A Community of Practice for Leading Deep Change

Beekeepers learning together. Photo by Anggi Nurjaman on Unsplash

An Invitation to our Leading Deep Change Learning Community

Before the crumbling façade of normal buries us, we invite you to participate in creating a novel learning group. Now is our time to dream bigger dreams and have deeper conversations, to take actions and make connections we didn’t think possible a few months ago. 

We seek to manifest a community of practice; to cherish our diversity of experiences, age, wealth, culture, gifts, talents and focus. What tools and rituals might we learn, so we can craft ceremonies and paths that lead us all to a just and sane world? What calls to you: a self-care group, a research group, a justice group or an action group? How can we improve our leadership and relationship skills? How do we rebuild trust and bond around our shared values, needs, intentions, and visions?

We invite you to share your thoughts and feelings on this adventure. You may come to either one or both of our events Dec 8th & 9th. If you are interested but you can’t make these times, contact us, and we’ll do our best to include you in future conversations.

Tuesday, December 8th at 7pm PST / Wed. Dec. 9th 03:00 UTC and/or 
Wednesday, December 9th at 11am PST / 19:00 UTC

This is the time we have been waiting for. Show up, speak up, step up. Be truly human, and being that, be well.


What Is a Community of Practice?

A Community of Practice is a way that people with shared concerns and passions learn from one another, support each other, and grow in skills and abilities. It is not merely an interest group, nor a one-off gathering. It is a sustained series of interactions between people doing a certain kind of thing, where they create community with shared understanding, to build know-how and get better at doing whatever that thing is.

Beekeepers learning together. Photo by Anggi Nurjaman on Unsplash
Beekeepers learning together. Photo by Anggi Nurjaman on Unsplash

Regular interactions provide the social learning opportunities needed to share knowledge and discover alternative solutions, strategies, or other information. They also build the familiarity and trust to ask for and offer help. This gives all participants in the community ways to get better at what they do, and to aid one another in their growth as practitioners.


How to Create a Thriving Community of Practice

The following is an academic-style paper, excerpted and adapted from
MY Merrill, Y Chang, MS Islam (2016) Communities of Practice in Education for Sustainability: A Case Study from Asian Higher Education. International Journal for Sustainable Innovations. pp127-144.
and from a talk I (M. Merrill) presented at the International Symposium on a Sustainable Future 2016; Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, India.

The Community of Practice concept

A Community of Practice (CoP) can be defined as an assemblage of people with shared concerns or passions around something they do, who improve their performance of these activities through the learning that takes place during social interactions (Wenger 1998a).

Wenger (1998a) explains how a CoP emerges from three interacting constituents: a joint enterprise in which there is mutual engagement leading to a shared repertoire

Joint Enterprise

The joint enterprise is the performance of tasks or activities directed toward obtaining some goal that is commonly understood and accepted by the community members. This focus on ‘doing’ is what distinguishes a CoP from an interest group. Meanings will be negotiated within the community as a part of their common response to shared tasks and goals, leading to socially constructed knowledge and understandings. 

Mutual Engagement

The mutual engagement of a CoP emphasizes the importance of sociality, allowing for the emergence of dense, complex sociocultural exchange between community members.  These social activities are often interwoven quite spontaneously around more task and goal-focused activities, provided there is sufficient time and tolerance for conviviality, divergent thinking and surprises within opportunities for community interactions.  Successful CoPs may require a certain minimum level of such socially supportive functions in order to build trust and mutual reliance, thereby facilitating necessary accountability and critical feedback for developing and improving shared practice. 

Shared Repertoire

Feedback, information exchange and social interactions will give rise to a shared repertoire of “routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions or concepts that the community has adapted in the course of its existence” (Wenger, 1998, p. 83).  Essentially, a CoP co-creates and evolves a common culture, including vocabulary (often jargon) and familiar metaphors that are expressions of the collective “know-how.”  If some of this sounds like circular reasoning, that is intentional and unavoidable, as a CoP is a complex adaptive system with many interacting feedback loops producing emergent behaviors and characteristics (Lansing 2003, Capra and Luisi 2014).

