How Can Your Organisation Also be a Community of Practice

Last month I was invited by a friend, Peter McDonald, to spend a day with him establishing a new Community of Practice (CofP) focused on Community Development. His organisation is Uniting Communities and it works with some of the more disadvantaged elements of society – youth homelessness, employment, disability services, etc. Uniting Communities is trying to simultaneously deliver essential services into the community and also enable the communities it works with to be stronger, more adaptive, and build resilience. In building a community's strength the aim is to enable a community to proactively assist and support itself towards a more thrivable future. It is wonderful work.

So, when I was invited to spend a day with a group of proactive community builders from Uniting Communities wanting to take their practice to another level by becoming a community that learns and grows together in service of their 'shared work', I jumped at the chance. Our time together explored both the theory and the practice of establishing a CofP. In working with the group, a framework for commencing, growing and evolving a CofP began to emerge.  The model crystalised some of the group's own insights and incorporated some of my experience helping large groups of people cohere together around common aims. It also drew on the work of Art of Hosting – specifically the threads of The 4 Fold Practice and The Chaordic Stepping Stones.

In summary, the commencement of any CofP begins with an intentional 'scan' of the context or need that calls its initiation.  In other words, a collective recognition of thewhy now of the commencement of a CofP.  Key questions to consider include:

  1. What is occurring in our collective worlds right now that makes this CofP necessary for us?
  2. What can this CofP offer us that no other group/opportunity can?
  3. What is the real need for this CofP?

The context guiding the commencement of the CofP does, in part, set The Practices employed of the community. For example, if the context of the group was to build the capacity of community to take care of its own disadvantaged youth, then the practices the CofP 'practices' would need to be aligned with this need. An example practice for this context might be the 'practice' of Appreciative Inquiry – the intentional seeking the positive core or unique strengths in any social system. For an overview of this practice in action, see my recent blogpost Appreciative Inquiry and the experience of meaningful work. Other community building practices might include: Open Space Technology, World Cafe or Pro-Action Cafe, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), etc

Once The Context and The Practices of the CofP are identified, the core members of the (proposed) CofP can set about Preparing the CofP for a thrivable future – after all, the CofP is a microcosm of the broader community it is trying to serve, so it needs to thrive in order for it to do the important work of enabling the 'community' it serves to also thrive.

Prepare

Several years ago I attended a one-day workshop with Jim Diers – the former Director of Neighbourhoods (for the Dept of Neighbourhoods) for Seattle. During that workshop, Diers mentioned four foundational elements of building a strong community:

  1. Shared Identity/Purpose – who are we and what is our shared identity as a community; what are we and what are we not; why are we together (now) and what is worthwhile focus for us going forward?
  2. Connecting At Scale – how do we stay connected with each other; how can we manage the scaling of our community so that we are all able to  stay connected with each other in ways that works for us?
  3. Intentional Serendipity - what formal and informal 'physical bumping places' (and increasingly, Virtual Bumping Places) can we use to come into close physical proximity with each other; what other assets are available to us to cultivate the relationship 'collisions' required to release the ideas, insights, perspectives, connections and energy between us?
  4. The Work – what is our shared work together; what are the key activities we undertake together that provides us with the necessary experiences (both inspirational and mundane) for us to continue to connect with each other around with who we are and our purpose?

In my experience commencing intentional groups that learn and grow together, it is important that the CofP's founding leaders have conversations around these four preparatory factors so a to ensure the ongoing coherence of the CofP once commenced.

Do

A CofP is not like other groups, such as a social club or a book readers club.  It is an intentional community that practices its shared craft together so as to gain individual and collective mastery of that craft in the 'real world'. As a result, each time the community gathers together it is important that is does the work of the CofP – in other words, it practices.

According to cognitive anthropologist and CofP master practitioner, Etienne Wegner, the actual activities of a CofP gathering (e.g., a meeting, workshop, field trip, etc) have four key elements:

  1. Focus – the community's identity is defined by its members collective focus on a shared domain of interest with the community's members valuing the collective competence of the group they proactively learn from.
  2. Collaboration – members of the community actively build relationships with other members. In so doing, the community's members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, share information, enable each other to learn and discover new insights/experiences/ways of working together, etc.
  3. Practitioner orientation – first and foremost, the community's members are practitioners; that is, they actively apply the 'domain of interest' (e.g., community building) in their day-to-day work, As a result, the community develops a shared repertoire of resources, experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems, etc.
  4. Practice – the community practices its craft together each time it gathers. In other words, a CofP gathering is not a theoretical exploration of the community's domain of interest, it is the proactive application and embodiment of that learning domain.

According to Wegner, the ultimate purpose of establishing a CofP is the stewarding of applied knowledge. The 'doing' of the CofP therefore, is the creation of a community 'container' as an agent for others not yet involved in the community. This premise leads the community to the need to capture its wisdom (more on this later).

Evolve

In continuing to seek individual and collective mastery of the community's focus, the practices applied within a CofP (and the stewarding of the community's applied knowledge) needs to Evolve.  The basic premise of collective Flow applies whereby an individual or group can only achieve flow when the level of challenge and current level of skill/competence is in dynamic harmony for a given situation or context.

In other words, if individual members of the CofP are not appropriately challenged by the community they will become either bored (if the level of challenge is inadequate for the member’s current level of competence) or overwhelmed (if the level of challenge is too great for the member’s present level of competence).

In my experience, the evolution of any group follows a cycle of commencement, growth, stabilisation/consolidation, decline and (hopefully) renewal.  The 4 Fold Practice the Art Of Hosting is a useful framework for examining how a community and its members evolve over time. The following Youtube Video provides a great summary of how the four practices of community unfold.

