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.

Communities of Practice: An organic approach to organizational transformation?

I read an article recently by Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that brilliantly explores the history of our current education system and explains why it is not structured for success.  In his article, he calls for restructuring so education could “function more like a profession and less like a bureaucracy.”  His enumeration of the problems of how education is organized – “…wide variability in levels of teacher skill from classroom to classroom, failure to bring good practices to scale across sites, the absence of an ‘educational infrastructure’ to support practice, the failure to capitalize on the knowledge and skill of leading teachers, and the distrustful and unproductive relationships between policy makers and practitioners…” – could be addressed with a cultural/structural shift toward supporting the development of what Etienne Wenger calls “communities of practice” among teachers, other professionals, and community members with a stake in education.  Communities of practice are not just powerful ways to re-organize education; non-profits could take a lesson here also, and move to create more professional and organic ways of structuring their work, so as not fall unreflectively into bureaucratic forms themselves.

What is a “community of practice?”  How could supporting their development help improve our professional work in education and the non-profit world?  Wenger defines communities of practice as, “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.”  Several things are significant here:  the group shares a set of concerns (Wenger calls this the “domain”), the group interacts regularly (this is the “community”), and the group shares existing knowledge and builds new knowledge that is directly about their shared practices (thus, the “practice”).  A community of practice meets the criteria for effective organizational functioning that Margaret Wheatley describes, that it exists at the intersection of a sense of identity, shared information, and relationships, and engages in conversation that results in a deepening sense of the meaningfulness of their shared work.  Such groups may form across traditional organizational boundaries, depending on their purpose.  They are very organic in their forming and in their functioning, and in that way, they create a new culture that is very different from the culture that surrounds traditional bureaucracies.  It is a culture of self-motivated, self-sustaining, and self-monitoring professional improvement.  And most important, a community of practice is not just a community of talk; their work is always about their practice.

Meg Wheatley argues eloquently for the need to cultivate communities of practice as an alternative to bureaucracies: “…we have lived for so long in the tight confines of bureaucracies… that it is taking us some time to learn how to live in open, intelligent organizations.  This requires an entirely new relationship with information, one in which we embrace its living properties.  In newer theories of the brain, information is widely distributed…  And memories, it is now thought, must arise in relationships within the whole neural network.  [I]nformation is stored in these networks of relationships…”  Organic networks of relationships where information is widely distributed, intelligent organizations!  Precisely what Mehta is calling for!

So a group of teachers who meet to discuss how to implement the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could be a community of practice, especially if they share practices and build shared knowledge of those among themselves, and even more so if they practice and then reflect together on their practice to improve it regularly, in a cycle of inquiry.  They are enacting another important aspect of a community of practice if they also apprentice newer teachers into their community and support their improved practice.  Wenger believes that communities of practice “steward” their own knowledge, and seek out new information to build new knowledge as they need it.  This is a very different situation from a group of teachers who receive professional development from experts on how to implement the CCSS (the traditional bureaucratic approach to knowledge creation and use).  The same could be said of school site administrators with a concern for school redesign, or non-profit leaders who want to improve non-profit leadership, who meet to discuss their common practices and how to improve their work, and build a common and evolving knowledge base to support that work.  In my work to support Linked Learning Pathway teams, I consider the coaches doing this work, the lead teachers in the Pathways, the teachers working on interdisciplinary project based learning, and the school administrators trying to design supporting school schedules and structures, all potentially to be communities of practice.

Communities of practice are a great way to approach bringing people together to create a “wise organization,” to use the language of another blog post of mine, and one of the main purposes of the work of Inquiry & Learning for Change.  Yet their creation and maintenance entails certain paradoxes for people who are interested in organizational change, whether coaches or consultants or change agents.  As Wenger himself says, “Communities of practice do not usually require heavy institutional infrastructures, but their members do need time and space to collaborate. They do not require much management, but they can use leadership. They self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational environment. The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without overwhelming them with organizational meddling. This need for balance reflects the following paradox: No community can fully design the learning of another; but conversely no community can fully design its own learning.”

As coaches and planners, we want to understand how a commitment to designing and developing communities of practice will help support changes at the organizational level, from the classroom to the district.  Wenger states:

“Cultivating communities of practice takes place in an organizational or interorganizational context.  They… achieve full value only when well integrated.  The challenge… therefore, is… about transforming organizations.  The point… is… to build the organization’s overall capacity to learn and innovate…  But partnering with the organization cuts both ways.  …it magnifies a community’s influence and increases opportunities for members.  …[however,] it [also] introduces new requirements and constraints – such as policies that limit members’ flexibility, systems that don’t support knowledge sharing activities, or managers who won’t allocate time for innovation projects.  The ‘aliveness’ of a community, no matter how passionate and active its members, will be severely limited unless it finds ways to integrate itself with the surrounding organization.”

We might be particularly intrigued by this dilemma as cited in a blog on Wenger’s web page about CoP’s (currently unavailable):  “However, the very characteristics that make communities of practice a good fit for stewarding knowledge—autonomy, practitioner-orientation, informality, crossing boundaries—are also characteristics that make them a challenge for traditional hierarchical organizations.” Reframing his last sentence, our questions might be, How is this challenge going to affect these organizations?  How can we use CoP’s as a change strategy for remaking educational bureaucracies into the networked innovation settings that will address the problem Jal Mehta frames above?

One way Wenger suggests to move forward with creating communities of practice is this:  “It makes sense to begin the knowledge initiative by creating a shared map that explicitly describes the capabilities required to achieve the [organization’s] strategic goals.”  Mental mapping or concept mapping is a powerful tool for making explicit and public a group’s understanding of something they are trying to accomplish. In building communities of practice and wise organizations, we use these kinds of tools with participants with great success.

However we support their development, communities of practice offer powerful new ways to design and enact system change in education and the non-profit world.  I hope you will consider supporting them in your work!