Research Communities in Context

The Internet was established based on the belief that the creation and transfer of knowledge would lead to "economic development and competitive advantage," which fueled government investment in the networked technology. (EN: I'm not sure the motivation was so single-minded, nor do I think the notion of "competitive advantage" can be applied to countries, nor would it be accurate to suggest that it can be generated in this manner.)

With this in mind, this chapter examines the "Canadian Water Network" (CWN), a government-sponsored "community of practice" to act as a focal point for research and practice in the area of drinking water, which is evidently an area of grave concern for the nation of Canada.


The author explains the concept of community of practice as a self-selected community of "learners" who form an association in the interest of sharing expertise and/or working collaboratively with others in the same field, which gathers attraction to new members as the value of the knowledge generated by the society evolves. The "virtual CP" is an online version, which takes advantage of the information processing and storage capabilities of technology as well as the reach of the medium across geographic expanses.

It's also noted that the structure of a community tends to vary. The greater community is, itself, a collection of smaller ones, with connections between members taking place on a lower level, such that there is seldom a unified community structure, but merely a loose web of smaller groups in which members interact.

Regarding the use of CP for research, the author notes that researchers "do not make good distant collaborators" because of a preference for working independently, though the CP can serve as a medium of publication and knowledge-sharing after the research has been concluded. Attempts to "force" collaboration among researchers have largely met with failure, either in successfully negotiating common goals and expectations, or ensuring that their independent pieces of work ultimately fit together. These problems become more pronounced when the approach is "multidisciplinary."

The present study examines the CWN site, in the context of the broader community of professionals working in the area of water as well as the internal interactions of the community itself, by means of surveys, structured interviews, and an examination of the content of publications on the CWN site.


The author considers the "barriers and enablers" to the formation and perpetuation of professional communities.

For the CWN site, diversity was a significant barrier. The prospective audience was a mix of working professionals in an array of industries, students and teachers of various disciplines, researchers, and regulators. While each was involved in some way with water, their interests in the topic were significantly different, such that there were not many areas of common interest within the topic,

The author refers to the "institutional arrangements," particularly within government agencies and universities, which have policies and procedures that govern the flow of information within and without the organization (and are typically geared toward keeping information bottled up, particularly from outsiders). Particularly for universities, the "publish or perish" principle holds strong, and contribution to virtual communities simply doesn't count and is treated as a distraction from the more important work done through traditional channels. Agencies tend to be more outcomes-focused and are often narrowly focused on a particular project, from which participation in a community discussion, particularly on theoretical or general matters with no immediate relation to the task at hand, is also treated as a distraction.

(EN: The author does not mention "institutional arrangements" within the commercial sector, but they can be just as limiting. If there is no "profit" in participation, and there is a risk of disclosing sensitive information, there is no incentive to allow employees to spend time on the clock, and there may be considerable threat, explicit or implied, to discourage them from participating on their own time.)

The organization of collaborative work in a virtual community is also problematic, not only in terms of group members having separate agendas, but also in the mere mechanics of coordinating activity. While the Internet overcomes the problems of geography, it does not overcome the problem of time - so gathering people for an interactive discussion is difficult, and even time-shifted communications suffer from differing priorities (some will check in less frequently, and be slower to update or comment, than others), which frustrates attempts to communicate or work collaboratively (those who feel a greater sense of urgency are highly annoyed by others who seem to be less attentive). Also, since there is no formal authority in a community, deadlines can not be enforced and the work often has a low priority compared to "real" activities.

Team recruitment is also an issue. The assumption seems to be that the community will attract individuals by virtue of its existence, and that the members will be more active in seeking out discussions to join and work to do. Not only is this untrue, but it's noted that in many instances, the most eager collaborators are not always the most qualified. Hence, recruitment has to be an active process, and organizers must be selective. The tendency at the CWN site was for individuals with previous experience to work together in team - people who are already known to one another in terms of their credentials and track record for quality work. In this sense, the greatest successes of CWN were not the result of a spontaneous collaboration of members, but in providing "tools" to those who would likely collaborate by other means.

A common strategy for coping with coordination and communication challenges was to divide projects into pieces, on which researchers would work independently (the way most were accustomed to working) and provide progress reports and informational results to the team. While the virtual community tools facilitated this, the behavior itself is not quite what is expected in a "virtual community" where work is collaborative. It's also noted that the structure of such work was done to minimize dependencies, such that no-one's work was dependent on the work of others (a situation which was referred to as a "suicide project" by some insiders), but their work was merely tied together in the end.

(EN: The irony of it is that this is exactly like the present book, in which "chapters' are written as articles that the editor binds together when each contributor finishes their independent work. There is no attempt to present a coherent message, and no chapter relies upon information contained in others, though the editor may cross-reference in arrears. And in the end, the book can be assembled and published even if one or two contributors didn't meet deadlines: their chapters could simply be dropped.)

