Openness

Community: a bounded space

It might help here to think of a community as a place on a map. If you look at the map, you’ll see that a town or a village has a boundary around it, not just for administrative purposes but also due to the feeling people have about the place they live or work in and the history and customs of the place. In a similar way, a community has a line traced around it marking the boundary between who and what belongs and who and what doesn’t. That line may be of varying thicknesses but it is always present. Why? For a community to exist it necessarily has to be bounded, otherwise it would englobe everything and would cease to mean anything. The existence of that boundary is a key part of the identity of the community. Identity being a major force of cohesion within communities. Identity, amongst other things, is also linked to the strength of ties between its members and the nature and perceived value of their shared practices and knowledge.

Access

Openness in the case of a community can be seen in two senses. Let’s look first at how it relates to people. Openness is the extent to which access is allowed to the community from the outside. That sounds simple enough, but openness is more complex. In his book about communities of practice, Etienne Wenger puts a great deal of emphasis on the need for new arrivals to be induced into the community through a sometimes lengthy learning process. They have to know how things are done within the community, for example. In professional communities this would involve learning the trade, amongst other things. This threshold of knowledge acts as a barrier between those within and those who’d like to join. The depth and breadth of the threshold varies from community to community. A stronger threshold may mean a stronger feeling of belonging and motivation on the part of members and as such would be a positive force for the community. But at the same time, it may imply smaller numbers of new members and restricted growth or even decline of membership which might not be so good. To maintain membership while remaining closed, some communities revert to fear as a motivation for people to adhere and remain members, and, as we will see elsewhere, fear is not conducive to learning which is one of the main added values of communities.

The flow of knowledge

Openness also refers to the possible influx of knowledge and new ways of working from outside the community, and, more profoundly, to the level of tolerance for that which is different. Where tolerance is limited and the influx of new ideas and new ways of working strictly controlled, responsiveness to external change is slow and not always appropriate. To some extent the openness to new people acts as a vehicle for new ideas and approaches. In the kind of communities of practice Wenger refers to, which tend to be more formalised and explicit in their workings, it is the role of a limited number of people who straddle boundaries between communities to be the advocates for new ideas. But in many looser communities, ideas flow in an out of communities more freely brought by many of their members.

Why be open?

So why should we say that communities should be open? Well, a certain level of openness brings with it far greater opportunities for learning on the part of members without threatening the identity of the community. And that learning contributes both to the individual and the collective richness of the community and strengthens motivation and the feeling of belonging. Openness also enables a community to be more responsive to changes in its environment, a considerable asset in times that are complex and fast changing.

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