Community-Of-Practice-Model.001.jpg

As shown in the CofP model presented above, the three foundational stones of a thriving CofP – Preparing, Doing, Evolving are mutually reinforcing.  For example, each time a CofP identifies that it needs to evolve, it would need to revisit its identity/purpose and the other three elements of the Preparation phase for the community.

Two other factors make up the model that emerged from my recent workshop on establishing a growing a vibrant CofP:

  1. Enabling Conditions; and
  2. Wisdom Capture.

Enabling Conditions act like the crucible or container that assists the individual members of a community to thrive in that community.  Wisdom Capture underpins a foundational premise of all community's that practice together – the stewarding of applied knowledge in service of others not yet a part of the community.

Enabling Conditions

Once again I am drawing on my own experience and the work of Etienne Wegner. When any group commences a path of shared inquiry, the establishing of a set of guiding principles to support the journey is key.  In his book Cultivating Communities Of Practice, Wegner offers four overarching guiding principles that establish the core enabling conditions for a community to thrive:

  1. Autonomy  – each member of the community is a unique 'element' of that community and is invited to participate in that community to the extent that s/he is able to at any given time. the idea of 'free will' applies here, with members of the community choosing to be a part of the community (or not) in ways that want to (or don't) without being mandated to do so by an external factor.
  2. Practitioner orientation – as outlined above.
  3. Informality – just like the 'real world' the community is informal with each members of the community invited to just be him/herself in that community. the protocols of self-organising systems apply with traditional or formal hierarchy less relevant to how the CofP organises – any instituted hierarchy is in service of the CofP, not the other way around. In essence, the community is in service of each member (and the collective) gaining mastery in the community's domain of focus, which can only occur when traditional roles/structures that hinder emergent learning and application are put aside.
  4. The crossing of traditional boundaries – a unique aspect of successful Communities of Practice is that they are very diverse with a strong network of connections between members of the community. In this way, members of a CofP are likely to come together and connect across traditional boundaries (such as across industries or functional expertise). True wisdom emerges when the knowledge of one practitioner is applied into a completely different context and it yields a productive outcome that allows both the originator of the knowledge and the applier of that knowledge to learn together.  When this occurs, the applied knowledge of the community expands exponentially in its impact in the 'real world'.

These enabling conditions allow the CofP to navigate three aspects inherent in gatherings that are, by their very nature, emergent. A CofP’s guiding principles must support the community in deciding in ‘real time’: 1) how the community comes together and works together; 2) how the community makes decisions together; and 3) how the community deals with conflict if/when it arrised in the community. The four enabling conditions suggested by Wegner set a container for how a CofP learns and grows together in ways that enable its collective future success.

Wisdom Capture

A strong community learns and grows together by reinforcing and extending who and what it is, and why it exists. By definition, wisdom is the number of perspectives available to a system at any one time plus the system's capacity to discern which perspective (or perspectives) are most relevant to apply to the context at hand. Applied to a CofP, wisdom capture allows the community to become aware of the many perspectives it has for addressing a given context (i.e., a challenge or opportunity faced by the community or one of its members) and also know which perspective(s) is most relevant to apply to that context.

Wisdom capture for a CofP is key to its evolution, and to the community achieving fundamental purpose of all communities that practice – stewarding applied knowledge in service of others not yet a part of the community.

When practicing wisdom capture myself, I draw upon the amazing work of Monica Nissen and Chris Corrigan from the Art of Hosting community of practice – documented in The Art Of Harvesting. In applying this work, I consider the following wisdom capture 'arcs':

  1. Reconnect – Communities connect at an emotional level first prior to connecting at a rational level. So in capturing the wisdom of a community when it gathers I consider the following question: What do I need to capture to reconnect this community with the subjective or felt experience of this gathering?
  2. Synthesise – A community might cover a significant amount of territory during a gathering. In capturing a community’s wisdom, I am seeking the essence or 'meta' of the territory covered. And, I want to capture the essence of what occurred as a 'package' that allows community members to easily apply that wisdom in the 'real world'. A question I might consider when synthesising the wisdom created during a CofP gathering might be: What is the essence or 'thin red line' that binds together the shared learnings from this CofP gathering, and how can I capture it in ways that makes it readily available to others unable to attend?
  3. Educate – Key concepts, models, frameworks, methodologies, 'knowledge', ways of approaching situations, etc are a third arc I capture wisdom through when a CofP gathers. The purpose of this wisdom capture arc is to make the applied knowledge present within the community available and known to everyone in that community. A question I might ask is: What does the community, as a collective, need to know in order gain mastery in its domain of focus and how do I capture this in ways that make that applied knowledge readily available to everyone?
  4. Inform – Each time a CofP gathers there are outcomes – after all, the community is practitioner-oriented and practice focused. The community needs to be informed of those outcomes (goals, actions, commitments, etc) so as to act upon them once the CofP gathering concludes. A focusing question when informing a CofP of the outcomes or actions arising from a CofP gathering might be: What are the inspirational and aspirational next steps from this CofP gathering that need to be shared in order for all community members (both present and not present) to know what is required of them the next time they come together?

In summary, Communities of Practice are an essential and pragmatic method for accelerating the learning and 'real world' impact of practitioners who are willing to be in day-to-day learning with other practitioners. The question that remains with me as I conclude this post is: How might organisations become even more productive by adopting  a Community of Practice approach to creating thrivable economic and ecological futures?