How Communities of Practice Benefit Practitioners

A CoP provides the social learning opportunities necessary to share tacit knowledge and discover alternative solutions, strategies, or other information that is novel to one practitioner but familiar to another. Practitioners in a CoP are learning together how to improve the practice they have in common. As Wenger (1998, p. 137) describes it, “…a community of practice acts as a locally negotiated regime of competence.” A CoP is a social structure where individuals with overlapping domains of interest and expertise can answer one another’s questions, and review such answers and other information for applicability and accuracy. 

Prior research on CoPs

Since its introduction, the concept of Communities of Practice has been explored, embraced and critiqued in many fields of inquiry. The CoP model of social learning can be applied across a wide range of contexts, including corporate workplaces, online communities, support groups, religious communities, schools, and higher educational settings (Wenger 1998a, Brown and Duguid 1991, Seaman 2008, Bedford 2012, Contu and Willmott 2003, Giles and Hargreaves 2006, Cousin and Deepwell 2005).

After co-authoring one of the most widely cited papers on CoPs (Brown and Duguid 1991)[1], Duguid (2005) later commented that the CoP concept has since been extended beyond the realm of its intended usefulness as a theory of social learning.  The CoP is also contrasted with networks of practice, extensive social groups of practitioners who may never have direct contact with one another (Duguid 2005). Storberg-Walker (2008) noted that, despite widespread interest and application of the CoP concept, it remains too abstract and its analytical elements are insufficiently defined to provide a basis for theory-building research. Nonetheless, I believe the lessons from CoP research remain among the most powerful tools for helping people come together to grow their skills as practitioners.

The Life of a Community of Practice

Coming Into a CoP

Competent membership in a CoP requires a certain level of ability to engage with and respond to other members (‘mutuality of engagement’), a sufficient comprehension of the practice to be able to contribute and take responsibility for it (‘accountability of the enterprise’), and adequate experience with the repertoire and history of the practice to engage in negotiating its meaning for the community (‘negotiability of the repertoire’; Wenger 1998, p.137).

In 1991, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger described how new members gain entry into established communities of practice in their treatise Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation (Seaman 2008, Wenger 1998a). Becoming a member of a CoP is a process involving competence acquisition and some aspects of identity construction, wherein one begins to define one’s identity as a practitioner through the acquisition of both explicit knowledge and tacit “know-how” (Wenger 1998a, Duguid 2005).

One of the most distinctive features of a CoP is that it is a phenomenon of enculturation, wherein members acquire the perspectives, social norms, and common behavioral approaches that mark them as members of a distinctive cultural grouping (Brown and Duguid 1991).  Much of this is acquired through social interactions and observation of experienced CoP members during a newcomer’s period of peripheral participation (Wenger 1998a, Brown and Duguid 1991).  Such social learning is a deep part of humanity’s evolutionary heritage as gregarious primates who acquire cultures (Merrill 2004, Van Schaik et al. 2003, Van Schaik, Deaner, and Merrill 1999, De Waal 2008), so it should be no surprise that it remains our primary means of sharing skills and tacit (non-codified) knowledge.

CoP Geography: How close do you need to be?

Communities of practice need not be co-located, although geographic distribution can present challenges by reducing the frequency of interactions, and introducing cultural differences which must be accommodated (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). 

Murray and Salter (2014) describe a CoP for Education for Sustainability, localized within the University of Tasmania, among engaged faculty, administrators, staff and other institutional stakeholders. Such a localized CoP has the advantage of many face-to-face meeting opportunities and a more uniform set of contexts, constraints and expectations for their practice than more diffuse communities and networks (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002).  This is co-location is more typical in the early descriptions of communities of practice (Wenger 1998a, Brown and Duguid 1991).

