“What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community”. – T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems
In Day 2 of this course we looked at how to create and grow a Community of Practice (CoP). In this post we will explore misconceptions surrounding Communities of Practice (CoPs) as well as consider potential challenges in creating and fostering a CoP and ways to minimise these challenges.
Misconceptions about CoPs
CoPs are not a one size fits all model that develop and evolve in the same way, instead, they are all different and each have unique characteristics. For instance, a CoP can be small or large, meet mostly face to face or online, be based in one geographical area or global, be supported by a broader organisation or member initiated, be formal or informal. Misconceptions can thus arise, and E & B Wenger-Trayner (2015, p.6) have identified 9 common myths associated with CoPs:
- CoPs are always self-organising.
- There are no leaders in a true CoP.
- True CoPs are informal.
- The role of a CoP is to (only) share existing knowledge.
- It is too difficult to measure the impact of CoPs.
- Good facilitation is all it takes to get members to participate.
- CoPs are harmonious places.
- There is a technology that is best for CoPs.
- CoPs are the solution to everything!
What do you think about these myths? How do they fit with your experience of CoPs?
There can be a number of challenges with CoPs. One of the most significant is time – which is typically an ongoing challenge for both members and facilitators. Indeed, how much time each member as well as the facilitator can give to the CoP throughout each development phase will greatly influence how the CoP evolves and how successfully it functions.
CoPs typically have members participating across different levels – but sometimes this can be a challenge. For instance, if the core members are situated in a central location, whilst the peripheral members are drawn from a broader geographical area this can cause disruption and a lack of cohesion and belonging.
Similarly, if members remain static at a particular level of participation with no flow of new members to the core level for instance, then proactive steps may need to be taken.
Sometimes the community can be too small, where there is not enough new interactions or new members to support learning and knowledge sharing, and sometimes it can become too large so members feel disinclined to interact in meaningful ways.
Also, a CoP may lack cohesion or sufficient structure, produce conflict between members, be exclusive or too narrow or unclear in its purpose and objective. Similarly, the technological tools being used may be ill-suited to the community or lack sufficient stewards (see Day 2 for more).
As mentioned in Day 2, the facilitator plays a crucial role in the success of the CoP. They navigate any emerging challenges, welcome new people and facilitate interactions (particularly in the early stages), nurture the core group, set meetings etc. For many new CoP facilitators, it can be useful to develop more group facilitation skills. The CoP Facilitation Guide from the University of Minnesota and the Center for Positive Organisations Facilitation Guide are helpful resources.
Thus, it is important that the facilitator is cognisant of the typical time and energy demands of the role, and ensure that they have the available resources and capacity, as well as be familiar with the social learning theory behind COPs (see Day 1 for more).
Ensuring the CoP has a clear purpose and goals which are communicated to all members and that evolves over time as needed to best fit each development phase is also vital. Similarly, encouraging members to contribute their ideas and list their professional priorities for the CoP is important.
Using technology in multiple ways to support a CoP can also help reduce potential challenges. As noted by Hoadley (2011) p.299: “Technology has affordances that allow it to represent content, scaffold processes, and shift the user’s social context. These affordances can be applied to support one or more of the key aspects of the functioning of a community of practice: connections, conversations, content, and information context”.
Hoadley (2011, p.296-298), outlines 4 ways technology can support a CoP:
- linking others with similar practices
- providing access to shared repositories
- supporting conversations within a community
- providing awareness of the context of the information resources
Of course, there are many more ways to both anticipate and minimise potential challenges to creating, growing and sustaining a CoP. For instance, McDonald and Reaburn (2017), p. 21-22 at Central Queensland University (CQU), identify four key challenges, and share how CQU has used the associated success factors to sustain and build CoPs.
Can you identify some strategies and/or recommendations to minimise potential challenges? What has been helpful from your experience in CoPs?
Post your comments in the discussion forum.
References and Further Reading
- Hoadley, C. (2011). What is a community of practice and how can we support it? Theoretical foundations of learning environments (Second ed.), 287-300, 2012.
- (2016). Communities of practice in higher education: professional learning in an academic career. International Journal for Academic Development, 21:3,230-241,
- Reaburn, P. & McDonald, J. (2017). Creating and Facilitating Communities of Practice in Higher Education: Theory to Practice in a Regional Australian University. 10.1007/978-981-10-2879-3_6.
- Wenger-Trayner, E. & B. (2015). Communities of practice a brief introduction. EB Wenger-Trayner. https://wenger-trayner.com/