In the summer of 2016, a viral infection hit the mobile phones of the world. Like all things viral, it spread without warning and most adults probably were infected by their kids. This particular viral event was the game Pokemon GO. Pokemon GO is a location-based video game that you play with your cellphone based on the classic kids' collectable card game. In the game, you wander around with your GPS on and collect little creatures called Pokemon and then make your way to specific spots where there are arenas to have them battle one another.
This game was a such a trend last summer that bars were publicizing the pokemon attractiveness of their locations, people were hopping fences to get to special spots in the game and political candidates were referencing it on the campaign trail. But for at least one family, it was more than just a trend.
I saw this story on twitter, with the names redacted. A mother with a son on the autism spectrum tells how she introduced her son to Pokemon GO. Her son reacted as excitedly as most kids did to the game. But more than that, he became engaged.
A little boy saw him and recognized what he was doing. They immediately had something in common. He asked Ralphie how many he had caught. Ralph didn't really answer him, other than to shriek "POKEMON!!!!" and jump up and down with excitement while flapping his arms. Then the little boy showed him how many HE had caught (over 100!) and Ralph said "WOWWWW!" and they high-fived.
The mother went on to tell how other people interacted with her son, giving advice, cheering him on and comparing catches. Because of autism, Ralph was not often approached by other kids looking to connect, and when that did happen, he often didn’t react in ways that were positive. The connection this day was rare and amazing for her family; a wonderful outcome of a silly game.
It really wasn't the game that brought out the socializing in Ralphie and the strangers he encountered. The game made it possible, yes, but the community that evolved around the game made the interaction possible. In the academic world, this is called a community of practice, and it’s a powerful connector.
Communities of practice were conceptualized by Etienne Wenger in the 1990s. He describes them as the collection of people who share a set of goals, practices and identities. Communities of practice aren't a work team - they don't have the same goal. They are trying to get similar things done in their own space. Unlike the story of Robbers Cave, communities of practice share identity not through achieving something together, but by achieving similar things independently. This dynamic plays out through having shared engagement, shared context and a common experience.
1. Shared engagement - Shared engagement is knowing the process of someone's work because you see it or do it yourself. Shared engagement isn’t working together but doing the same or similar work. Pokemon GO players weren’t trying to collect digital animals for the same team, they each had their own. But they did have the same rules and processes for how to go about getting them all.
2. Shared context - for Ralphie, the new shared context was the game. For professionals, the shared context is the realities of working in firms or corporations, the type of clients they serve, the way work shapes their personal lives. This context can be the same without being exactly the same: accountants share a context, even if they don't work for the same big accounting firm.
3. Common experience - When people have shared engagement and contexts, they generate and are exposed to shared stories, similar people, and similar adventures and misadventures. The common experience is the connective tissue of a community of practice when people change contexts or work: the common experience still remains to keep people from being completely disconnected.
One of the effects of a community of practice, according to Wenger, is a shared identity centered on the practice. I've already covered the positive effect of shared identity and how to find small clues we are in the same groups. The community of practice is another link that we share with people. Communities of practice don't require that we share the same goal or work side-by-side regularly. In fact, communities of practice can include people we compete against and people we have never worked side-by-side with. The connection in a community of practice is anchored on the context and processes of our work. There is commonality in our experience even when we don't have common experiences.
So what can knowledge of the community of practice do for The Networked Leader? First, it helps to know that you are a part of a community, whether you are aware of it or not. Even if you have only ever practiced banjo by yourself on your front porch, you are in the banjo Community of Practice. You share the experience of fingernail ripping and the context of Deliverance jokes. You belong. Turning this knowledge into action may involve finding an active group to participate in or just connecting around your practice. In either case, knowing that you are a legitimate member of a community is powerful.
Second, communities of practice are great places to learn. While the practice is similar, and the context often similar, the members of a community of practice have different experiences which provide potentially huge insights. When we see someone as being like us, the differences are magnified <<<link>>>, and similar-but-different is a great place to find innovative answers to problems.
Finally, formal communities of practice such as associations, guilds or conferences are great sources of weak ties - those connections that provide the avenue for new information, resources and opportunities to come into our world.
Young Ralphie found a community of practice that accepted and embraced him for his joy in a new game. Communities of practice can be great opportunities for all of us to connect, belong and learn. Just remember these keys:
1. If you practice, you belong. No matter how novice or expert you are.
2. Communities of practice are places of learning. They provide a wellspring of experience and insight at your fingertips
3. Shared practices anchor connections. Coming together with a community of practice is an opportunity to expand your networks and reach out beyond your company or school.