Six attributes of an affinity group (or community of practice)

Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

    1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
    2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
    3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
    4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
    5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), and dispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
    6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

    1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
    2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
    3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ‘stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
    4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
    5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
    6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.


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