Diversity, community and knowledge management

May 5, 2011 by  

Written by: Ian Thorpe

We all know diversity is a good thing right? Yet in practice I’m sure we often find it easier to work with people who are more like us – who share similar customs and beliefs, come from the same educational or professional background, or agree with us on the “big issues”. So if we value diversity – but secretly prefer to stay in our comfort zone – does it matter, and if so what should we do? And what if anything does this have to do with knowledge management?

I’m a big fan of the “Wisdom of Crowds” and the idea that groups of people know much more than individuals – even when those individuals are “renowned experts”. Our work on developing communities of practice is based in part on this belief (and builds on lots of evidence of the successful use of this approach from other organizations).

Working in groups is not always easy though. It is especially hard when there is no agreed agenda and the group members each have their own ideas about the direction and purpose of the group and what it should be doing. Of course it’s much easier when everyone shares similar objectives and perspectives on a problem and then can just “get on with it”.

In practice it’s often easier to put together communities that you know will work together well in which there will be little dissent. People in your own Section, your friends/contacts, people in your profession – people from the same socio-economic background, nationality etc. Groups often form this way spontaneously without this being intended since people seek out others they like, can relate to or understand or share a common language or tools to examine an issue. But forming a community (or letting it spontaneously form) is not any guarantee that this “Wisdom of Crowds” will emerge.

A key component of effective communities is diversity, otherwise they risk becoming knowledge silos. What I mean by this is diversity of opinion, philosophy, life experience, professional discipline, approaches, rather than the more frequently used categories of gender, nationality or socio-economic background (but these are also important too since they affect our views and approaches more than we probably admit). Without it we can easily forget that other people don’t see the issue the same way we do, or we can miss key information and insights into the issue we are trying to address.

According to James Surowiecki, Diversity and Independence (meaning people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them i.e. they not only think differently but are willing to say so) are two of the necessary conditions in order for groups to be smart. But if we accept this as a general principle it does pose a few challenges/questions:

How do we put together groups with the right kind of diversity? How much diversity do we need? How do we deal with wanting to support those with passion and common purpose and integrating those who may be more skeptical (because of what they can bring)?

How do we encourage those with different views to express them, especially in a hierarchy where people don’t feel comfortable expressing dissent?

How do we manage diverse ideas and priorities and still stay focussed and effective (and not have too many cooks spoiling the broth)?

I don’t have all the answers to this, but in the context of managing communities of practice I have a few suggestions:

1. Try to be inclusive and representative when setting up your community and recruiting champions. Try to include people from different geographical locations, technical backgrounds, level of experience and also issues such as gender, nationality and grade/level. This is important because how you look at the beginning affects how well you can attract new members. If your community looks like an rich country old-boys club then people who don’t fit this image won’t feel comfortable to join and participate.

2. Encourage and support community members to express dissenting views, defending them if needed. This needs you to be sensitive to where there might be quieter community members who don’t agree with the majority. Help connect the dissenters together to give them mutual support.

3. Bring in outside perspectives by having guest contributors and guest moderators. Pick ones that challenge the conventional wisdom of the group.

4. Stir the pot yourself – if the conversation is too narrow or self-congratulatory and the few dissenting voices don’t feel comfortable to participate you might need to stir things up yourself. One way is to post academic or news articles, or contrarian examples that challenge the group consensus and try to stimulate debate around the issues raised.

5. Stage debates – deliberately set up debates and ask people to take up and defend particular positions, even ones that they don’t fully agree with – just as a thought exercise to help clarify their views.

6. Cross post the same query to different communities to try to get different perspectives on the same issue.

7. Publish community outputs and share them publicly and with other groups and organizations in order to encourage review and feedback.

8. Focus on common ground not on consensus. When summarizing or concluding a discussion we often seek consensus, and are willing to compromise or split the difference in order to achieve it. This can leave everyone dissatisfied. It can be more productive to identify those areas of agreement – the “common ground” and to agree to disagree on those areas where there are differences – and let the differences of opinion or approach stand.

The key to all of this is for the facilitators and community champions to actively seek diversity within their community – and to keep asking themselves whether they are getting it.

Any thoughts?

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