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.


4 takeaways about investing in online learning community

It’s been eight years (in January) since I began helping virtual teams of educational professionals to share research-based information and educational programming with online learning communities. I have never called myself a community manager per se, as many community managers don’t, but I’ve taken on many different community management roles.

Over the past few weeks, I found myself coming back to four resources or ideas about innovation, community management, agile leadership, and personal resilience. They resonated with me on several levels, but I took some time to clarify why and how these resources resonated with me.

Idea 1 – Innovation might just look ordinary.

Prompted by the article, Revolutionary, Ordinary Innovation, and my own interest in how innovation happens, I found this excerpt important to pay attention to:

…what makes these innovations disruptive is the way they transform every-day, ordinary activities. These innovations are simultaneously revolutionary and ordinary. As a result, they are often much more subtle than classic lab-based innovations, which few would ever call ordinary.

….A similar characteristic permeates the work of Steve Jobs. As many have observed, a number of Jobs’ most profound innovations, like the iPod, iPhone and iPad, were based on existing technologies available to everyone, which he linked together with exquisite designs and sophisticated marketing. His new products did extraordinary things with available technologies. They were highly successful and captured our imagination because as he once said: A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Idea 2- Focused efforts around programming can be more innovative than focused efforts around technology. During the  Community Management in Higher Education webinar (Dec. 3, 2014), co-founder of the Community Roundtable (CRT),  Rachel Happe,  reminded us of how community can support educational learning and innovation:

Communities are required to change behavior, to drive growth, to drive innovation. This is what education and learning about.

However, one of the key takeaways or pain points she addressed for me during the webinar was when Happe shared this finding:

…the focus on content and programming often lags behind efforts to build technology and tools to engage people.

…yet, creating focus or a plan for content and programming is where CRT sees ‘best in class communities’ derive higher value from their community management efforts.

Idea 3 – Learning and working through social uncomfort is part of agile leadership. I recently joked with a few colleagues that one of my best qualities is working through uncomfortable and awkward situations (particularly virtual meetings).   I think uncomfortableness might just becoming more common as we increasingly interact with others from different backgrounds, understandings, and often through challenging technical situations. Realizing this, Kevin Cashman’s article,  5 Dimensions of Learning Agile leaders spoke to me, specifically the 5 dimensions:

• Mental Agility: Thinking critically to penetrate complex problems and expanding possibilities by making fresh connections.

• People Agility: Understanding and relating to other people, as well as tough situations to harness and multiply collective performance.

• Change Agility: Enjoying experimentation, being curious and effectively dealing with the discomfort of change.

• Results Agility: Delivering results in first-time situations by inspiring teams, and exhibiting a presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.

• Self-Awareness: Being reflective and knowing themselves well; understanding their capabilities and their impact on others.

Idea 4  – A Personal Board of Directors? The agile leadership ideas from Idea 3 tie right into this next resource, the 4 habits of the most resilient people. I liked the idea of calling the people I reach out to my ‘personal board of directors’.

“My personal board’s members don’t really know they are part of a team; they likely each think they are the only one I call when I need a sounding board.”

Why not have a name for this group of people that I call upon regularly or from time to time?  These people assist me in improving my self-awareness, critical thinking, and other dimensions of agile leadership – not to mention it’s just plain fun and rewarding to build friendships and new working relationships.

Four ideas lead to four connected takeaways

The four ideas above provided many me with many key insights, but I wanted to know: How do these four ideas connect to my experiences in community management and building learning community?  I mapped out these ideas and found four additional ‘connected’ takeaways:

Sketch of four ideas about innovation, community management, agile leadership, and personal resilience lead to four connected takeaways

Sketch of four ideas about innovation, community management, agile leadership, and personal resilience lead to four connected takeaways

1)Online learning communities, or the interactions within them, can be a potential and seemingly ordinary source of innovation.  I think it’s a good idea to not lose sight of this, as it helps me describe why intentionally investing in supporting learning community and agile leadership through educational programming can be beneficial.

2) Investing in educational program planning can be a key catalyst in building learning communities.  When we create a plan to focus our efforts,  it can help us direct our energy and resources to provide a clearer and more consistent story of who we are trying to reach and how it can help us serve their needs. The plan also becomes something we can measure against and learn from so we can gain an even better understanding of how to develop future programming or how technology can better support the community member’s needs.

3)Community managers create social comfort – often acting as guides and glue. Community managers help community members navigate new and unfamiliar pathways, often helping learners to leap from platform to platform to answer questions or solve problems as they arise. They also act like glue, helping to foster and nurture connections between community members, and build a trusted space where people feel comfortable sharing and exchanging ideas (which we hope leads to more learning, problem solving and innovation!).

