Inquiry & Learning for Change

Working on a Conceptual Framework for a Study of Communities of Practice in Educational Settings – What do you think?

Initial Graphic Thinking About a Conceptual Framework for a Study of Community of Practice Development in Educational Organizations


CoP’s develop organically, originating out of a concern or issue or passion or sense of purpose that a growing group of people come to realize that they share, and an emergent set of skills and knowledge related to those that the group also shares.  In the literature, these are referred to as Domain, Community, and Practice (Wenger, cite); we will use those three concepts as “orienting theory” as we study several emerging communities.  As members come to recognize that they share these concerns or purposes, and that they relate to a set of skills and knowledge that they also share, they begin to build trust around acknowledging that existing knowledge and those existing skills.  A sense of common identity, of shared information and knowledge, and the emerging relationships that they build form a solid foundation for continued and expanded engagement (Wheatley, cite).  Clarity about the value proposition that a given community is aligning with will positively affect the coherence and development of the CoP.

This is an iterative process, one aspect reinforcing another, as trust builds and efficacy grows, and members settle into more or less familiar rhythms of collective work.  It takes time and resources to support this organic, emergent development, without much sense of traditional goals, outcomes, and accountability (as those will emerge from within the community).  As the community iterates itself into higher and higher levels of functioning, as its shared domain of concerns becomes more explicit, as its level of trust in the collective membership of its community develops (and its capacity to attract new members and apprentice and scaffold them into higher levels of participation and skillful practice), and as its knowledge and skill to address its concerns develops, it reaches a stage of becoming interested in new possibilities, in things it does not already know, or is not already able to do.  The community itself will reach out for those new possibilities, in the form of sharing practices with other communities, of seeking professional learning opportunities, and of looking for literature or other research or resources to support its continued development.  To the extent that the larger environment is prepared to be responsive to that internalized sense of agency, and its timing, some synergy may result.  On the other hand, competing demands for participation in externally mandated or designed professional development or other mandated requirements will dampen the development of the full capacity of the CoP’s for effectively addressing the Domain concerns they are passionate about and identified with.

CoP’s go through some predictable stages of development (Wenger, cite).  Those shift from recognizing the potential for a CoP to come together, to the actual coalescence of the community and its discovery of its shared knowledge and skills to address its concerns, to its maturing into trusting relationships and familiar rhythms of work, and on to stewarding itself and its knowledge, and then into some form of transformation, which may include dissolution (Wenger, cite).  Whatever stage, it is important to recognize and provide support appropriate to the concerns of that particular stage.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that most communities of practice that involve professionals exist within larger organizational contexts, and those contexts shape the nature of the communities within them.  Since these communities are organic and iterative in their emergence and design, a system that can support and encourage such an organic and somewhat indeterminate nature is a positive in supporting their growth.  Existing protocols about team performance that have been integrated into organizational culture and are aligned with CoP development will be useful; however, some protocols and/or rubrics for team performance or even for specific kinds of CoP’s may be too prescriptive for the organic nature of some CoP’s.  Those methods and approaches that align with adult learning theory have more potential to work in support of the development of CoP’s than other, more traditional controlling, didactic, or deterministic (“top-down”) approaches.  The ability or willingness of the larger organization to acknowledge that the boundaries of membership and functioning in CoP’s are much more permeable and cross over traditional organizational structures and roles will be an important indicator of the capacity of those CoP’s to develop fully within the larger organizational context.   In general, the dynamic between a CoP and its larger organizational context will include some tensions, especially if the larger organization has more mechanistic or bureaucratic cultures and ways of doing things, and if the larger organization has specific outcomes or expectations of performance that the CoP may not entirely have embraced, or is explicitly working against.

In general, several aspects of the larger organizational environment will have significant effects on the development of CoP’s.  Most of those have to do with the overall organizational culture’s orientation to and understanding of professional practice, emergent and organic professional systems for accomplishing the goals of the organization, capacity for and understanding of dialogue and deep discourse across traditional organizational boundaries, and capacity for working in an environment of professional mutual adjustment rather than positional authority based command and compliance mode.  All of these cultural aspects play out in how leadership understands and is capable of supporting the development of the CoP’s.

