Crowdsourcing knowledge management
If you are on any listservs, follow enough Twitter accounts, or even overhear people ask each other questions at work, chances are good that you are privy to regular requests for specific information. We're a social bunch, we humans, so whether it's information we couldn't find ourselves or information we know others have studied more deeply, we ask people in our personal network(s). It's true that some people may ask out of laziness, in which case you might send those requestors to Let Me Google That For You. For the most part, though, these requests are an attempt to leverage collective wisdom and/or years of experience. It's one reason why we join Communities of Practice—so we can crowdsource not just finding information, but, more importantly, finding the most appropriate information for the immediate context.
Last month, this happened when Bret Eynon, Founding Director of the Making Connections National Resource Center (MCNRC), asked a listserv for guidelines about writing effective reflection prompts. In under a day, members of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network generated at least a half-dozen responses. After sending my own response, a few things occurred to me, which I'll list and then outline in more detail below:
· For the most part, our current knowledge sharing practices are ephemeral.
· None of us has all the answers, but together as a Community of Practice we come close.
· Overlapping Communities of Practice increase our overall network size and the chances we'll find the information we seek.
· There is no one place in which the ePortfolio Community(ies) of Practice are aggregating shared knowledge—yet.
Sharing knowledge more efficiently
First, in the scenario I described, Eynon sent a follow-up note saying he felt the various responses helped him with his challenge and sharing back to the community the most helpful resource for his needs. However, only POD Network listserv members who happened to read Eynon's email request and the subsequent responses would know about the resource. Someone who comes along in a month or a year may ask the same or a similar question, to the same or a different community, and the process will repeat itself with possibly different results, or that someone will be directed to search the archives. Listserv archives are a start, but are an inefficient way to store shared knowledge. Rather than sharing the group's collective responses via email, what if we created a page with the challenge (e.g., guidelines for writing reflection prompts) and the possible resources or solutions, along with the ability for others to rate how helpful the solutions were or to comment on how they used those resources?
Having (almost) all the answers--together
Next, it's easy to forget that none of us have all the answers on our own, no matter where we sit on the expert-novice continuum. Bret Eynon is at the forefront of ePortfolio practice at La Guardia Community College, and leads dozens of higher education institutions in ePortfolio-related action research projects. It was great to be able to help someone who has helped me and many others move ePortfolio initiatives forward.
Moreover, upon seeing Eynon—an expert in my book—ask for suggestions, my mind leapt to "Personal Best," Atul Gawande's New Yorker article advocating coaching. In it, Gawande ruminated that professional athletes have coaches, but very few other professions do, despite the clear benefits. While we don’t often ask peers to observe us and provide feedback like Gawande did, we do ask peers for help.
If we combine Gawande's thoughts and our actions, there can be more to peer relationships than asking only for ideas and information. Lois Zachary, an internationally recognized expert and author on mentoring, distinguishes role differences among coaches, counselors, and mentors. Counselors focus on the past, usually regarding career issues or emotional support. Coaches focus on the present, usually to improve performance. Mentors focus on the future, as a form of professional development. With these role definitions in mind, we should consider calling on colleagues in our network to be peer coaches or peer mentors, depending on the point of focus.
Increasing our network size
Given what I've said above, there's another issue pertaining to seeking quick answers. It's not always easy to get a message or question out to the larger ePortfolio community. While there are multiple communication channels (e.g., the AAEEBL Online Community, Electronic Portfolio Action Committee, a Yahoo group on ePortfolios), the members are distributed among smaller groups or projects, and engage less frequently than other communities. In some cases, like Eynon's request described above, the members engage other communities, such as faculty developers or academic technologists.
This is a good thing. In an early work about social network analysis, Granovetter (1973) evaluated several sociological studies and explained that "weak ties"—e.g., colleagues, acquaintances—were more important than "strong ties"—e.g., longtime co-workers, friends, family—when making connections or passing new information between separate groups. Drawing from other communities can boost the ePortfolio community's overall efforts, as long as we find a way to centralize what we learn individually.
Aggregating shared knowledge
As I mentioned above, collecting actionable data is often done in an ad hoc basis within Communities of Practice, and can be repeated more than once. The challenge is that community members have similar issues at different times, especially since their institutions are all at different levels of ePortfolio adoption, implementation or evaluation. In "Building Learning Communities with Wikis," ePortfolio thought leader and author, Helen Chen, and her colleagues aptly used the "Chutes & Ladders" board game as a metaphor to describe knowledge sharing within a Community of Practice (Gilbert, Chen & Sabol, 2008). The chapter and its framework to analyze wikis in learning communities (p. 77) depict how wikis can become knowledge bases, which in turn can become the basis for an active Community of Practice. Over time, a Community of Practice can lose energy and slide back down to be a robust knowledge base, ready for other community members to build it in new directions.
The We are Smarter than Me project took this concept to new levels, as "a business community formed by business professionals to research and discuss the impact of social networks on traditional business functions" (Hanlon, 2006, para. 2). Over a million people were invited, of which over four thousand participated, after which two community leaders curated the content from the organic, dynamic wiki environment to construct and publish a strategy guide complete with case studies (Libert & Spector, 2007).
Ultimately, we need to start "bootstrapping," or improving the improvement process, as Doug Engelbart envisioned. He recommended turning communities of practice—a group that collectively tries to improve a given capability—into "networked improvement communities"—that same group, which also focuses on boosting its collective IQ. Leading ePortfolio organizations like AAEEBL, Making Connections National Resource Center (MCNRC), EPAC and others can support the bootstrapping process by coordinating the aggregation of shared knowledge. Think of it as a "WePortfolio." Whether we use a wiki, a Drupal site, a knowledge base, or something else, it's time we stepped back and focused on sharing, managing, updating, and helping each other to apply practical knowledge that supports all ePortfolio initiatives—even those that are leading the way.
Gilbert, D.; Chen, H.L.; & Sabol, J. (2008). Building Learning Communities with Wikis. In R.E. Cummings and M. Barton (Eds.), Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom (pp. 71-89). Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Retrieved from http://www.press.umich.edu/script/press/234436
Granovetter, M. (1973, May). The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.
Hanlon, M. (2006, October 11). Initiatives to harness the power of collective intelligence. Gizmag. Retrieved from http://www.gizmag.com/go/6310/
Libert, B. & Spector, J. (2007). We Are Smarter Than Me: How to Unleash the Power of Crowds in Your Business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.