Answering: What is a Community of Practice?

I’m participating in an open section of Enterprise Social Networking #MSLOC430. In week 3 and 4, one of the assignments is to write about the one of the following innovations in work: crowdsourcing, idea management and design, communities of practice, or working out loud. I’m sharing my thoughts and journey on discovering “What makes a community of practice?”

Understanding Community of Practice through Theory and Practical Terms

I’ve spent much of the past eight years figuring out:

What is a community and what will they practice?

Wenger and Trayner’s Introduction to Communities of Practice is such a good start to answer this question. I think it’s important to understand the domain, community, and practice as separate pieces.  Yet in practical terms, my most helpful understanding is what Harold Jarche explained to me at our National eXtension Conference in 2014:

My journey to understand ‘Community of Practice’

I began my journey working for an eXtension CoP as a content (development) specialist, first helping to coordinate and produce content from a collection of many of our national land grant university and Cooperative Extension System resources.

Did we have a CoP?

Having come into the CoP after the visioning stages, I began to realize that sometimes the term Community of Practice can begin as more of an idea or ambition than a reality.

In 2007, our beginning initiative started with developing content: a database of gardening FAQs merged and curated from different state programs. We also started by creating some summary articles on basic gardening information.

When we brought people together from many state programs to a face-to-face meeting, they very much intended to collaborate to produce new content, i.e. write, review, but when we all went back home, the day to day activities of many replaced the ideas and energy of our meeting. So, I began to wonder:

  • How am I going to develop content with people that don’t know each other?
  • Was it the technology and web literacies that were holding us back?
    • Privacy and security concerns?
    • The infrequency of working or communication together? (Why doesn’t everyone just work out loud on Twitter? Wouldn’t that would be great!)
  • Did we have too domains of practice to merge to really practice together? (Horticulture had many sub domains and we also had program coordinators).

Finding the right questions to start building community

I realized all of these questions probably needed to be addressed and considered, but the real issue was: How do we bring people together, and, can we expect them to produce content as a community of practice made up of volunteer contributors?

Nancy White’s Me, We, and the Network webinar and our follow-up discussion provided great insight to help me understand: What brings people together through technology in general, not just through a community of practice?

Changing focus from building content to building community

When I realized I should be asking new questions, I found Harold Jarche’s blog and printed out each version of what I call the ‘Cooperative-Collaborative learning bubbles diagram.’ You can find a version of it in In Networks Cooperation Trumps Collaboration. My obsession with figuring out how to foster interaction and movement between the ‘Cooperative-Collaborative learning bubbles’ led to this insightful metaphor of acting as social dance hall convener.

Collaboration and Cooperation

What behaviors could we expect from CoP members when participating in work teams, communities of practice, and broader social networking opportunities? (Collaboration & Cooperation image from CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 CA)

I continued to look for ways we could use technology to ‘convene’ or bring groups of people together more frequently. I also began to change some of my expectations about what were realistic activities (and benefits) to expect from work teams, communities of practice, or participation in broader social networking opportunities.

6 lessons I learned about the character of CoPs and community building

Through my journey to understand how to bring people together, I learned some lessons about CoP and community building in general:

1)Narrow down the domain and purpose (i.e. make it attainable). We started with a large network and an ambitious list of objectives. The most attainable goal of the community was not to build a national core curriculum or online course with our current resources. We started to discover that 1) we needed to focus on one group (coordinators, not coordinators and horticulture specialists) and 2)the greatest need for coordinators was to focus on the different aspects of (extension master gardener) volunteer program management, outreach, and program delivery.

A rough idea of the potential number of state coordinators, county coordinators, and volunteers that were in our network and could be in the CoP.

A rough idea of the potential number of state coordinators, county coordinators, and volunteers that were in our network and could be in the CoP.

2) Hire a community facilitator, or even better, a social artist? Since our CoP’s primary focus shifted to more frequent knowledge sharing, we needed to cultivate community. Before this, we would have called this person, me, a content coordinator or project manager. The activities and the position in the United Nations Communities of Practice Guide describe this role as a community facilitator. I see others in the business world may sometimes refer to this as community manager, as I mentioned recently). To be clear, I think the closest official title to community facilitator I came up with was “CoP Support”. I was somewhat worried people would not understand what I was doing, after all, how do you measure that and is that really work? During our #msloc430 discussion these past two weeks, we’ve also come to acknowledge this person as a social artist (or social dance hall convener like I mentioned above).