4)Community managers need to be supported in practicing agile leadership and personal resilience.  Even though community managers smooth out the road for others, they often hit emotional bumps of self doubt and frustration,  caused by things they cannot know or control in advance. To keep up the emotional energy and social comfort necessary for effective community management, they need to be supported to practice self-care, personal resilience and agile leadership skills.

So these were my four key takeaways from the four resources and ideas I presented.  Do these ideas or takeaways relate with your work or goals to bring people together to learn, problem solve, innovate, or build community?  How might they be similar or different?

Perspectives from Multiple Participants – A lesson from family vacation

I’ve been looking at the role of participation and co-creation in science and education. A recent presentation provided a glimpse of how John Porter, Steve Hadcock, and I are seeing the expectations and potential of social media and new technologies really changing the way we see educational professionals interact and participate with the interested public and partners.

In this presentation, I shared two resources I continue to look to when thinking about how we may involve people in research, education or perhaps better put – how we can involve ourselves in learning and working with the public or non educational professionals to accomplish community goals and outcomes (local or global):

Lessons taken from capturing views of our family vacation

A recent family vacation to the Grand Canyon was great a reminder about the value of engaging people to contribute to gain multiple perspectives, and also how I see the younger generation expecting to contribute, interact and move from more of a mindset of passive learning to active learning.

Grand Canyon

Capturing the ‘big picture’ views at the Grand Canyon

Returning from our family trip,  I uploaded photos from several devices (family camera, ipod, iPad, Mom’s smartphone, Dad’s smartphone).

I realized that for the first time ever, all of us could participate to capturing the family memories.

Capturing photos on the family trip

Everyone captured photos on the family trip

During the trip, I discounted the potential of just about everyone else’s photo contributions (but mine). Mostly because I had “a plan” in mind.  I figured their shots would be blurry or too close up, or not tell much of a story.   I was wrong.

While I had been busy making sure not to miss the chronological details of the trip, and major sites, my kids captured the details, the little things that probably will evoke the most memories.  I first noticed this when I uploaded my youngest son’s pictures.

Pottery from Hopi House

Pottery from Hopi House

I opened the iPad he was using, fully intending to delete or edit a lot of what he captured (largely because I saw him take such quick shots and random pictures), but instead what I saw a rich set of photos.  He captured his experiences, where, I, the self-appointed person in charge of the family camera concentrated on getting the picturesque scenes.

He captured photos of the art from gift shops, the rugs and loom exhibit at the Hopi House, and even how we saw things through his toy compass-magnifying glass-thermometer 3-in-1 kit.


This compass-magnifying glass-thermometer 3-in-1 kit was part of the Grand Canyon adventure

These things are all details that I would have forgotten over time, but they meant something to him, and now we’ll have these pictures to reinforce these memories.

Applying lessons from family vacation back to work

As I bring this back to my work world, it was a great reminder of …

a)how far technology has come to enable someone in grade school to capture a great shot

b)due to an abundance of digital storage space (Terrabytes+) and the low cost of taking a lot of digital pictures, we often have a new opportunity to capture more of the little details than we did, say, 15 years ago when developing photos was the only option.

c)both big picture and little details help us put together the pieces we need to capture value. (Had I had let my youngest take all the pictures, we would not have gotten a sense of the big picture overview of the trip.  Had he not captured details,  we would not have had a sense of the fullness and richness of the trip.)

d)digital participation can help us understand what questions to ask. (Seeing details from my son’s perspective made it possible to follow up and ask him more detailed questions. I found that what he saw, learned, and observed is really quite fascinating and that he internalized the experience more deeply than I had understood originally.)

Questions and ideas for gathering participation in science and education in new(er) ways

As I translate this experience back to my work, and the articles I mentioned above, it prompts me to ask these questions:

  • How are people seeing, wanting, and able to participate in the world in a way that was not possible 5, 10, 15 or years ago?
  • How might seeing what other people are seeing or valuing through social media help scientists and educators gain new insights or do their jobs better?
  • As mentioned in New Report: Engaging Citizens in Co-Creation of Public Services, what new role(s) (e.g. explorer, ideator, designer, influencer) might people like to play in a project, opportunity, community, or collective effort that might not have been possible before social or digital media existed?

Last but not least, on a practical level, I’d like to point to a recent presentation done by my colleague Amy Hays:  Instagram for Instaprogramming (see also part of her presentation on YouTube). Amy is great at demonstrating how visual social media tools like Instagram can involve both new and existing audiences, while simultaneously expanding or deepening our (the researcher’s or educator’s) understanding of what may be learned or achieved through digital and collective participation.

Grand Canyon Sunset

Sunset captured by our youngest picture taker during an evening walk at the Grand Canyon – South Rim.