In addition, many organization use coaches to support the development of CoP’s, and coaches often mediate between leaders with more traditional expectations and the rather unorthodox processes and emergent culture of the communities of practice.  Coaches at the senior level of leadership often help shift leadership, and then the overall culture, toward being able to engage in a more reflective process, and that provides a stronger and more culturally aligned context for CoP development.  Reciprocally, coaches at the level of the CoP itself may help align external expectations, mandates, or instincts to provide certain kinds of expertise that it is assumed the CoP members need, in the form of professional development or technical assistance, with the internal development of a sense of the need, or locus of motivation, to seek out other knowledge and/or skills that they need in order to practice with the level of skill they desire to address their stated domain concerns.  This context expertise allows for a “just in time” approach to providing technical assistance or professional development, and will be received more willingly by the CoP.

In our study, we will look for these aspects and dynamics, while remaining open to observing other unforeseen ways of thinking about and engaging in the activities of community of practice development.


I can’t count the number of times I have heard leaders in all types of organizations state that they need to develop a vision or solve a problem before they involve their staff or community, and then disseminate it and get “buy-in” from the rank and file after they’ve crafted something awesome.  “They have other work to do, and this will just stress them out,” is one excuse.  Or, “they don’t have a broad enough view of what is going on to make a meaningful contribution.” Or, “it takes too much time, and costs too much!”  These are short-sighted views that will inevitably result in it taking more time down the road to align vision and action, gain people’s commitment and build their motivation to engage, or really solve the problem they had failed to solve in the first place.

Bad Metaphors
People misunderstand participation.  On reason is that we have bad metaphors for how people work together.  “Buy-in” and “ownership” have really very little to do with how people think of themselves in relation to the work they do.  To believe that you are going to get “buy-in” down the road once you’ve crafted a great idea assumes that the people who work for you don’t have their own ideas, or that yours are inevitably better than theirs, and that your job is to “sell” your great idea to them.  Sure, they may like your idea, but if they have not been involved and had a chance to engage in conversation about the topic along the way, the likelihood that they will really understand it and that it will be meaningful and motivational to them is low.  Another bad metaphor is the “top-down, bottom-up” image of organizations we seem to be stuck in.  We seem to believe that some ideas should flow “top-down” and some information should flow “bottom-up,” but the reality is information is exchanged, meaning is made, and engagement and commitment are generated, in interactions at the intersection of identity, information, and relationships, as Meg Wheatley describes it.  That occurs in the “space” of participation, which we either cultivate or resist, though it will happen anyway if we resist, and the results may not be what we hoped for.  When we are talking about organizational vision, as Peter Senge has pointed out, shared vision is created by leaders recognizing and guiding the coalescing of individual passions about the work into visions that drive their engagement and their motivation.  Leaders can champion this coalescing, but cannot very effectively legislate, command, or disseminate it.  Vision is an emergent process that leaders can support by recognizing that emergence and building enrollment and commitment from that coalescing.

Technical Experts
Another reason is that we assume that technical experts are better at solving problems than the people who are doing the actual work.   Those experts can then train the workers to apply their solutions to the work.  There are so many bad assumptions built into this way of framing problem solving and work that it would take days to explore them all.  Many of them are left over from early views of work on assembly lines pushed by Taylor and others in the scientific management literature.  But central to this approach is the failure to understand both the people nature of work (work is done by people working together) and the capacity of those doing it to be reflective and see possibilities that experts removed from the actual processes might not see (they are not merely unskilled laborers with no thoughts, nor machines).  So those closest to the work see how they work together and what they do that accomplishes the work, and can be very creative in exploring ways to improve both the social and the technical sides of the work.  Of course, it is possible that those closest to the work can get into binds due to unexamined collective assumptions and beliefs, group think, but that just suggests the need to expand participation beyond small homogeneous groups, and that gets at the need for examining the boundaries of participation, and the need for networks of innovators.  But those are topics for future blogs…

Knowledge Creation
A valuing of participation also implies a different notion of how we know things, both epistemologically and methodologically.  We have many old ideas about what an organization “knows” and how that knowledge is stockpiled and used to drive the work of the organization left over from Modernism.  Most of those have to do with there being one right answer, often a technical one, and one objective and generalizable foundational knowledge base that is inert and drives the work and the structure of the work we do.  That worked for the early assembly line, because it was based on fixed designs and quality control.  When changes were needed, experts had already developed the new ideas and the assembly line was modified to accommodate them.  A slow and stable process.  But we are not living in a world where slow and stable will cut it anymore.  And the one perfect, objective idea that is always true turns out to be somewhat of a myth anyway.

It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful.  Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term “communities of practice,” describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to “steward” their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization.  They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation.  This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful.  Beyond “buy-in” and “ownership,” beyond “top-down” and “bottom-up,” even beyond “authorship,” true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency.  That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.