Can you imagine ‘social artist’ in your signature line or how about ‘network weaver’?

3)Reduce bottlenecks and start with ‘low hanging fruit’ type of platforms. When we realized we might want to develop the CoP by having program coordinators share program management and educational delivery methods, we thought a national blog might be a good platform for sharing. It seemed like it would be easier to adopt than Facebook for some. Nope.  That ended up being a steep learning (and coordination curve for me). It didn’t help coordinators get to know each other or work with each other more frequently. On our way to plan A, we found a much better plan B or “What really happened”, which really helped the community to grow.

Elements of Plan B: The events highlighted in yellow are really what helped the community begin to grow, not the blog.

Elements of Plan B: The events highlighted in yellow are really what helped the community begin to grow, not the blog.

It was the self-serve,  opt-in listserve and web conference discussions (shown above in yellow) that we began to offer that became better mechanisms for program coordinators to share with purpose and frequency. In 2010, coordinators already used listserves frequently. Web conferences were a slight extension of giving presentations, which fit in with their routine work. The web conferences are now being coordinated for the fourth year in a row by community members, and the coordinators now routinely share questions about program management on the listserve (a sign of CoP growth!).

4) Modeling how to be social is critical. We made it a goal to make people feel invited and welcomed during web conferences. We engaged in the chat pod and pointed out the type of discussion we hoped to facilitate. I noticed that it was most effective when other community leaders were engaged, too. On many (leadership) levels, I saw there is something to be said for having organizational leaders support, champion, and model how to work in social environments.  Some helpful insights were shared during #msloc430 recently as Christina Pedulla shared Individual Knowledge Sharing Behaviors in Virtual Communities and as Helen Blunden described about Michelle Ocker’s promotion and support of her Work, Connect, and Learn program.

5) Learning might lead to collaborative works. Sometimes I see CoPs get misrepresented as innovative work groups that should produce, x, y, or z. When thinking of CoP work, I see supporting the learning comes first. My experience has taught me that collaborative work may emerge after people have a chance to learn and share together more frequently. Through those cooperative interactions, you might see a group, perhaps a task force, spin off to collaborate and get work done (or perhaps it will be the sign of a new budding community).

Community of Practice as an incubator for emergent work

Community of Practice as an incubator for emergent work (my sketch for how I see work gets done in a CoP). Start with the learning first, and you MAY get a product as a result of the serendipitous environment and connections made through learning in a trusted environment.

6)CoPs grow like gardens and that’s why developmental evaluation is becoming really interesting to me. I thought it might have been a coincidence that I supported a gardening focused CoP and kept seeing gardening metaphors for my CoP work. Now I see that community growth IS like watching and tending to a garden as it grows. I don’t claim to understand developmental evaluation through the lens of a professional evaluator, but using a developmental evaluation model to understand what we are learning, and how we are growing and changing together is something I think is critical to understand and articulate. (Thanks to colleague Brigitte Scott, who I now work with, for helping to drive home how developmental evaluation can work in a program, organization, or community.)

What lessons are familiar to you?

I’d be interested in hearing which of the ideas above reflect your experiences of bringing people to work together to work in groups, communities, or broader social networks.

15 thoughts on “Answering: What is a Community of Practice?

  1. Great post Karen! You may not have written 4 posts (for better or most likely for worse 😉 but your post is so in depth and covers a lot of great stuff.

    I’d say you really covered two topics though, one in practice. This is a great example of working out loud and providing some great examples of what decisions and thoughts you went through to achieve your outcomes.

    I still can’t believe we were both at the National eXtension Conference in 2014. We probably said hi to each other and didn’t even know it, and here we are. Small world. I went to the conference only on the last day to see Jane and Harold and I was not let down.

    I think one of the challenges in building a community that I’ve experienced is not having a place to do it. In my org we are all over the United States so it’s not possible to have any type of physical collaborating/cooperating environment. This isn’t a big deal for me, and it shouldn’t be for anybody these days, but when you don’t have a place like an enterprise social network to work on, it’s kind of hard.

    I’ve done things such as trying to pick up acceptance of Yammer but I’ve actually been told not to. Well, I don’t know how much authority that person has that told me not to, so I’ve continued to do so with members of leadership above him 🙂 Maybe I’m a rebel but I really want an environment where everyone can work together easily.

    I have hopes for the future and this post gives me some great ideas on how to start small and work my way up.

