a service. Moreover, it is necessary also to specify that the times of obsolescence of a software have been abbreviated because of the emergence of always new more performant solutions.

These considerations determine the need to share skills and experiences, more and more rarely the individual can face technological challenges alone.

Overcoming the individualist approach

Until a few years ago, one of the concepts that found the greatest response in large organizations was, in general, the centralization of information control, including internal control.

A rigid application of this concept obviously conflicts with an alternative working method that aims at involving individuals. This involvement in fact cannot be stimulated if at the same time the organization strongly expresses an idea of “control”.

It is therefore a matter of making a qualitative leap in internal relations and of putting back in play consolidated choices, but the growth potential determined by this approach are enormous. They are huge especially in relation to the ability of the individual (if stimulated) to bring inside the organizational structure external knowledge, thanks to their individual networking skills that, according to the same theory on which the social networks have developed, indicates in six degrees of separation that divide each of us from every other person and therefore from his knowledge.

Model of community design

As you can see, the collaborative method follows a principle that tends to deconstruct processes and organizations themselves, therefore challenging to accept for the organization itself. We can summarize the steps of the path for an organizational change that needs to be developed:

• design the evolution of the community, supporting its natural trends without imposing a single pre-constituted model.

• To create a dialogue between inside and outside, that is to favor the osmosis between the knowledge inside the individuals of the community and the knowledge available outside.

• Promote different levels of participation to allow everyone to “use” the community based on their own needs

• Develop public and private areas, to favor the “cells” of individuals and individuals themselves that will find spaces for individual and collective conversation.

• Focusing on value through the work of moderators/ promoters, the most active individuals to enhance the contribution of individuals

• Stimulating the pace, that is, avoiding the loss of interest in the community by properly combining routine and innovation

The main purpose of the community of practice is to replace the system of direct expert/ student relationship with a working methodology made of extended relationships and in an open and participatory social network system:

Working groups must be able to be born with “variable geometry”, around specific themes and can be differentiated according to specific needs:

• enter commitments between the entities that cooperate from time to time

• sharing sets of experience and skills

• determine a learning path that arises from the negotiation of individual experiences.

It is evident, from what has been said, that much of the world of social networks is based on this scheme of relationships that determines the birth of groups united by topics of discussion of interest for a group of individuals, ranging from social causes to local identities etc.

The success of these clusters depends not only on the theme but als by the presence of characters able to animate the discussion, sometimes even by means of “premeditated provocations”.

Communities have at their disposal tools for the exchange of information, discussion spaces, publication of media, organization of events. The limit of a generalist “entertainment” network is the lack of ability of many to distinguish between “trusted” sources likely sources, the lack of hierarchy gives anyone the power to intervene but equally lies in people the ability to evaluate the statements and news published.

The Culture project

This method has been successfully applied in some industrial contexts, from Microsoft to Procter & Gamble, but in fact they are also the basis of the success of the Social Networking phenomenon. And it is precisely this success in the field of personal relationships that has also highlighted its effectiveness in the business field.

As Domenico Lipari stated in his preface to “Cultivate communities of practice” by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder: “the foundation of learning therefore lies in social participation in a practice” and therefore it becomes crucial to make effective and concrete the concepts that aim at “community development” and are essential to determine the success of a collaborative work experience.

A. The tools, the community theory of practice in fact assumes the availability of tools that users can choose to use with a certain freedom. Current social networks make very basic services available (blogs, newsletters, photo collections). In the professional field, the aim should be to improve the quality of services by focusing on communication, information search, competitive intelligence, and multimedia archives.

B. Individuals and cells, that is, collaborative mechanisms that can connect users belonging to social networks with a transversal mechanism aimed at promoting the integration of the networks themselves. Characteristic of this organizational model is the agility with which individuals react to stress and create streamlined and dynamic structures capable of addressing a specific problem

C. Moderators. The function of these characters is to stimulate collaborative activities. Such activity requires commitment and commitment is often proportional to the verification of the effectiveness of the collaboration. The moderator is therefore the one who tries to keep the “rhythm” of the collaboration high, relaunching it in moments of fatigue and bringing it back on concrete tracks when instead it tends to stray excessively.

D. Transparency and Motivation, as the sharing of tools and objectives introduces into the system a greater transparency of the aims and organizational model, making perceptible the role of the individual and determining the appropriate motivations.

This last point is probably the central point in the adoption of collaborative systems: the contribution will be all the more effective and the greater will be perceived as expected and appreciated. This may be one of the major obstacles to the adoption of this methodology within large and organized structures, in highly motivating areas such as the cultural heritage community it can become the driving force,

*xDams O.S. Archives Cloud Manager