I start this posting knowing that someone will read it and say "Where has this guy been? We all worked that out years ago." Despite this I am going to continue because if I've only just worked it out, there will be others like me who might find this interesting!
Those of us who have tried to support 'Communities of Practice' online will know that it is not easy, especially if it's got nothing to do with ICT or making lots of money or organising a sports team.
Why is it so difficult? A key issue is that, on many issues, it is difficult to get to enough people interested in the same thing to the same extent for long enough to sustain an online group. Like most people, I am interested in lots of things and could belong to loads of communities of practice. But in real life I end up on the periphery of all of them. My interest in any particular thing waxes and wanes. This is captured brilliantly in Jane Berry's* spiral of engagement (pictured) which she produced as part of the work on the Open Innovation Exchange.
OK, so how does Web 2.0 help? Well, on the one hand it would appear not to. Web 2.0 is very empowering for individuals and these days it is just as difficult to get Web 2.0 literate people to participate in an online group as it is to get the digitally excluded involved. The 'literates' are all doing their own thing in there own online spaces thanks very much. Why should they come and join your group?
But what Web 2.0 gives us is tags (keywords) and in the Web 2.0 world it is these tags that bring us together, or can potentially bring us together, in virtual online groups. So an alternative, to bringing people together and then expecting them to interact in a shared space, is to encourage individuals to write their own ideas in their own space (like I'm doing here) and to tag it. The tags then identify de facto communities of practice and draw the attention of individuals to the work of other individuals doing, and writing, about similar things.
"But," I hear you say, "I don't want make contact with people who just write about stuff. I want contact with people who are actually doing stuff." I agree. That's why we need to use the internet as our collective 'workbench' like Beth Kanter does so well over here.
* I have to express (great) interest here . . . Jane is my wife!