Case Study: Sunderland Community Development Network


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This paper examines the attempt, by Sunderland Community Development Network, to build a dynamic model of community knowledge sharing to assist its strategic work in the cultural renaissance of the City of Sunderland. It explores the network’s use of community space, personalised networks and knowledge-sharing spaces and analyses the success, to date, in utilising the power of meta-networks.

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Case Study: Sunderland Community Development Network

  1. 1. BUILDING A DYNAMIC MODEL OF COMMUNITY KNOWLEDGE SHARING: THE CASE OF SUNDERLAND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT NETWORK Geoffrey A. Walker University of Northumbria UK Mr. Geoffrey A. Walker University of Northumbria 23 Avondale Avenue Penshaw Houghton le Spring Tyne and Wear DH4 7QR UK
  2. 2. ABSTRACT This paper examines the attempt, by Sunderland Community Development Network, to build a dynamic model of community knowledge sharing to assist its strategic work in the cultural renaissance of the City of Sunderland. It explores the network’s use of community space, personalised networks and knowledge-sharing spaces and analyses the success, to date, in utilising the power of meta-networks. INTRODUCTION Many case studies have been undertaken of how informal, sponsored and supported communities of practice operate within private and public sector organisations. To date, however, no examination has been made of how informal communities of practice operate within the third sector, the sector of community and voluntary organisations. The third sector has a long history of using community space, in various forms, either physical or notional, to engage individuals in discourse and informal learning. The rise of the network society has added value to this process by allowing active individuals to personalise networks through the use of technologies which enhance communication. The third sector is now demonstrating that individuals and groups are seeking to create open access knowledge-sharing spaces which attempt to combine face-to-face networks with computer-mediated communications to support informal learning between community development practitioners. This paper examines the role of Sunderland Community Development Network in the creation of informal communities of practice. It pays particular attention to three key areas: 1. Community space: How core, active, peripheral and transactional community spaces within third sector partnerships create an ebb and flow of informal communities of practice.
  3. 3. 2. Personalised networking: How issue-based activity, inside and outside communities, can lead to the rapid appearance and disappearance of informal communities of practice. 3. Knowledge-sharing space: How core members of a third sector organisation can create a dynamic model of roles within informal communities of practice capable of impacting upon processes of governance beyond the organisation. SUNDERLAND AND THE COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT NETWORK Sunderland is a new city in the North East of England with a population of 300,000. Towards the end of the last century, it suffered adversely from the post-industrialisation process. Both shipbuilding (ships had been built on the River Wear for over 1500 years) and coal mining (Monkwearmouth Colliery was one of the largest deep mines in Europe) went into terminal decline. The dawn of the new millennium, however, has witnessed an economic, social and cultural renaissance in the City. Sunderland’s Nissan car plant is now the largest in the UK with 12,000 employees. Sunderland University has a new riverside campus adjacent to a thriving marina and an emerging shellfish industry. Sunderland Football Club has a new arena (built on the former site of Monkwearmouth Colliery), boldly entitled “The Stadium of Light” and there is an award-winning museum and winter gardens in the heart of the city centre. Sunderland Community Development Network (SCDN) forms the neighbourhood-based component of the City’s renaissance and is open to community groups, community networks, voluntary sector organisations, volunteers and residents who are, or want to be, active in their communities. The aims of SCDN are to link together neighbourhood renewal (Social Exclusion Unit 2000) areas of the City in communities of practice, maximise the power of communities to shape the future of the City, provide a decision-making and discussion forum for communities, provide effective, meaningful and co-ordinated representation at all levels of the City Council’s Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) and provide a structure of accountability for community
  4. 4. representation and the communication of information. The concept of partnership working in this manner was first suggested in a document produced by the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (2001). In summary, SCDN aims to capture, store and transfer the wide range of knowledge contained within Sunderland’s community-based organisations and make this knowledge accessible to other sectors. SCDN has been emerging as a meta-network since September 2001 under the innovatory leadership of VOICES. VOICES was originally established as Sunderland Voluntary Sector Partnership (VSP) in 1994 and since September 1994 has played an active role on the City of Sunderland Partnership (CoSP). Three community development workers were appointed in May 1998 to develop networks in areas where there was no existing infrastructure and to build the community and