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Innovation in Communities of Practice (1)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting communities of practice literature, and I’m writing now to see what I think about it. After all, how will I know what I think until I’ve seen what I said? I’m channeling Karl Weick again there. Bonus points to my 504 students who recognize that logic. Anyway, moving on to what I think.

The NSF project that current pays my rent is ostensibly about facilitating the development of civil infrastructure. When I was first presented with the project, the part that seemed most interesting to me was the ‘transfer of practice’ (TOP) problem. The TOP problem goes something like ‘it’s difficult to move practice from research labs to the real world.’ Sure is. I looked forward to working on that problem. As I got into the project more, my focus changed. It seems like now the problem is not so much how do we move a practice from over here in research land to over there in construction but rather, how do the practices of civil infrastructure design and construction change when the materials available change?

Engineered cementitious composites (ECC) have the potential to change the practices of civil infrastructure design and construction. (You can read about ECC’s revolutionary properties at the University of Michigan news site.) I don’t know enough about that design and construction to yet know what the possibilities are, but I get the sense that they are big and dramatic. Iron and steel certainly made a big difference. Concrete, the rigid kind, is sure important. Imagine what happens when you change the tools again! At least, that’s what I’m imagining. With a little help from my colleagues, I’ll do some more definitive imagining.

So what does any of this have to do with communities of practice (COPs)? The problem of TOP is something like moving a practice from one community to new individuals. Here, I’m describing what happens when new people learn about ECC and start to learn how to work with it. It’s tough to make ‘ the recipe is incredibly precise and the underlying theory is important ‘ and it’s deceptively similar to regular concrete. To solve TOP, you simply send that newly trained person off in to the world, much like a graduate from the lab at Michigan is now off in the world getting his company to use ECC. Obviously I’m oversimplifying here, but you get the idea. By characterizing the problem of developing new infrastructure as a TOP problem, we make the research lab and its practices the goal, and the ‘real world’ and its practices the target. This could even be a transfer practice from one community to another problem.

However, that’s not what I think is going on. Rather, I think the communities of practice involved are a little broader than that TOP conception allows. I don’t think the problem is one of trying to ease the problems with throwing ECC over the wall between lab and field. The really interesting problem, I think, is how does a change in practice within the civil infrastructure design and construction community happen? Much of the existing COP literature is about moving practice from a community to an individual. What about changing a practice within the community? How does that happen?

To start to answer those questions, I’m off to explore a variety of literatures including innovation (generally), innovation (in construction), organizational change, apprenticeship, public policy and infrastructure, and standards development and negotiation. That’s just to get me started. I’m likely to blog about this quite a bit in the near future as I try to figure out what I think is going on, or rather where I think something interesting is going on. I’d like to figure out how to study that interesting bit and maybe even get a dissertation out of it.

So, what do you think ?

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