Community of Inquiry and Practice Report
June - November 1996
In 1996 Awakening Technology designed and convened an on-line Community of Inquiry and Practice (CIP) for organizational leaders and practitioners to explore the use of conversational practices and supporting groupware to generate knowledge in cyberspace. Here is the CIP Statement of Purpose. Our theme was "Meaning and Wholeness in the Virtual Workplace."
We met from June 10 - November 8, entirely via computer network, using a tailored application in Lotus Notes.
Our community design and selection of participants reflected AT's whole systems (integral) approach and assumptions like these:
Over 50 people in organizations, consulting firms, and research institutes participated in a variety of group activities. Participants came from five countries on four continents and from a variety of organizations large and small:
We used Lotus Notes 4.x for the CIP because it was cross-platform (Wintel and Macintosh), it allowed us to rapidly program a variety of spaces and activities, and we were able to create facilitator agents, software agents that acted on our behalf as facilitators. We used a hub server at WorldCom (now Interliant), plus several internal Notes servers, through a diverse network infrastructure including remote dial-up, X.25, and TCP/IP connections.
We developed some extensions to Notes especially to support CIP activities. Presence and activity indicators in each activity let everyone know who was there, how much they had read or contributed, and in some cases, where they were in the group's process. Event-driven facilitator agents provided ways to remind, assist, and nudge users, while also protecting the boundaries of the community and activities within it.
What We Did During the CIP
We engaged in three major kinds of activities:
To create the container or vessel to hold the community, we started with a required Orientation. When the CIP opened, an orientation agent guided members through completing specific tasks before they could enter the community. These tasks are indicated in yellow on the Orientation Navigator (screen image).
After they were oriented, a shepherd agent guided them to the Opening Ceremony if they hadn't already participated there. Later, that agent guided them to other current activities such as the Learning Inquiry. The Orientation Design Commentary tells more about our design choices.
After Orientation everyone got to the Community Map (screen image), the home base for all CIP activities and supporting material.
The Orientation included reading and agreeing to a Community Covenant, a set of guidelines for how we wanted to be with each other. We wanted to start with these "rules of the road" and were open to discussing and changing them as necessary as the community developed. However, this never came up.
Since many members had no or little experience with this technology before, the Orientation offered Suggestions for Effective On-Line Communication.
So that everyone would know about others in the Community, during Orientation members completed Personal Profiles, including a photograph, self-description, keyword topics of interest, and keyword affinities, clans, and kinships. These two keyword indexes also helped people find others through their interests or social networks. Their photographs and access information (address, phone, fax, e-mail) had been entered ahead of time so they only had to introduce themselves in their descriptions.
Every item authored in the CIP had a button linking it to its author's Personal Profile so anyone could find out more about the person speaking at any time.
We had a Who's Here roster to keep track of who was present and active in the Community and who was away on business or vacation. Members checked themselves in and out of the community as appropriate. Facilitator agents helped automate the process. The Personal Profile also showed whether someone was here or away.
In addition to Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz as conveners and facilitators, we had five community weavers to help draw the community together. A weaver is someone who sees patterns and makes connections. We make the distinction between social or people weavers and idea or knowledge weavers. The community weavers in the CIP were primarily social weavers. Each had about 14 members he or she was responsible for assisting during our time together, within the guidelines for weaving in the community.
We had a Mutual Support exchange where members could ask for or offer support to each other of any kind -- personal, professional, technical, relational, etc. This turned out to be an important activity for some who felt overwhelmed by the volume of comments in other spaces. Here they could express what they were experiencing and get the support of a smaller number of people.
We started the CIP with an Opening Ceremony which was an opportunity for everyone to "speak" to the circle as a whole and for everyone's "voice" to be heard. Like all CIP activities, the Opening Ceremony was asynchronous -- people were not on line at the same time. Each person took a turn with the "talking stick" and spoke only once. It took several weeks for the 58 people who participated to complete the circle.
Each person was asked for some opening words -- a sentence or two for the whole group. Then s/he wrote about intentions for the CIP, the gifts s/he brought to the community, and a personal practice s/he intended to engage in during the course of the CIP. These last three sections were optional reading. Here is an example of an Opening Ceremony Response (screen image). Notice also the Author Profile button at the top. Here are some participant comments about the Opening Ceremony.
Similarly, we ended the CIP with a Closing Ceremony in which 24 members shared their closing words, and then either a story, a celebration, or a gift from their experience in the CIP.
For informal conversation and schmoozing, we had the Cafe. People could start a new table (topic) at any time and others were encouraged to join tables of interest and comment. All together, we ended up with 24 tables in the Cafe, ranging from "Our Families" to "Collaborative Technologies," from "Intimate Relationships as a Path to Self-Realization" to "Playing with the Silverware." Here are the guidelines and some participant comments about the Cafe.