voluntary sector in the City. In 2000, the VSP gained charitable company status in the name of Sunderland Voluntary and Community Sector Partnership. The official launch of the new company was held in October 2000 to coincide with the signing of the local Compact between the CoSP and the voluntary and community sector. The name VOICES was adopted to reflect the role of the VSP in ensuring local people’s needs, views and opinions are integral to the decision-making processes of policy makers at local, regional and national level. The core group of VOICES has many years of experience of community development activity stretching back to the 1970s, long before the introduction of the Internet and other network technologies. Some members of the core group have taken readily to email and other network technologies while others struggle with it. All, however, are very skilled face-to-face networkers and demonstrate a high level of trust in the communities they support. The meta-network provides a range of knowledge-sharing platforms through which dialogue can flow, both formally and informally. These platforms include formal strategy meetings, informal lunches, events and residential conferences and seminars as well as sharing documents and discussion via email and the Internet. Key informants constantly refer to the informal dialogue, which takes place before, after and around meetings. The informal sharing of knowledge is seen to lie at the hub of the collective learning and knowledge-sharing
  5. 5. process, which takes place within the meta-network. Access to knowledge is sought in a seamless way by combining face-to-face informality with document sharing and the use of email firmly grounded in the needs of communities. Knowledge is also accessed via the mobile telephone and text messaging which adds value to the use of other technologies. A high level of trust is placed upon individuals with key skills and competencies, within the network, as containers and carriers of knowledge on community development. SCDN has been debating, for more than two years, the importance of legitimising peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger 1997) within the network and the LSP. Legitimate peripheral participation provides a way to speak about the relations between ‘newbies’, ‘veterans’, activities, identities (Wenger 1998), communities of knowledge (Brown & Duguid 1991) and practice. It is concerned with the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice (Wenger et al. 2002). As a result of this debate, a model has been devised which aims to provide a means of legitimising peripheral participation within it. In this model, members of the network are divided into a tripartite framework of community development responsibilities within each of the twelve themed and six area-based neighbourhood renewal groups of the LSP, as follows: 1. Capacity-builder: With previous partnership-working experience, well-developed informal and formal meeting skills and knowledge of decision-making structures. 2. Mentor: With experience of representation or other partnership working. 3. Learner: With experience of meetings at a neighbourhood level but no previous representation experience. Clearly, individuals tend to exhibit all of these roles to a greater or lesser degree. In terms of the meta-network, however, these three roles form a dynamic learning framework for the community participants within the eighteen working groups of the LSP. It is clear that this tripartite framework creates a dynamic model for developing informal communities of practice as the three roles constantly combine and disperse leaving critical masses of knowledge which can be accessed in a number of ways through:
  6. 6. 1. The manipulation of the spaces where communities are formed. 2. The establishment of personalised networks. 3. The creation of knowledge sharing spaces. COMMUNITY SPACE The traditional gathering place of community activists for centuries has been the village hall, community centre or their physical equivalent; the place of democratic engagement and dialogue on issues affecting the community. Community activists often put forward the view that it is possible to create an equitable ‘community’ space, both mental and physical, where the views of individuals and groups can be freely exchanged in a form of ‘true’ participatory democracy. Such a belief can be seen as an extension of the concept of agora where the creation of a ‘level playing field’, by definition, leads to engagement in the free expression of ideas, opinions and innovation. Does such a shared mental and physical community space exist, however, when the barriers to effective use of place, space and cyberspace are manifold? Several commentators have grappled with the concept of community space. They have revealed a complexity, which goes far beyond that manifest in village halls and community centres. In order to understand this complexity, the following concepts are examined in turn, community space, ‘liminal’ space, reproduction of space, defensible space, ‘the space of flows’ and the semiotics of global space. Wenger (1998) talks of ‘community space’ in which groups operate. The facilitators, innovators and leaders occupy the core space. Active, interested individuals inhabit the active space. Interested individuals, who are not necessarily active, occupy peripheral space and the transactional space is where partnerships are forged. This paradigm suggests the existence of four distinct community spaces. It does not, however, explain how groups apparently move, with ease, from one space to another or alternatively occupy several spaces simultaneously.
