Inquiry & Learning for Change

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!