We used the visual metaphor of a red and white checkered cafe tablecloth, and tables (topics) had a vase of flowers and comments had a coffee cup. Here are examples of a Cafe Table, a Cafe Comment, and the Cafe View of the first few tables and their associated comments (screen images). The Cafe Design Commentary tells more about our design choices.
Design Challenges: Participation
There are two major design challenges in on-line communities: sustaining participation over time and including as many people as possible as active participants.
Typically, an specific activity will start off somewhat slowly, build up, and then taper off, like a Bell curve. Sometimes it will pick up energy again. In long-running computer conferences there are many peaks and valleys. In a well-sustained activity, the peaks and valleys will be smoother, with some continuing activity running throughout.
In the CIP, we had a series of activities with beginning and ending dates, which helped sustain participation better over the five and a half months of the project. Here is the schedule we followed (screen image).
Here are graphs of typical participation over time and CIP items authored each week.
As in face-to-face conversations, it's typical on line for a few people to contribute a lot of items and many people only read, or "lurk" as it's sometimes called. In some large on-line communities, a "post to lurk" ratio of 1:5 is considered a successful conference ( that is, there are five people reading for every person contributing).
In contrast, in an activity like a Council Circle, where each person speaks only once each round, the curve is flat (horizontal) if everyone participates. There are no lurkers.
The two activities in the CIP that had flatter curves were the Council Circles and the Learning Inquiry where most people answered all six questions.
Here are graphs of a typical participation curve and CIP items authored by participant.
Some Lessons Learned: Community, Timing, Relationships, Groups
There are many lessons learned and reconfirmed from the CIP. Here are some highlights.
We worked with three conversational practices during the CIP. Each is a different group process:
Council or "Talking Stick" Circle is an indigenous peoples' practice of meeting in a circle and listening respectfully to each speaker. In a face-to-face council, a talking stick, stone, or other object is passed around the circle. Only the person holding the talking stick may speak; everyone else listens. The stick may be passed form person to person or placed in the center for the next speaker. In our on-line circles, there was no fixed order around the circle, but each person could respond only once to each round. This encourages speaking and listening at a deeper level. Here's more on the Practice of Circles.
Open Space Technology is an innovative process for groups (from 5 to 750) to create effective meeting agendas and deal with complex issues. Once the meeting is created, it's completely self-managed. Each small group is convened by someone with a passion for the topic and willing to take responsibility for gathering the group. S/he needn't be an expert or leader in that topic -- only someone with strong interest in pursuing it. Participants choose groups according to their interest, using the "law of two feet." Each person is completely responsible for what s/he gets out of the meeting. Here's more on the Practice of Open Space.
Dialogue is a practice of deep inquiry into the ground of thinking itself and the fundamental practice and assumptions that govern our teams, groups, communities, and organizations. In dialogue, people learn to listen and think together, suspend and examine assumptions, and pay attention to the whole, not only the parts. Dialogue creates a flow of shared meaning. Here's more on the Practice of Dialogue.
For each of the conversational practices we created an appropriate on-line practice field with these supports to help teach and reinforce the practice:
There were some very moving stories and learnings along the way for some members. Others wanted more engaged discussion about business issues. For a few, this was already well-worked territory. Although the guidelines asked that people indicate their presence in the circles, even if they chose not to respond to a round, there were lurkers and non-participants whose absence created some discomfort for others.
Here are some participant comments about the Council Circles.
The theme of the Open Space was "How can we experience more meaning and wholeness in the virtual workplace?" Members were invited to start a topic in the Open Space about which they had passion and were willing to take responsibility for facilitating and then harvesting (summarizing). All together, there were 11 topics in the Open Space. Four people harvested their experiences for everyone.
In a face-to-face Open Space, each group meets in a separate place. People are encouraged to use the "law of two feet" at any time to move to the group where they will contribute and learn the most.
In the CIP, the Open Space area contained all the active topics in one outline format. Members were encouraged to join only those topics of interest, and the software provided a mechanism so that the other topics would not be displayed. However, most people tried to participate in everything, which quickly led to overload.
In addition, the Cafe had a similar open outline structure but different guidelines from the Open Space. Some people got confused about where things were being discussed, and there was a good deal of cross-over.
Here are the guidelines and some participant comments about the Open Space.
Peter Johnson-Lenz convened the first topic in the Open Space: "What does it take to experience coherent conversations in cyberspace?" Early on, one member said that relationships, acknowledgment, and mirroring was an important factor. That opened a flow of more personal, getting-to-know you comments throughout the Open Space and other parts of the CIP which were a delight for some and a distraction for others. This led to the insight in "Lessons Learned" about integrating private personal communications into the group spaces without interfering with tasks.