    Thanks for the thorough and detailed post, I enjoy seeing the process others have gone through or are going through. Helps me and I think with discussion helps everyone, even those that have been there, done that.

    • HI Nick, Thanks for your insightful comments!

      I’m very appreciative that you pointed out that this post might fit into a working out loud category. Since I feel like this story was more about my past than present, I didn’t really consider it working out loud because it’s not narrating what I did today or last week. I am a bit surprised I didn’t realize this since I made this sketch earlier, and in hindsight, it surely is relevant to the work I do today to build community in other capacities.

      As for the eXtension conference, I remember Harold Jarche saying he thought you were at the conference and I thought you were just joining through the Twitter stream. It was not until you blogged about your experience that I realized you were there. I have to say, I really feel like I missed out on thanking you for blogging about your experience earlier (my belated apologies!). One of the things we’ve been trying to encourage is to encourage people ‘outside’ the organization to co-learn with us, so I feel like I missed an opportunity earlier to thank you for coming to the conference and then for blogging about it! I hope now you’ll know we thought it was really great that you attended and participated in the conference!

      Thanks for sharing that your experience having a unified platform or ‘organizational space’ has been a challenge for you too. It made me realize that this is probably more often than case than not. With different groups I’ve had different levels of success (for some a simple Facebook group can work really well, and other’s Google Apps works well) but because our communities are so varied and come from so many different organizations, and have many different needs, there is really not a one size fits all platform. I can imagine this would be even more challenging if you were not able to use some of the freely available platforms that are out there, and none were available through the organization itself.

      • I definitely would get reprimanded for using a tool outside the organization. Although Yammer is outside, it’s still a somewhat protected environment even in its free use. I didn’t think it would be a problem but one of my posts touched on the whole baking the cake thing, this is actually an analogy a senior “leader” used… Needless to say I don’t agree with that way of working because it’s the classic IT way of working, that never pans out well and I’ve seen it a million times. Let’s just say I walk a fine line 🙂

        I hope another conference makes its way around my neck of the woods (Sacramento) because I really enjoyed having Harold and Jane come to me, it was an amazing experience, just wished it had lasted all day.

      • Thanks for providing your perspective on this Nick. I have a feeling this conversation will lead to some more conversations about struggles and opportunities working out loud.

        I think the next conference will be in 2016, but I have a feeling it will be hosted in another state (which is unknown to me thus far). I’ll try and make sure I let you know when I know more. The worst case scenario is that you could join through the #nexconf hashtag and live sessions 🙂

      • I will definitely be doing that 🙂 I always at least catch bits and pieces of all the conferences I know about while I work. It’s much harder when you’re on the backchannel though because you have the distraction of work (wait which one is the distraction?? lol) and you’re not really dedicated to the conference like you are when you’re there.

        Closest conferences get to me is Silicon Valley and that’s still 2+ hours away, and mLearnCon wasn’t even there last year! Someday I’ll fly somewhere.

        Lots of great discussion going on in the thread in the Google+ community, thanks for sharing yours, I love that graphic and am stealing that for Pinterest, I want to refer back to it as I’m trying to WoL and get ideas.

  2. Hi Karen. I really enjoyed your post. I’m a graduate student in the #msloc430 class and Jeff, my professor, suggested I look at what you’ve done with building an online community for your eXtension work. I’m writing a blog for class and looking for examples of successful implementation of some ESN that are extended outside of the enterprise. I was interested to read about how you engage people from different places to communicate and work together online. I want to start an ESN at my current organization that would connect the internal staff with all of our scholar recipients across the state. I want re-engage the Scholars and have it be a place to offer support and advice as well. I’m impressed by how many different people you had to bring together. I think a challenge for us would be finding the right technology to use and then getting people engaged when it’s completely new to our culture. Your insights are really helpful. Thank you!

    • HI Lanier,

      Thanks for you comment. I’d be happy to help you think through some of these ideas. I am only tangentially tied to the group I talked about in the post now, but I’ve also supported others, and I am now part of the Military Families Learning Network, which has a really interesting structure that I think you’d find interesting. I’d be happy to discuss this with you. Actually it might be really helpful for me since I have not worked on deciding on my #msloc430 open section idea yet. You can find me/follow me on Google+ Karen Jeannette (I have two accounts – one with a picture by a lake and one with a orange X) if you would like to chat or discuss this more (via a Hangout).

