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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Communities of Practice Clinic at the Rome Share Fair

Communities of Practice Clinic with NW and EW (8)Powerful questions around practice…

We had a Clinic for Communities of Practice (CoP henceforth) with super- experts Etienne Wenger and Nancy White during the Sharefair in Rome.  The clinic was intended for discussion and to bring up issues we may all have in our CoPs, and was carried out with a peer review format, in which:

1. People present their case and give the audience enough information to understand the case and the context

2. A round of clarifying questions to make sure we understand the problem before we comment on the case

3. Some advice and suggestions can be given, and also questions (that should help the case proponent understand better where some possible actions may lie

4. A “what now”-type discussion about what we plan to do with what we have learned.

Some of the highlights of the session for me:

Many people don’t share their knowledge because they don’t know they have it, that is, they don’t “recognize” the knowledge that is embedded in their practice, and because they don’t know that something they know may be useful to others.

Clarity: in a CoP, knowledge is shared around specific practices (thus the name!). It happens a lot that, because practice is complex and difficult to talk about, we “flee” into theory. We have to beware of when ‘expertise’ or theoretical knowledge ‘devalues’ or makes seem less important the lessons learnt by practitioners through practice.  CoPs need to be a space where we are able to discuss the real issues and challenges we face in our work, not theorize in abstract.

Related to the above, a CoP has to enable members to be better practitioners- as whole humans, as whole people. As Nancy said, “Knowledge is not disembodied of how you live to do your practice”. CoPs should help to answer the integral question: How can I be a better person that can do my practice better? Some of the liveliest, “realest” conversations that can happen in a CoP happen around real- life issues of the participants having to do, for example, with issues in balancing work and home life.

Cops have periods of high activity and periods of low activity. There is no set standard regarding how much activity/ for how long a CoP being inactive is good or bad. Trying to make all people and times equally active in a CoP is a huge misuse of time and energy: there are always “emergencies”- which generate moments of more interaction, and periods when nothing is happening. CoPs have cycles- including a maturing process-  and don’t have to be active for the sake of being active, just be useful to the members, and move in this natural rhythm of use.

It is good if the CoP facilitator is a member of that CoP (vs facilitator as an external non-member, a “process” person with less knowledge of the field of the CoP). It is a case of “leadership with” rather than “leadership for”.

Sometimes people hesitate to send their questions out “into the void”- why is this? Well, it can be the simple fear of not knowing where the question goes, and who can see it and respond to it. But in many cases, especially in hierarchical- arrangement CoPs, there may be a fear that your question indicates that you don’t know something, or that something is wrong with your practice. This is why it is important that we do not mix the CoPs with indications of performance, or “supervisory” comments.

We got from the ‘clinicians’ and other participants (go figure: the practitioners of CoP daily business, with great experiences and lessons to share) some ideas to revitalize and facilitate our own communities:

  • Sometimes it is important to break things into  bite sized chunks that enable people to commit to participate in or lead specific tasks, and make time limits clear:  something that enables people to feel like ‘putting on a hat’ for a while. Carry out some safe-fail experiments: small tasks that will slowly create confidence in participation and asking questions, and that help people realize there is an audience for what they know.
  • Sometimes you should rearrange structures, namely disrupt “formal expertise” and top- down interactions. Suggest that the community organize themselves into a peer – to -peer vs a hub-and-spoke arrangement. The members have to be in front of the CoP: top-down CoPs don’t survive long! The word ‘Community’ in CoP is useful as far as it shifts focus on the learning that is in the hands of the practitioners.
  • “Nothing more powerful than a fabulous question”, said Nancy. Compelling ‘domain’ and questions, the real need of people for the help from others, and critical mass can make or break a CoP. You should strive to look for that question, that burning issue, that pressing need that will get the participants “into” the CoP.
  • Use the “back channels” available to you as a way to develop trust. There is always a strategic decision to be made between using public or private channels. Always use public if it will benefit the whole CoP, and private when the intimacy is needed, and when you feel an out-of-range nudge will help re-vitalize the CoP. In vibrant cops there are always lots of back channel conversations going on (as long as they are not complaining chats!)
  • Very stressed by Etienne: give RECOGNITION! Find ways to give non- gift incentives to the people who participate and facilitate, such as telling other people what the collaborator is doing (especially his or her supervisors), help people realize that time and resources need to be assigned to the CoP, and that time valued properly, help the leaders of an organization understand the value of the CoP for the participants themselves and for the organization.

This session (or something like it) is highly recommendable for people doing CoPs start-up or facilitation, and Nancy’s and Etienne’s unflagging humor and understanding made it all the best! Thank you!

For more information on various related things: Keith McCandless and liberating structures, EttieneWenger.com, CPSquare, Full circle and Nancy’s work and the ks toolkit for more on CoPs.

See also Simone Staiger’s blog on Etienne Wenger’s key note at the Share Fair

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