Dyer and Loytonen (2012) compare two similar projects that were somewhat more diffuse, engaging instructors and administrators at different schools within a state or nation who were all engaged with the teaching of dance.  They found that maintaining community cohesion through an attitude of care was an essential component of these communities as they worked on improving their practice through collaborative inquiry. The role of the coordinating researcher in these endeavors, and that coordinator’s relationships to the community members, was also very important.

Do you need a Community Coordinator?

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) note that studies in corporate-sector CoPs have revealed that the role of a community coordinator or network broker is a critical factor in the community’s success.  Coordinators help develop and maintain the social network, planning and facilitating community events, helping individuals make new connections within the network, and thereby supporting community cohesion.  At the same time, coordinators must have the domain expertise to be full CoP participants, helping the CoP to define its domain and develop its practice, and keeping abreast of relevant developments in the domain.  They recommend that people taking on this role be present early in the community’s formation, and note that in corporate settings such a role is expected to require from eight to twenty hours per week.  Unsuccessful CoP coordinators are generally those who fail to allocate sufficient time to the role, who do not cultivate individual relationships with enough community members, or who lack adequate expertise to be respected as practitioners.

CoP Developmental Stages

As complex adaptive systems, CoPs go change over time in a recognizable developmental trajectory, much like the life history of an individual organism.  This sequence of characteristic changes in the expression and focus of a CoP over time can be divided into stages, bearing in mind that these stages generally have indistinct boundaries, can vary greatly in length, and may not be completely resolved before moving into subsequent stages. Wegner and colleagues describe these stages as Potential, Coalescing, Maturing, Stewardship, and Legacy or Transformation (Wenger 1998b, Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). Details on the first three stages are given below.

The green line indicates the sense of energy and excitement for the CoP – note that it does not grow or decline steadily over time, but fluctuates in different developmental stages.
Potential:

A loose network of people begins to coalesce around a set of similar issues and needs. These people discover their common concerns and begin to draw other associates with these issues and needs into a community (Wenger 1998b, Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002).  They begin to define the scope of the community’s interest domain, to increase their networking and knowledge-sharing activities, and to imagine ways that further development of the community can benefit its members.  As the community starts to form, the strategic intent of the community may emerge or be deliberately selected: will the community place more emphasis on helping (sharing tips and solving problems), on best-practices (working to develop, validate and replicate specific practices), on knowledge stewardship (organizing, improving and distributing existing information), or on innovation (fostering novel ideas and creative solutions)?(Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002)  This stage can also be considered to include inquiry, design and early prototyping of the community structure (Cambridge, Kaplan, and Suter 2005).

Coalescing:

Members and others engaged in the practice begin to see the value of participating in the community.  Community events are planned and implemented, perhaps including an official launch of the community (Cambridge, Kaplan, and Suter 2005, Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). Often the level of interest and activity around the community increases greatly during this stage (only to decrease again as the community moves into the “maturing” stage). Learning and the negotiation of shared meanings is enhanced by growing levels of trust and engagement among community participants. This can be a difficult time for the CoP, however, as it must balance the time and effort of building trusting relationships and shared understandings, on the one hand, with the need to produce demonstrable value in order to maintain participation, on the other hand. Members of the community must begin to understand each other’s approach to their practice well enough, and have sufficient trust in one another, to provide useful assistance, criticism and insights through the CoP.   There is also a need for establishing momentum and a rhythm in community activities to help the community coalesce. All of this requires time and effort, especially on the part of community coordinators (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002, Wenger 1998b).

Maturing

Moving beyond the coalescing phase to become a mature CoP is not easy, and not all emerging CoPs navigate this successfully and remain viable.  A viable, active, maturing CoP is defining a clear community identity, and being recognized for its role in shaping its domain of expertise. It often must cope with growth, as it expands beyond an initial core group to newcomers who are attracted by the community’s reputation and value, while retaining the interest of established CoP members (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002, Wenger 1998b).  There is still an important role for community coordinators, who must organize and steward expanding sets of contacts and information produced by the CoP (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). At the maturing stage, most core members are beginning to benefit from their knowledge of the styles, expertise and trustworthiness of the other core members, but these benefits can be diluted by changing and growing CoP membership (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002).  Also, this stage is when a CoP often begins to create valuable new knowledge, as it identifies gaps in its current knowledge and applies coordinated expertise to remedy them and legitimizes its role as a steward of the knowledge of the practice (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002).

