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.