Earlier this month Jon Dron and I were attending and keynoting at the Networked Learning conference in Maastricht Holland and I had the pleasure of meeting and socializing with Etienne Wenger (of Community of Practice fame) and Maarten de Laat from the Open University of the Netherlands.  I also picked up a copy of a very interesting paper, that I comment on below. The report was released last year and covered by  a number of bloggers including Steven Downes, but not surprisingly, such  information becomes relevant and important when it serves to inform or address a problem or something in my  immediate context. The report is especially relevant as we try to document and assess the value of the elgg based social networking system (Athabasca Landing) that we are building to expand distance education to informal learning for students and staff at Athabasca University.

The 56 page report Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework was co-authored by Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner and Maarten de Laat and its production was supported by the Dutch Ministry fo Education.  The report consists of  quite lengthy differentiation between communities (short for Communities of Practice) and networks. These distinctions are not unlike those Jon Dron and I have made (2007), but we prefer to call social entities defined by strong bonds and a commonly felt and articulated sense of common purpose as groups, since communities has so many different meanings and connotations. However, we certainly agree that groups and networks are different social beasts and that a network  can develop into a group and vice versa. The report distinguishes the different types of membership,  leadership  and organizational structure that defines both entities.

The report then builds a justification for researching these entities through the narratives  told by their members and by other stakeholders.  Rather than searching for quantitative metrics of value, the authors suggest the personal and collective narratives most  accurately reflect and assess the impact  of  these communities and networks. They also make a useful distinction between the narratives as accounts of what really happens and is perceived by participants  and the narratives as aspirations where both organizers and participants reflect on the way these entities should or could work better.

The paper  then goes on to describe, define and provide indicators for “value creation” They go beyond the normal business use of term (to increase either shareholder equity or improve consumer products or services) to look at both the tangible and intangible benefits that communities and networks could/should/might generate.

These definitions proceed through five cycles:

  1. immediate activities and interactions – instances where members use these entities to solve immediate problems
  2. Potential value – building social or knowledge capital that can be expended later when the individual has a need or requirement for the time or services of others
  3. Applied Value- where participation leads to positive changes in practice
  4. Realized value – where these changes have led to performance improvement
  5. or Reframing Value- Where the changes allow one to redefine the nature of the problem, product, organization of activity that the community or network was formed to support.

From a researcher perspective, the authors then go on to provide a series of indicators including questions that could be asked in interviews or surveys or more quantitative data that can be found from surveys again log analysis, membership  numbers etc. However they end the report by coming back to the value of the stories that can indicate progress or failure at any of the five levels. Helpfully, they provide templates and matrixes in which users are challenged to think of instances,  indicators or stories that either narrate either positive or negative effects of any of the 5 cycles above.

From our work at the Landing, we have been challenged by administrators to come up with indicators that provide a rationale for moving our two year old project (over 3,000 registered, but certainly not all active users) from a research to a production service with the tangible and implied commitment for continuity and support  beyond the role as a temporary research testbed.  We have discovered that on the Landing what makes a difference is not the quantity of users, but the passion and commitment with which a subset of users provide leadership, example and high quality content to the networks and groups that the Landing hosts.

As we begin to use these evaluation tools, I image that we will find many users who found  insufficient value in immediate  activities and interactions and thus they were not inspired to make major contributions and thus begin the cycle of personal social capital building (level 2) much less the applied and realized and reframing  values of higher levels. Nonetheless, I am equally sure that we will  find other users withe stories in which they  have progressed up through these stages and indeed are recursing  through them  as they create new applications from the landing’s toolset.

Thanks to Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner and Maarten de Laat for this important piece of work. I hope to be able to be able to report on its usefulness as both theoretical and conceptual framework and on the specific narrative tools you have created.