Cultivating CoPs: “Designing for Aliveness”  

Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) have also developed a set of seven general recommendations for consciously cultivating a CoP.  While the focus of their 2002 book was guidance for CoPs in corporate workplace settings, many of their recommendations are applicable in other professional settings.  We will review their recommendations as an example that could be useful to any developing CoP.

1. Design for evolution

An understanding of a community’s natural development or evolution trajectory can inform decisions about how to cultivate the community and shepherd it through challenges.  In many senses, it may help to think of the CoP of something that is “alive.”  Healthy, “alive” communities reflect on and redesign elements of themselves throughout their existence.  Flexibility of community structure and practice is needed. The community will change and grow organically, adding in new elements of community structure one feature at a time to test their appropriateness and utility (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). As Cousin and Deepwell (2005) note, thriving communities also depend on informal, off-task activities to generate shared cultural responses.

2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives

Only an insider can appreciate the issues at the heart of the domain, the knowledge that is important to share, the challenges their field faces, and the latent potential in emerging ideas and techniques. An insider can identify the thought leaders in the domain, and may know what their relationships are.  However, it often takes an outside perspective to help community members see the possibilities for their CoP.  Outsiders can bring unexpected insights and new ideas from other domains for the CoP’s consideration (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002).  As Wenger (1998a) emphasizes, engagement with diverse perspectives and ideas from both inside and outside the community provides the opportunity to negotiate new meanings and understandings as a community.

3. Invite different levels of participation

A CoP is not a homogenous group of practitioners at the same stage of expertise and commitment, nor should it be (Wenger 1998a).  People participate in CoPs for different reasons: some because the community directly provides value, some for the personal connection, and others for the opportunity to improve their skills.  Healthy communities, whether planned or spontaneous, often have identifiable coordinators who organize events and connect community members, but others in the community also take on diverse leadership roles.

 

According to Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002), in a healthy CoP one can expect about 10-15% of members to be core members.  Core members participate actively and frequently, propose issues for the CoP to address, suggest and support community projects, and often shape the community learning agenda.  Beyond this core group of community leaders, some 15-20% of the CoP will be active participants, attending meetings regularly, and occasionally participating in forums or other CoP activities.  Most of a CoP will be occasional or peripheral community members, who participate infrequently, may not feel they have much authority, may feel they lack sufficient time to devote or much to contribute to the community, and yet they learn from their limited participation.  These peripheral members are still identifiable as belonging to the CoP, in contrast to outsiders, who are not really community members, but are aware of community, share some adjacent interests, and may sporadically contribute and advise.

As Wenger (1998a) emphasizes, those still developing skills in the practice will enter as peripheral members of the community and may make their way in as expertise and identification with the group grows. Bringing these newcomers up to competence levels characteristic of active community members requires articulating and reaffirming community ideas (such as making tacit knowledge more visible). Cousin and Deepwell (2005, p. 65) note that “variation in levels of expertise and understanding can expand the groups’ learning (e.g. newcomers and peripheral participants can bring in fresh, outsider ideas).” While the active and core members are mostly experts, some experts may remain peripheral because of other considerations or time commitments.  Members move through the different levels of participation in response to their own circumstances and community changes. This mobility is healthy and should be encouraged to maintain the vitality of the CoP (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). 