  7. 7. For example, individuals may well occupy core space in one group, active space in another and so on. SCDN’s tripartite framework means that the dynamic roles cut across the boundaries of community space. By introducing the concept of ‘liminal’ space, we can envisage how individuals and groups journey between the spaces outlined above. Liminal space, an anthropological term, refers to the ‘limbo’ which an individual inhabits while performing a rite of passage between one space and another. A physical example of this space is the Aboriginal ‘Walkabout’ where teenage aborigines must spend time alone surviving in the outback prior to acceptance as an adult member of the group. A comparison can be made here with the concept of a ‘lurker’ in an electronic environment or a ‘learner’ within SCDN. ‘Lurking’ in an electronic environment would be considered a form of situated learning by Lave and Wenger (1997), and, as such a legitimate form of peripheral participation. Adding the concept of liminal space to the paradigm creates a new dynamic, which does, at least, appear to go some way towards illustrating how individuals and groups occupy several spaces simultaneously. Puttnam (2000) refers to the bridging and bonding of social capital within communities. Social capital is created either by forming bridges between communities or bonding communities where they share common characteristics. It is, therefore, legitimate to suggest that social capital is formed in liminal space. Lefebvre’s (1991) discourse on the relationship between mental and physical space highlights not only the production of community space but also the reproduction of this space: ‘The problematic of space, which subsumes the problems of the urban sphere…and of everyday life, has displaced the problematic of industrialisation. It has not, however, destroyed that earlier set of problems: the social relationships that obtained previously still obtain; the new problem is, precisely, the problem of their reproduction.’ Lefebvre (1991): 89
  8. 8. In physical terms, former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill went some way to expressing the relationship when he said: ‘There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ SCDN, like many other networks, has experimented extensively with variations in physical space in order to facilitate knowledge-sharing. However, are there human and psychological constructs which influence individual and group behaviour in community spaces? Building upon the idea of human structures, Goffman (1959) derived the concept of ‘defensible space’, the cognitive space between individuals where they form opinions and assumptions of others. In physical space we can visibly assess people’s changing opinions through human interaction, which is supported by body language. In cyberspace, however, where body language can play a different part, defensible space becomes the space of legitimate peripheral participation. Discourse and dialogue in cyberspace can often viewed as significantly more reflective than that which takes place in physical space. The roles of capacity-builder, mentor and learner assist discourse and dialogue through enabling conversations on who is learning what, from whom and the impact of this upon the network. Castells (1989) argues that access to flows of information and resources is the key to participation in the networked society. He refers to a subtle interaction between physically co- located resources and virtual information-based resources. He calls this space ‘the space of flows’. He suggests a further dimension to community space. The space of flows being the personal space, which individuals manipulate, in and around the groups they populate. They create this space by constructing complex problem-solving personal social networks. These networks manipulate information and resources on a personal level through a complex web of digital technologies and face-to-face interaction.
  9. 9. Due to the constant and rapid evolution of community space within networked society, SCDN has attempted to create dynamic issue and area-based thematic communities of practice which accommodate the informality of the relationships created. Each member of an issue or area- based group has to relate to other members of the groups in terms of their ability to act as capacity-builder, mentor and learner. This interaction leads to semiotic relationships between communities of practice with high levels of synergy capable of rapid transformation and dissolution around a particular theme or issue. Such interaction also relies on high levels of personal interaction within networks and meta-networks. PERSONALISED NETWORKING Human networks are hugely complex phenomena. We are only just beginning to understand the implications of understanding networks: ‘Today we increasingly recognize that nothing happens in isolation. Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a huge number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle. We have come to see that we live in a small world, where everything is linked to everything else. We are witnessing a revolution in the making as scientists from all different disciplines discover that complexity has a strict architecture. We have come to grasp the importance of networks.’ Barabasi (2003): 7 In this ‘small world’, individuals and groups are as likely to reach out around the globe for knowledge as they are to visit their next door neighbour in search of information (Watts 2003). Given this complexity, how do we provide a platform for a networked community?