      • Hi Karen,

        That would be awesome! I really appreciate your willingness to help me. I will add you on google+. Thanks!

  3. I ‘recognise’ several of these lessons Karen. I’m currently review progress on Communities of Practice in my business unit. We are pretty new to creating formal/intentional communities, having launched our first one 6 months ago. The standout lesson from those you have listed for me is to narrow the domain. One of our communities has struggled to get off the ground as we made it too broad so there is not enough focus / commonality in the practice. Your lesson about reducing bottlenecks sparked the insight for me that early in the development of a community removing barriers and obstacles to participation is very important – and a key role of the facilitator. The other big one for me is that you do need appointed facilitators who have enough capacity and skills for this role. That is a key sticking point for us right now and the one that I am putting the most focus on resolving. I’m finding the CR Roundtable paper on ‘Defining Community Management Roles’ very helpful.

    • Michelle, Thank you for your sharing your insights and experiences. One thing I admire about your situation is you seem to be in a position where you can gather targeted resources (perhaps adding or incentivizing additional community roles) to support your communities’ growth.

      I, too, have found the Community Roundtable resources extremely valuable to point to needed resources and insights. In the community I am supporting now, we need to take a new look at the community management roles (especially the roles of the community managers/community strategist) you shared in the Slideshare link above.

      So much of community management has been hard for me to express and quantify, and the CRT reports have helped me make better arguments for suggesting certain roles be valued or resourced. There still seems to be some ideas that leadership, recruitment, and facilitation will bubble up in communities of practice for the workplace. While that can be the case, it can take time for that to occur, or not happen at all, so I see that community strategists and leaders need to do a better job of thinking about, resourcing, or supporting different roles if quicker or more specific types of progress are desired.

      As you are considering some of these same roles at this time, I thought I’d also share Harold Jarche’s article, Starting an Online Community I’ve been discussing the roles with several colleagues over the course of the last week. Of particular help to me is to think through community roles Jarche writes about:

      Process Lead (Communities) – Stays current on online communities, evaluates progress, helps members with knowledge-sharing, develops processes and records progress.

      Recruiter (Early Adopter) – Identifies and connects with other potential Early Adopters.

      Recruiter (Maven) – Identifies subject areas of interest to the community and finds knowledge or human resources.

      Technical Lead – Identifies technologies and ensures that the community has the right tools.

      Topic Lead – The “go-to” person on all questions relating to implementation. This person is supported by the other core team members.

      I have found certain roles are more valued or resourced than others. I wonder if these roles may be helpful to you as you consider how to pinpoint areas to reduce bottlenecks or where you can increase participation?

      Thanks again for sharing your experiences. I’ve been very interested to read how you and Helen have fostered and facilitated communities of practice in your work. I’ll look forward to learning more as you do, too!

      • Hmmm…… The five roles that Harold describes sound like different aspects of either the Community Strategist/Director/Manager role(s) – Process Lead and Topic Lead – or Community Champions of different flavours. Right now we have do dedicated resources for community building. I have just propose a single role (possibly part time) which has a combination of responsibilities if the three roles described by the Community Round Table. this person would then ‘recruit/encourage/coax/support’ others to help build communities in a range of ways. We are being quite targeted in what communities we formally set up, linking them to business strategy and goals. Proposing this new role is a test of how serious my organisation is about using communities. Will let you know how it goes!

      • Thanks for sharing your plan, Michelle. It sounds like a great way to start with a part-time person that can focus on recruiting, welcoming, and supporting community members. I’m curious, do you intend or also hope for the community manager to have some level of subject matter expertise? I’ll look forward to following your progress. On another note, I’ll be looking at the community management roles from CRT a little more closely in the coming weeks. I’ll try and do a better job sharing when I at least half-know what we are doing!

      • Glad you are finding our research useful! We are just launching the survey for the 2015 version of the Community Careers and Compensation research that the “Defining Community Roles” eBook was based on, and hoping to dig in a little deeper into roles and skills this year, informed by what we found last year. Would love to get any and all people involved in community to share their data and experiences at – it takes about 15 minutes.

      • Thank you, Ted. I really appreciate the CRT resources. The past few months I’ve been shifting between different roles and I haven’t been able to contribute to the CRT Facebook group discussions the way I’d like to. I’d be happy to take the survey.

        I also hope that as I shift into my new role as social media and community strategist more fully, it will allow me to share more about what we are learning about community strategist/community manager roles and how they can interact and support each other.

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