4. Develop both public and private community spaces

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) emphasize the need for a mix of activities, spaces and options to provide an open channel for the community to present its work to outsiders and more closed channels for in-group conversations. The public channels of information provide opportunities for the community of practice to distinguish itself as it interfaces with people and ideas outside its sphere.  Such public communications can include open or semi-private events, a public website, and publications. Private channels, on the other hand, are where the work of the community and community-building largely take place.  These more private community spaces include one-to-one connections, informal networking opportunities (either within or outside of public events), restricted online file sharing and forums, private newsletters or email exchanges, and community-only events that are not publicized. They can provide a sense of familiarity and security that allows community participants to explore novel, potentially risky ideas or innovations, in order to develop, reshape or reject them through discussion and engagement with fellow practitioners. Community coordinators can nurture these private spaces between meetings, strengthening interpersonal relationships, and connecting members to resources in or outside of the community.  Developments from private communication channels can then enrich public community events and products.

5. Focus on value

“Communities thrive because they deliver value…” to community members and the organizations they work in (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002, 28). The value that a CoP can provide will change over the lifetime of the community, and different members will perceive different reasons and levels of value for their participation.  In the early stages of a CoP, the value to members will most likely arise from community support to resolve current problems or address their specific needs. Later, value might be greatest in access to the CoP’s systematic body of knowledge, or the prestige associated with participation. Well-coordinated events, activities and relationships will allow value to emerge from community engagement. The opportunity a CoP provides to share insights and ideas can be highly valuable, even if the specifics are difficult to track and document. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) suggest that members of the CoP should be encouraged to explicitly articulate the value of the community throughout its lifetime.

6. Combine familiarity and excitement

Much as a healthy CoP has both public and private spaces, it must have both customary and novel opportunities for engagement in order to thrive (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002). As suggested above, the comfort of familiar people, settings, schedules and interaction spaces makes it easier for people to share advice and ideas that are developing or contentious.  But experiences that are challenging, divergent, novel, interesting or varied can provide inspiration for innovations, bring new people and ideas into the community, and add value for even seasoned experts at the core of the CoP.  Some of this variation and excitement can be a function of the sociocultural diversity and participation by individuals at different levels of development and competence within the practice.

7. Create a rhythm for the community

Finally, Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) recommend seeking an appropriate rhythm for CoP events.  Regular cycles allow the familiarity of expected timing for conferences, newsletters, smaller meetings and the like, so that participants can plan around that accustomed pacing.  If the cycles are too rapid, people may withdraw their participation should they become overwhelmed by the time demands of remaining active in the community.  However, if the rhythm is not fast enough, there is a sense of disengagement that could lead to withdrawal from the CoP or concern that the CoP is no longer intact.  Events and activities with different time and commitment demands on participants can happen on different schedules, with small communications and gatherings interspersed between larger events.

Balance Doing Together and Being Together: Reification and Participation

Wenger (1998b) had also proposed that activities of a healthy CoP would include an appropriate mix of work on tasks relevant to the practice that could lead to some sharable knowledge or useful product (‘reification’), and time spent in activities that nourish the social bonds essential for community coherence (‘participation’). The community must avoid the burden of overcommitting to producing formal outputs, so that there is sufficient space for social negotiation of meanings and understandings, but also avoid the attractions of becoming over-engaged with social interactions, and thereby diluting the material for those negotiations to the point where little meaning can be generated. Overly ‘efficient’ use of time leaves insufficient room for community-building.  However, just spending time socializing together is not necessarily building a community of practice. Cousin and Deepwell (2005) also emphasize the importance of striking this balance between reification and participation. 

Assessing the viability of the CoP

The health of a CoP can be monitored by responses to these key questions, developed by Cambridge, Kaplan, and Suter (2005) in their “Step-by-Step Guide for Designing and Cultivating Communities of Practice.” We may well ask these questions of any learning organization.

1. Foundation: Build Relationships

How regularly are members interacting?  A CoP must interact sufficiently often to maintain integrity as a community. To create a thriving CoP, interactions for the community should be happening with some frequency and predictability. In shared workplaces, people in the community may interact every day. In other settings, once a month or once a quarter may suffice.

To what extent do interactions have continuity and depth?   Do enough people participate in successive interactions that a sense of an ongoing conversation develops? Does that conversation go deep enough for real learning and new ideas to emerge, even among these regulars?      