  10. 10. While face-to-face contact is paramount within SCDN and often cannot be replicated in electronic systems, the constraint of time and space on active individuals has led to the network accepting that the ‘community’ is not necessarily located in a fixed space. The idea of community being with you wherever you are is a welcome and re-assuring idea associated with the trust, strengths and connections needed for effective networking. As a result, SCDN has begun to use ICT to add value to human systems in a personalised manner often referred to as personalised networking. Research into personalised networking (Wellman 2001a; 2001b) has shown that knowledge transfer and the idea of communities of practice (groups of people that create, share and exchange knowledge) is relative to situated learning (how useful the knowledge is within a particular situation or towards a particular end). This requires multi-faceted means of creating ‘dialogue’ where meaning flows through individuals and groups. Initially, however, the quality of the dialogue may not be as important as the process of democratic engagement it as it is often about allowing people to explore new ideas and discarding those that are not ‘fit for purpose’. Evidence also suggests that network identity can also emerge through consensual agreement on what is community-based knowledge in the emerging dialogue. The division of responsibility into capacity-builder, mentor and learner creates dynamic spaces within personalised networks where knowledge can be shared informally. Personalised networks appear to vary not only with regard to the skills and experience of capacity-builders, mentors and learners but also in relation to where the networker is located within community space. It would be relatively easy to map personalized networks if community spaces were mutually exclusive and static. However, such spaces are mutually reliant and dynamic, as such, they are capable of potentially highly complex topologies of personalised networks. Social network analysis tools prove difficult to deploy in such a complex context. A high reliance on subjective and qualitative analysis is needed to understand the complexity of personalised networks within meta-networks. SCDN has attempted to create matrices of cross- cutting usage of technologies such as email, web and text-messaging within the tripartite
  11. 11. framework. This has proved difficult to progress in a collaborative computer-mediated environment and progress has been limited to face-to-face workshops. KNOWLEDGE-SHARING SPACE In partnership with Sunderland City Council’s E-government Unit, SCDN is developing an appropriate architecture for a community technology into which its collective knowledge can be filtered and codified ( Data, information and knowledge is being drawn from a wide range of cross-cutting sources emanating from core groups, activists, peripheral groups and transactional partners at varying levels. Taxonomies and topologies are being created which are dynamic and organic, developed through user-defined language in detailed consultations with network members. For example, knowledge is coded as ‘theme-based’, ‘issue related' or ‘network representation related' and, in turn, validated through dynamic use by members. All types of knowledge are upheld as equally valid as more and more people search and use the network’s knowledge the more common definition naturally surfaces according to the emerging dialogue. The key is to build intelligence into analysis of the use of language in the dialogue that emerges. From the outset of the project, it was clear that a cultural shift was required to get beyond data and information and move toward knowledge sharing amongst network members. Such cultural problems are widely recognised by academics and practitioners as most individuals and groups within organisations are comfortable dealing with hard facts and figures rather than soft outcomes as a starting point. This marks the first phase of development of cultural shift and is only useful in the network’s thinking if it is accompanied by a roadmap towards appropriate and effective management of knowledge in the long term. SCDN’s first stage of developing a knowledge base consists of ‘compiling‘ information on the actors within the network. This is the point at which the architecture of shared learning space is structured through recognising the interaction of actors with the emerging architecture. Such ‘structuration’ (the structuring of social relations across time and space), however, must contain the flux, which allows actors within the network to customise their own personalised
  12. 12. networking structures. Understanding the degree of flexibility that actors need to interpret their personalised networks is paramount. The second stage is referred to as ‘profiling’ the key skills and experiences which members bring to the network. Profiling is a mix of knowledge supplied by professional community development workers and network members themselves about the network itself. This extends to a need to determine performance according to both external and internal transactional criteria with other partners. The profiling stage begins the process of monitoring and evaluating the level of participation and reification within the dialogue that populates the shared learning space. The final stage is ‘tooling’ of network members to meet the increasing demands of personalised networking. This is the stage at which members’ skill gaps are identified and filled. As noted previously, SCDN has divided participants in the shared learning space into three key roles, capacity builders, mentors and learners. Each actor-role compliments the other around a particular theme, such as, health, diversity and community safety. Although paper-based forms of communication, and telephone calls, may not be easily codified, the idea of a meta-network means that these conversations are likely to become embedded within an online application provided that the dialogue is on-going, regular and frequent. This is dependent on the overall utility of the knowledge base that can only be determined through the level of usage. Part of the work of Sunderland City Council’s E- government Unit is to allow 60 members of the network access to a portable computer, and to the Sunderland E-government website. In the short term, these people will be able to use the community-based web portal to see what they might expect in an online environment run by, and for, themselves. If this enthusiasm is cascaded throughout the network and access is widespread most members could be accessing their knowledge base most days to add value to their personalised networking.