The "coherent conversations" topic eventually generated almost 200 responses. Peter did an interim harvest of the topic about halfway through by creating a "hybrid" conversation in participants' own words around the themes of conversation, incoherence, emergence, facilitation, community organizing, what it takes, conversational practice, harvesting tools, presence indicator tools, and what else does it take. This summary helped integrate the content and refocus the rest of the conversation.
For Dialogue, we tried two different formats: Streaming and Branching. In Dialogue, the purpose is to discover a shared flow of meaning in the group. Face-to-face Dialogue groups usually follow one conversational thread at a time, examining their assumptions, speaking to the whole group rather than individuals, listening for the patterns that connect.
Since it's possible to have branching conversations on line, where several conversational threads are going on at once, some participants wanted to try both kinds of on-line Dialogue. We asked members to sign up for Streaming Dialogue (single thread), Branching Dialogue (multiple threads), or both. Then we created six groups (3 Streaming, 3 Branching) of about the same size with at least two people in each with previous experience in Dialogue. Here is the Dialogue Design Commentary that explains our design choices.
Each group began with the seed question "What is emerging among us that matters?" Some groups had better experiences than others in finding common topics (if not shared meaning). In several cases people wove together the strands of meaning that they saw emerging in the group which was well received. A different initiating question might have worked better.
Surprisingly, there were exactly the same number of total items in the two formats (186), although some groups were more active than others.
Here is an example of the entrance into Streaming Dialogue (screen image). Notice that it reminds the participant about the purpose of Dialogue as well as showing what group he is in and how many new items are waiting for him. Here is an example of the view of comments by title in the Streaming Dialogue (screen image). The river on the left is a visual reminder of "meaning flowing through."
In addition to Guidelines, we also provided on-screen reminders about aspects of Dialogue throughout. Each item in the Dialogue was called a "Thinking/Feeling" to suggest that we were sharing not just our process of thinking. When creating and reading a new item, the software displayed a one-line reminder ("Consider: ") chosen at random from a file of about 100. When composing, one of 12 suggestions for participating in dialogue was displayed. This was like a coach whispering to members. Here is an example of the screen for writing in Streaming Dialogue (screen image). Notice also the stream at the top.
Here are comments about the experience of Dialogue in the CIP from Glenna Gerard of the Dialogue Group.
Some Lessons Learned: Conversations and Facilitation
Here are some highlights of lessons learned and reconfirmed.
Throughout the CIP, we encouraged participants to reflect on the process of their experience as well as the content of the conversations.
In every activity there was a Feedback button so that members could comment on the design of the system, pro and con. The Feedback Exchange was open to everyone and some interesting design conversations developed there.
We had two Learning Inquiries, one at mid-course and one at the end. These participatory assessments allowed everyone to share their experiences with each other in a structured format and to comment on them as well.
The mid-course Learning Inquiry asked:
Trudy Johnson-Lenz harvested representative comments in participants' own words. Here is a description of her harvesting process. She organized comments into the following themes, some also referenced above:
The Harvest was the place we gathered together the ideas, insights, knowledge, and wisdom of the Community. Each harvest item was a place to summarize key points, integrate themes, and weave together the patterns that connect. We encouraged members to reflect on what they were reaping from the conversations and to share that with everyone. Anyone could enter a Harvest at any time. There were 4 Harvests from the Council Circles, 4 from the Open Space, and 1 (with many subsections) from the Learning Inquiry. Several people remarked that the process of harvesting greatly helped them learn from and integrate the material, but it takes extra time and effort. Here is the harvest view (screen image).
We began a Knowledge Web, a hypertext library of resources, essays, articles, and other pieces such as the Practice of Open Space, the Practice of Dialogue, etc. Although it was open for contributions from anyone, Peter and Trudy were the only people who added items there.
We wanted participants to learn from and about the on-line environment itself. We wrote Design Commentaries about the major activities, explaining our architectural choices and reasoning, including one on the design of Design Commentaries themselves. These were available from within the activities themselves and from the Map. Examples mentioned above are for the Cafe, Council Circles, Orientation, and for Dialogue.
Unconventional Wisdom: Core Lessons Learned
In reflecting deeply on the CIP and our experience over the years, we've developed these key points of unconventional wisdom summarizing our most important learnings.
Grow virtual community:
As revealed in the Opening Ceremony words, everyone felt the power of hearts and minds gathered and wondered if something extraordinary would emerge from our collaborative practices.
In the end, our greatest lesson was to see this potential more clearly than ever and to experience hands-on significant challenges to its realization. Members spoke from the heart and listened devoutly. We began to understand each other and see some patterns connecting our diverse views. But our time was too short, our technology too frustrating, and the capacity to hold the broad range of our differences not yet full enough.
There were tears of joy and sadness as the community drew to a close and members said farewell. Our learnings continue to grow and deepen....