ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Disaster and opportunity
replacing traditional knowledge networks with online communities of practice

By Michael Feldstein / March 2002

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

I once heard a professional sports trainer make a most remarkable comment about Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. Speaking of the cyclist's triumphant comeback after recovering from cancer, the trainer said, "Lance viewed the ravaging effects of the chemotherapy on his body as an opportunity to do what very few athletes get a chance to do. He consciously planned and rebuilt his body from the ground up." For me, it was a stunning revelation, a rare glimpse into the mind of a champion.

This wasn't just a case of "making lemons out of lemonade" by putting on a happy face. This was cerebral. It was strategic. Armstrong really and truly planned and built his own new body, taking advantage of his condition to try new things. For example, when he discovered that his legs were too weak to do the kind of strength training required to pedal up the steep course stretches in the Pyrenees mountains, Armstrong decided he would expand his lung capacity so that he could pedal faster in a higher gear, using his lungs rather than his legs as his competitive edge. And it worked. His most recent victory was due, in large part, to his spectacular performance in the mountainous stretches of the course.

I was reminded of this story recently while consulting for a financial services firm with offices in and around the World Trade Center. While the company was fortunate to have lost very few people in the attack, they did lose over 7,000 desks as their office buildings were made indefinitely (and in some cases, permanently) uninhabitable. Workers were scattered to temporary offices spread throughout the tri-state area. Suddenly, people could no longer turn to the person in the next cubicle for answers to their problems. There was no next cubicle anymore. And now, with the massive firm-wide layoffs resulting from the economic downturn, it's quite possible that the guy in the next cubicle is never coming back.

In the face of major disruptions, where we lose the kinds of knowledge networks that we have grown to depend on, we have an opportunity to learn how to pedal faster by building online knowledge-sharing communities. Normally, communities of practice are notoriously difficult to grow and maintain, in part because they are not the path of least resistance. While it's entirely possible that somebody in an office on the other side of the world has the ultimate solution to our problem, we can usually get an answer that is good enough just by asking that person in the next cubicle. Humans rely on face-to-face social networks as a matter of instinct. In contrast, the reflex to seek support online from people you have never met is not natural. It requires work to learn. Under normal circumstances, this means it probably will not get learned at all.

But major disruptive changes such as a sudden relocations, downsizing, or mergers (not to mention terrorist attacks) can often bring with them opportunities to create a "tipping point" for an organization. If people can no longer rely on their traditional knowledge networks, they will seek to build new ones. Smart organizations will move quickly to set up online community spaces. At first, people will use these spaces mainly to fill their most urgent needs, including perhaps to feel a little less alone as they are separated from their officemates.

From the perspective of the organization, it really doesn't matter what people use the online communities for in the short term. What matters is that they get into the habit of using them. What matters is that people will develop reflexes that, once in place, can benefit the organization (and the people in it) for a long time to come. In effect, you are building up the organization's lung capacity to help you get up the Pyrenees mountains faster even without the leg strength you used to have.

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions to get you started in building that lung capacity:

  • Identify leaders and use them. Who is it that people turn to for advice in your organization? Who do people trust? Recruit those people to be your online community leaders. They will bring a community with them.
  • Listen to your participants. People will tend to come online first to solve their problems, not yours. Make sure that the community is designed to answer questions that they care about enough to come online for. A corollary to this principle is never assume that you know what needs will or will not motivate your people to go online. Too often, organizational leadership believe that their employees would never "waste their time" in online conversation when, in fact, those same employees are participating in all kinds of professional and personal online communities outside the bounds of the intranet.
  • Get it up soon. Your window of opportunity exists when people have needs that have not yet been solved. Strike early, while there is a sense of urgency.
  • Focus on ease-of-use. As you shop around for software platforms to support your communities, ignore the glossy marketing brochures with their long, bulleted lists of features. Instead, test the system out. Find a community that is already using the software, register as a user, and pretend to be seriously looking for answers. The software platform that seems to make it easiest for you to find people with good information is the one you should pick.

Like the human body, organizations have awe-inspiring capacities to heal and adapt in response to trauma. The process itself is natural and organic, but we can shape and augment it if we know what we're doing. Lance Armstrong understands this. Instead of fighting his body's weaknesses, he worked with them. Online social networks allow managers to do the same thing for their organizations. They enable members to find ways to compensate for their losses—to learn to pedal faster.


  • There are no comments at this time.