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Partly out of a sense of drama and partly to make a point I sometimes find myself being dismissive of “collaboration” and “sharing knowledge”.

This is why.

First, social learning is first and foremost about – well – learning. Learning as a social enterprise. Say, write, or even think a word that you assume makes sense to someone else and you are engaging in something social. Coming to a shared understanding of what that word represents (or not) has been a process of social learning. That process hasn’t necessarily been smooth. The word has been contested, hijacked, distorted, re-interpreted, adapted, agreed, and disagreed on. Its shared meaning right now is simply a snapshot of its unfinished journey through social learning.

That’s the same with all artifacts, reifications, and processes that make up social learning in communities of practice. The ride to where they are today has not necessarily been smooth. There may have been some collaboration along the way, but it’s unlikely to be the full story.

What’s more, collaboration can be a euphemism for papering over disagreements and politics. It can be a way to silence voices or disregard issues of power. But disagreements, contestability, and awareness of power are all opportunities to enrich and maximize a community’s learning capability. It’s not necessarily collaboration you want, it’s the maximizing of your learning potential. And doing that requires an artful mix of engaging diverse voices, stimulating people’s imagination to what’s possible, and creating horizontal alignment among them.

What about sharing knowledge, the favorite child of collaboration? Forget it. What happens if you’re in a room (or a discussion forum) and are told to share your knowledge? Nada. But what if you are in a room with someone you can relate to who shares a problem they face? The chances are you will jump in to help – with stories of what you did in similar circumstances, what worked, and what didn’t.

We meet lots of community organizers losing sleep over the question of how to get people to share knowledge. If it’s going to keep you up at night, a more fruitful question is how to help frame an inquiry about what is not known. What is an issue facing a member that most people will relate to? How do you get them to tell a story about it in a way that invites a response? What kind of activity will deepen the inquiry – a debate? case clinic? role play? And how will you track and share how this leads that person to change how they “do business” and what happens as a result?

Framing the inquiry means tuning into the learning imperative (i.e. what we don’t yet know), doing ground work (who else shares this problem and what are the different perspectives that would be useful to bear on this?), designing a meaningful activity (one that will help push the inquiry), and keeping a record of the learning as it flows into practice and has an effect on the world (and feeding this back to the community).

So if you hear someone ask me about collaboration and knowledge sharing, be warned. I might just say boo!