Good CoP, Bad CoP #2: the Business of Communities of Practice

Trough of Sorrow graphThe business of Communities of Practice

I found it interesting that Etienne Wenger was initially surprised to see that the first people who adopted Communities of Practice were Businesses and not Education. They saw that their typical learning strategies based around schooling- bundling people off to training courses- were not working.

So I decided to follow this line of enquiry to see if our University, which from one perspective is a business, can learn anything from supposedly more dynamic domains beyond higher education. It seems to me there is no community of practice at NUA based around teaching, and I think this is partly why collaboration and interdisciplinarity can be hard to get off the ground, despite individual goodwill.

In an Association for Project Management (APM) Knowledge SIG webinar on 16th January 2014 Michael Norton points out that  each Community of Practice has a percentage of four possible elements within it’s genesis, and many Communities of Practice grow out of one of these:

  1. Helping Communities (a forum to help with everyday tasks)
  2. Best Practice Communities (develop and disseminate best practice for their members)
  3. Knowledge Stewarding Communities (organise and manage a body of knowledgefor their members)
  4. Innovation Communities (create breakthrough ideas, new knowledge and practices)

In online groups it’s said that the 1-9-90 dynamic is prevalent- 1% do the work, 9% contribute and 90% ‘lurk’. However, a recent SOCM (State of Community Management) report states that with ‘strong facilitation’ average participation in 2013 crept up to the 15, 30, 55 ratio.

To the APM the ingredients to create an active and vibrant online community of practice are a shared purpose, good facilitation, visible activities, promotion and an active membership.


In Academe

Although they are concerned with online CoPs, I think the tactics to maintain these are equally valid in academic ‘meatspace’. One of the issue with any University is that encounters between academic staff are very regulated, for perfectly understandable reasons. The community only comes together for meetings with limited remits or scope.  A Faculty or Course Leaders meeting, or even a blue-sky Development day have agendas and scopes pre-written because of their time constraints. They are not communities of practice in themselves.

There is no agora or common room in the University. So might we create an online Community of Practice for staff by adopting some of the APM’s guidance? How might that online agora be structured? What would be the purpose and how would we (spoiler alert- cliché coming) know what success looked like?

APM talk of three possible types of discussions that happen online:

  • Bonding (people exchange personal information and experiences)
  • Status-jockeying (defending or increasing status- showing off knowledge and expertise)
  • Conveying Information (People interact to exchange information- “Here’s an interesting document I found”)

I’d suggest in a smaller academic milieu like NUA, status-jockeying wouldn’t be an issue, and bonding can easily happen on the shop floor in a small organisation. The strength of such an online community would be in the conveying and exchange of relevant information- the delight of sharing a surprising article, a news item, planning interdisciplinary activities.

Who facilitates the facilitators?

For it’s business membership the APM suggest facilitation as a way to keep interaction high, with open questions or nudges like “Has anyone tried to…?” “Is it ever OK to…”. This doesn’t seem a particularly andragogical approach, and would probably be interpreted as badgering or frivolous in our context, but a more subtle approach based around staff interests and pain-points might be useful and acceptable. A speakeasy, informal area for serendipitous connections maybe?

APM recommend a 3 month action plan where you plan Events, Activities, Communications, to keep the community oxygenated. They also suggest keeping energy levels up by getting a speaker in, and making an event happen. The aim is to make lurkers participate, and make participants into regulars.

Would such an online platform become a community of practice? It COULD conform to the concept as Wenger defines it “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do (ie: teaching) and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, Lave) But it ceases to be such if we never achieve the betterment of ourselves, if it becomes an electronic postal service for articles and news alone.

What meaningful interaction and sharing might take place? Where is the motivation? Does it matter?CoP1Small

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s