  13. 13. CONCLUSION This paper has examined SCDN’s role in the creation of informal communities of practice, in particular, it has analysed the part played by the tripartite framework of capacity-builder, learner and mentor in progressing flexible and dynamic communities of practitioners. The tripartite framework has been examined within the context of community space, personalised networking and knowledge sharing spaces. Outcomes to date, as to the robustness of this dynamic model of community knowledge- sharing, are positive, however, the model has not yet reached a significant level of maturity and the possibility of long-term success remains uncertain. A number of positive outcomes have been achieved. The first of these is the degree of progress achieved by SCDN in comparison to other networks. Several factors account for this, not least of which are that some networks are considerably less well developed than SCDN and some advantage is gained by the existence of VOICES, a geographically-defined organisation for strategic development of the third sector. The second is the creation of a body of good practice which is being shared through national umbrella organisations. Finally, the search for a dynamic model of community knowledge sharing has led to a greater integration of SCDN with the LSP allowing it to play a successful part in the cultural renaissance of the City of Sunderland. In terms of community space, SCDN has begun to demonstrate a greater understanding of the relationship between mental and physical space. However, there is a continuing need to facilitate wider understanding of this relationship both internally and externally. The emergence of patterns of personalised networking is symptomatic of ability of members of the network to see the power of meta-networks. Moving in a complexity of meta-networks also enhances the comfort factor of operating within personalised networks where meta- networks are used as a means of changing organisational culture.
  14. 14. While the paper offers a positive and transferable model of the creation of informal communities of practice and community knowledge sharing, the development of the model has been subject to a number of barriers: 1. The time spent gaining agreement on the model (almost eighteen months) in the meta-network. For people who are unfamiliar with informal, dynamic and flexible working relationships the model appears simultaneously complex and radical. 2. Agreeing knowledge-sharing protocols with transactional partners where the shared vision did not appear to be as advanced as that of SCDN. The LSP has a wide range of partners all from different sectors of the economy and all appear to be at different levels of skills and experience in partnership working. 3. The protracted discussions on the creation of a ‘critical mass’, for the development of the model, within the meta-network, was hampered by turnover in key personnel. It was recognised, from the outset, that champions of the model would play a key role in the creation of this critical mass. The skills acquired by the champions, in the dynamic working environment led to their rapid progression to roles within other networks and organisations with a loss of skills and experience to SCDN. 4. The lack of an education programme on the tripartite framework for ‘newbies’ which makes significant connections with ‘veterans’. This has developed on an ad hoc basis. There is now a recognition of the need for a strategy which connects skills and knowledge which is evident in the work with Sunderland City Council’s E- government Unit. REFERENCES Barabasi, A. L. (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing Brown, J. S. & Duguid P. (1991) Organisational Learning and Communities of Practice:
  15. 15. Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning and Innovation Organization Science, 2 pp. 40-57 Castells, M. (1989) The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring and the Urban-regional Process Oxford: Blackwell Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life London: Penguin Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1997) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space Oxford: Blackwell Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (2001) Local Strategic Partnership Guidance London: HMSO Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community New York: Simon & Schuster Social Exclusion Unit (2000) A National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal London: HMSO Watts, D.J. (2003) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age London: Norton Wellman, B. (2001a) Physical Place and Cyberplace: The Rise of Personalised Networking International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 25. Wellman, B. (2001b) Computer Networks as Social Networks Science Vol. 293 pp. 2031- 2034 Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice Cambridge: University Press Wenger, E. et Al. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press