Are members “opportunistic” about chances to interact in other settings?  Are we inviting one another and connecting at other events outside our community.  Are we also reaching out to other communities with similar interests (whether in narrower niches or with broad overlap)?

Are members taking on new leadership roles?  Drawing members into new leadership roles is important for the on-going integrity of the community.

How much and what kind of reciprocity is occurring? Has the CoP developed a sufficient culture of reciprocal exchange, where community members are exchanging help and knowledge, and supporting one another in their work? What opportunities are there for increased reciprocity within the community?

To what extent is a shared understanding of the community’s domain and approach to practice beginning to emerge? Are members of the CoP developing shared vocabulary and standards of practice?

2. Learn and Develop the Practice

How rich and accessible are the community’s knowledge representations for existing practice? Do people know where to find information resources gathered from the CoP? Is there readily-available material that helps potential new members learn the basics?

To what extent does community design support deeper learning for community members? Are there sufficient formal or informal chances to learn from one another? To share innovations or collaboratively develop new ideas?

3. Take Action as a Community     

Are collaborative efforts beginning to emerge naturally? How is the community developing opportunities for collaboration? Are there core projects that involve many members of the CoP? Are there smaller projects that involve collaboration between two or three CoP participants?

Are there community structures to support volunteering for projects and working with others?  Does the CoP have an adequate platform for communicating about needs and opportunities in a way that is engaging the majority of active community members? Can occasional and peripheral members find ways to connect with more active members, or with one another?

Are members recognized and rewarded for their contributions? Are members of the CoP being acknowledged and lauded for their contributions knowledge within the circle of the CoP? Is their expertise in the domain of the CoP being noticed and providing value within their organizations?

4. Create Knowledge in the Domain          

How open is the community to new ideas and leadership? Fresh perspectives and voices are essential for growth and learning.

To what extent is the community influential in its domain? Are community members being invited, as community members, to present on leading-edge ideas?  Are the CoP and its members widely known as thought leaders outside the community? Do some active and core participants have influence and recognition beyond the CoP?

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the perspectives described above, and personal experience with developing an international CoP in the domain of Higher Education for Sustainability, I have several suggestions for how to improve the viability and vitality of a CoP.

  1. It is important to bring enough active participants into the core, and ensure sustainability of the community through new or additional leadership.  A major concern is whether the CoP is sufficiently robust and resilient to remain healthy if the current community coordinators can no longer serve that function.
  2. There is a need to develop a predictable rhythm, so that community participants can anticipate when and how they will engage with the CoP.
  3. The CoP needs to provide platforms for communication and information sharing.  This may require someone with expertise and time to commit to social media development, and appropriate integration for CoP members with different levels of Internet access or skill. 
  4. Find ways to connect more closely with larger organizations dedicated to similar kinds of work. By encouraging members to investigate participation in larger networks, the CoP will increase access to shared resources, potentially advancing the practice of many community members.
  5. Efforts need to be made to articulate the purpose and benefits of the CoP among the participants. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) propose that the most effective way to elucidate the value of a CoP is to tell its success stories.  Only rich narrative description can provide the kind of contextual evidence necessary to reveal how and why the CoP is valuable to its members and their goals.  Collect individual stories of how and why the CoP has been useful in specific instances.

Communities of Practice offer the opportunity to develop to key sustainability competences, such as the systems thinking, anticipatory, normative, interpersonal and strategic competences elucidated by Wiek, Withycombe, and Redman (2011).  Members of a CoP must integrate diverse and complex concepts and perspectives (systems thinking), guide the development of the practice (anticipatory), develop shared values and principles (normative), enhance their social engagement (interpersonal), and solve current problems in the practice (strategic). Fostering Communities of Practice is an essential strategy for improving the future viability of human civilizations within the biosphere. 


[1] The Brown and Duguid (1991) paper had 9531 citations as of 21 November 2015, according to Google Scholar.

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