While technology is the medium of virtual community, it can also be a barrier and a limitation, in that collaboration depends on the lowest common denominator. It is not possible to leverage the most "sophisticated" technology (such as purpose-built software, or even the latest version of common software) without excluding certain members of the group. In that way, the affordances provided by the virtual community, which is primarily plain-text messaging, defined a limitation to the ways in which participants could interact and share information.

It is also noted that the more experienced members of the group (which tended to be the eldest) are often averse to technology. They prefer telephone calls to e-mails and face-to-face meetings with colleagues rather than online interactions. While of personal preference for familiar modes of interaction is often cited (dismissively), there remains a significant difficulty in establishing trust among individuals without face-to-face interaction. In particular, the academic community is based on long-term informal ties, which a virtual community cannot provide


This section considers the "structure" of the professional community, including the connections between individuals, the boundaries, and the internal subgroups of the CWN community. In general, it was found that professionals routinely share information with the same people, and there isn't much mobility or openness among the groups or cliques within the community.

Within the professional community, connections among individuals are characterized as "few" and "sparse" - or in layman's terms, there is little sense of community spirit. Individuals "cluster" within a given organization (a school, company, or agency) where they are employed or associated, and seldom seek to interact with the outside world, except as needed for specific initiatives (projects, often under direction of an agency). While connections outside of these groups are formed, it tends to be a slow process, over time, with repeated exposure. As a result, ideas do not travel quickly, resources are not mobilized easily, and members do not influence one another strongly.

In general, the community is formed of small groups, which the author openly calls "cliques," of individuals who routinely communicate and collaborate. Members of a clique exchange information among themselves, but are not inclined to communicate to the larger community.

The "cliques" within a community tend to be small - the most common number of participants being three. It's noted that this is fairly common in academic circles, in which professionals tend to collaborate and share ideas in small groups of trusted colleagues rather than working with large groups. (EN: I wonder if this is a matter of definition. I suspect that the researchers may have set "three" as the minimum number that could be considered a group, and that there are many instances in which two collaborators, but this did not fit the definition of "group" for this study.)

(EN: Another note: my own exposure to academic publishing leads me to believe that most academics work in pairs, and it's usually one "senior" who shares publishing credit with a student or junior faculty member, who has a supporting role. I don't think the author dug into this quite deeply enough into the relationships among members of a clique, but I suspect that in most instances, a group of three is either one mentor with two juniors, or two established collaborators who share credit with one assistant or supporter.)

It's also noted that most respondents do not belong to a formal clique, but have individual ties to colleagues within the community, and as such operate as satellites to, or temporary members of, one or more cliques. It can be assumed that, over time, there is a motion of these individuals into the cliques they orbit, provided that interaction is persistent.

The formation of sub-groups often derives from formal project membership. Where a majority of the interaction is among the members of an established clique, then the communication about the project takes place within the clique. It is only when there are a number of individuals with no common clique affiliation that a temporary working group will form. This is assumed to stem not only from the practical necessities of the work at hand, but also from trust among the individuals in the community - specifically, that previous affiliation in a clique has a stronger influence than the practical concerns of a given project.

It's also noted that the same individuals are often involved in multiple projects - such that in the analysis, two-thirds of groups who have at least one member in common turn out to have all members in common. As a result, only a minority of projects create combinations of individuals who are not already known and closely associated to one another.

In both standing cliques and project teams, it's found that most discussion takes place among individuals with different disciplines (areas of study/interest), and all groups in the present study found no group that consisted of individuals of a single discipline. This is largely due to the necessity of applying expertise of different disciplines to a given problem or project. However, diversity of sector (academic/government/business) is less pronounced, and slightly more than half of groups consisted of individuals from the same sector. This may also be a functional consequence, as a diversity of expertise may be more productive than a diversity of interest/agenda.

Regarding geography, the group was largely split between groups in which all members were in distant locations, and those in which most members were in a single location with a minority being in a distant one. Virtually no groups existed in which all members were collocated, which would seem to indicate that the virtual community was only used when it was necessary - i.e., those who were proximate enough to communicate face-to-face did not utilize the technology, and those for whom it would be impossible or highly inconvenient to meet in person found it more appealing. This would seem to support the notion that a virtual community facilitates interaction that would not normally take place, but refute the notion that it is a preferable mode of interaction.


The author reviews some of the problems uncovered in the study (which have already been detailed) and suggests some approaches that could help to alleviate them.

Primarily, it is incumbent on those who wish to create or leverage virtual communities (in the case of CWN, the government agencies) to make a more intensive effort to involve the academic and business communities and to better mitigate among conflicting interests with an eye toward establishing a community that helps the participants accomplish their own goals, not merely support to agency initiatives.

Within the academic community, greater "credit" should be given to participating in professional communities and working on collaborative projects in lieu of preparing research for traditional media (academic journals). A greater emphasis is also needed in mentoring "young researchers" and shepherding them into the community of insiders.

With the professional community, participants in virtual communities should focus on the long-term benefits of membership in the community rather than focusing exclusively on the short-term needs of a given project, and companies should recognize the value of their employees' participation in such activities, both for their own professional development and in the esteem they win for their employers.