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(Activity 3.22, 3.23, 3,24)

It felt clever giving this title to a post about Communities of Practice (CoP).  However, as I am not sure where I am going to go with the post I don’t really know whether it is relevant or not!

I have covered a little bit of ‘community of practice’ theory before – when  I studied Managing Knowledge.  In that field they were seen as a refreshing change to an information management approach as they focused more on human interaction.

Then there is my more recent experience – I think the phrase ‘community of practice’ is getting over-used and applied to entities that don’t really fulfill the essence of what Wenger describes – he and Lave coined the term to describe something very particular

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. [source E Wenger, http://www.ewenger.com/theory/ , accessed 27 February 2011]

but it seems to get used to refer to any type of group network, especially when internet based social networking platforms are used.

Seems a pity that we participate in things we think of as ‘communities of practice’ but in reality they are not CoP and therefore we may overlook the opportunity to take part in a ‘real’ one.

Perhaps I need to explore my experiences some more….

When I first started thinking of ‘communities’ I belong to, I thought of my community of allotment holders.  A set of people gardening plots at the same allotment site.  In the early days, I did learn from ‘old hands’ mostly by keeping an eye on what happened when on their plots – not necessarily through conversation.  But it got to a point where I did not learn from others any more – I reached a point of what I think of as ‘good enough’ in what I do in the allotment – I do what I do, I get veg and I enjoy it.  The allotment is not really a place of ‘practice development’ – no-one is trying to push the field of gardening practice and there is no collective need to develop a common practice as we all just need to take care of our own plots in our own way.  Some grow to show, others grow to eat, some garden organically, others don’t – in fact it is a complete jumble of different practices under a generally umbrella of ‘gardening’.  There is a passion and commitment to a common hobby  but no real identification with the community and its expertise.  So, after examination I would not call it a community of practice.

Now, another example, “Communities of practice for public service“.  This time it is called a community of practice so we are off to a good start!  As I work in the public sector I am in a couple of different communities that use this platform.  I have to say I have a bit of a problem with it.  Firstly, time to digest daily activity – I get a daily summary but the number of times that has prompted me to read the related postings is very small.  I have posted only once.  Some of the threads seem like message boards – if someone posts a question – often they get a stream of “yes, I am doing something around this..contact me…” type messages – not much of a contribution to a community when effectively the real sharing happens ‘off-line’.  Another thing that frustrates me is many of the people who seem to find time to post are consultants or facilitators, rather than those ‘real’ public sector staff struggling with the issues in the day to day.  I also think that people are more inclined to post summaries of pieces of work in a summative sense, rather than developments in a formative open mode.  It is more like good practice promoting than practice being developed through the interactions. Looking at Wenger’s range of social structures (reproduced in Study guide page 129) – I would classify my experience more akin to a community of interest than a community of practice – as it is more about access to information or to people who may have the information.

What is interesting to me from this last sentence is that I chose to say “classify my experience” – could one person’s CoP be another’s community of interest and yet another’s network?  Could this be about the individual’s decisions about level of engagement and the time they want to put into it?  Could it also be about the underlying emotion with which the individual approaches the group – such as small ‘r’ research vs self-promotion?  Going back to the juggling isophor of part 2 – juggling the E-ball involves active choices about framing a situation that could include opportunity to learn vs opportunity to improve practice vs opportunity to promote what I’ve already done.  And juggling the M-ball includes managing your underlying emotions.  That said, the ‘character’ a community takes is an emergent property of all of the participants’ ability to juggle the E-ball and M-ball decisions – if you are the only one framing it as a ‘practice development’ opportunity you may not get the experience you hope for.  Mmm one to think about.

Back to my examples, closer to my day to day there is the group of people I work with regularly – a group of people with partnership coordination roles linked with the partnership I work to.  Some of us are part of the same formal department but there are others from other departments and one from a completely different employer.  We meet regularly and I think what we do takes a bit of a hybrid form.  Sometimes we behave as an operational team getting on with coordinating the partnership.  Other times we are a community of practice – we discuss what we do and how we do it in small and whole groups.  We suggest ideas to get over each others’ problems and then ask each other how it went.  It can be as basic as dealing with an awkward colleague or how to write a particular style of report.   We start with hunches and evolve ideas.  We have done some formal sharing when one of us goes on a course and comes back to share with the others and discuss how we can put it into practice.    We are not self-selected as we are members of the community by virtue of our job roles, but we do share a really passion for coordinating inter-agency working really well so that we can make a difference to health and wellbeing of local people.  And, thinking back to the last paragraph, we do all approach our work with a ongoing improvement mentality.  Just a shame that this dynamic does get lost due to time constraints – perhaps I need to talk with others about how we can nurture this more.  Here the concept of a community of practice has helped me to value something in a particular way.

Now, my systems communities.  I am a member of Systems Place and also the google group run by SCiO – at the moment I am limited to the extent I engage in these groups – mostly because of time spent studying.  So I am more of a ‘lurker’ really – just sponging up the odd bit of information and feeling ‘in touch’.  Be interesting to see whether I experience them as communities of practice when I need to rely on them more!  But then there is the student, tutors and course team cohort I interact with through the TU812 course forum.  We are pretty self-selected group – wanting to improve our systems practice and because we have a core set of concepts around which to base our conversations we are exchanging knowledge and developing individual capabilities – definitely a social learning system and I would even dare to add the word ‘critical’ into that.  I wonder though how much we contribute to the development of systems practice – how much will our ‘classroom’ conversations develop the domain?  Or is this really about bringing a set of individuals up to a certain ‘standard’ that is already accepted in the domain?  Mass knowledge transfer or generation of new knowledge?  I suppose because it is about Systems practice, you’d want it think it is part and parcel of development of the domain but are there mechanisms in place for the tutors and course team to do that?  There again are we coming up with anything that merits such attention?

So, the concept of the community of practice has been a useful lens to look at my experience of groups/communities and my own engagement.  Seems to have raised more questions than answers but that seems to be part and parcel of an ongoing inquiry!

References

Open University (2010) ” TU812 Managing Systemic Change: inquiry, action and interaction Study Guide” The Open University, Milton Keynes.  Part 3 Section 3.5 Communities of Practice pp 123-132.


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