[Editor's Note: This article was inspired by comments made by Matt
Taylor during the 7 Domains® Workshop held in the Cambridge, MA, knOwhere
Store on August 25-28, 1997. The model for Communities of Practice was
developed by Bryan Coffman and Jay Smethurst.]
For any member of a Community of Practice, there comes a time to interface
with individuals and organizations which do not form part of the Community.
The difficulty of this situation is the issue of language. Every Community
of Practice--from physicists to painters to builders--has its own pattern
language, its own way of expressing and discussing the unique qualities
of its chosen art. This pattern language consists of the terms of art
of the practice, the models that the Community uses to express itself
and to translate reality, and the grammar that the Community uses to organize
the models and terms of art.
Think of a high school math class. As a rule, very little ground-breaking
work goes on in an Algebra or Calculus class. Innovation generally comes
later, once the "fundamentals" of math have been grasped, but
what do we mean by "fundamentals"? What a high school math course
teaches is the pattern language of the Community of Mathematicians. Algebra
teaches the rudimentary terms of the art--"function", "variable",
"equation". Geometry introduces some mathematical models--right
angles, planes, lines, points--and some of the grammar associated with
proofs--"if...then", causality, relationships. Calculus develops
all three elements of the pattern language--vocabulary, models, and grammar.
Now, the pattern language of mathematics is essential for practicing
the art of math. Certainly without this foundation, higher mathematics
would be inconceivable. What is missing from many high school math courses
is the reason for learning this pattern language--the passion and the
art. The pattern language is a valuable tool, but only if it is used to
achieve something. Occasionally, this indoctrination in the language of
mathematics will spark a passion in a student strong enough to make that
student a member in the Community of Mathematicians, but normally this
introduction to the art of mathematics passes as rudimentary understanding
into other Communities of Practice.
A Community of Practice does not exist outside of its membership, but
its essence is more than the mere sum of its members. A Community normally
forms around an art, a discipline, and it is the passion for that art
that creates the loyalty and the organization. Of course, members drawn
to the Community of Practice will be attracted for very personal reasons,
and will each have a different perspective on the nature of the art that
they are practicing. These different understandings will lead to a diversity
of forms and practices which will lead inevitably to controversy. It is
this controversy that must be both nurtured and resolved.
Practitioners of an art must push its limits. Art is exploration, and
to do simply what is already known is to kill both the art and the artist.
An artist must reach into the unknown, must draw from other arts to enhance
his own. Outside of the known is the void, the "white space"
from which all inspiration comes. (See the Benjamin
Hoff quote from 1997/07/27.) As individual artists reach out in their
own ways into the white space, they both make it known and bring themselves
into the unknown. In so doing (so long as they do not break entirely away
from the Community), they pull the Community of Practice along with them.
As they venture forward, they (or their work) must engage the Community
as a whole in a dialogue, exploring and explaining the white space in
Now as the artist returns from the exploration of the white space to
the Community, he must use the language of the Community--the pattern
language--to explain, demonstrate, defend, or otherwise elucidate his
discoveries. In mathematics, the explorer must defend her discoveries
using proofs based on accepted theorems, axioms and other proofs. An architect
must justify his work through forms, function and materials. A gardener
must be able to explain and justify any exploration in terms of arrangement,
soil, minerals, water, weather and a multitude of other factors that constitute
the pattern language of the art of gardening.
As artists push the Community into new territory, the "old"
territory becomes comfortable and safe. The forms and earlier explorations
become part of the pattern language, change the shape of the models of
the Community and eventually become codified in such a way that they can
be readily understood by a novice or a lay person. Take as an example
the Copernican notion that the Earth revolves around the sun. It was revolutionary
and terrifying at the time it was proposed, yet since it was defended
by "proper" scientific method, it became acceptable. And as
it became acceptable, it became part of the pattern language of cosmology
and other learnings began using this model as a foundation from which
to make further assumptions. As this happened, the further assumptions
became terrifying to the lay person and the Copernican model became commonplace--so
commonplace, in fact, that it was no longer of any particular interest
to those on the cutting edge of the discipline.
Nevertheless, as new ideas in one Community of Practice are accepted
within the Community and codified, they can be passed on to the general
public for easy consumption and possible application to other fields.
It is in passing on the codified idea, when non-practitioners find value
in its codified ideas and practices, that a Community of Practice can
generate return on their investments in exploration. The groundbreakers
in the field of complexity theory, like the Santa
Fe Institute, were ignored as marginal and irrelevant until businesses,
economists, and other industries began discovering possible value in the
work that complexity theorists were doing. Our recent 7
Domains® Workshop, for example, represents an attempt by lay folk
to apply the trailing edges of complexity theory to an entirely different
Communities of Practice exist as their pattern language. This language
must be robust enough to express the depth and breadth of the art form,
and malleable enough to accomodate change and debate inside the discipline
itself. This language must also be coherent enough to allow itself to
be codified and translated to other Communities of Practice to be used
and adapted to suit their particular needs and visions. All Communities
seek to explore the white space. It is their method of exploration and
their means of communicating their experiences of exploration that differ.
copyright © 1997, MG Taylor Corporation.
All rights reserved
terms and conditions