Monday, October 22, 2007
Workshop: Learning Communities, Etienne Wenger
The workshop began with people sitting in groups of between 8 and 10. Each group was invited to share what they knew about communities of practice and the previous day’s conference session with other members of their goup. Each group was also invited to come up with a question. These notes are based on the questions (in italics) and Etienne's answers that came up in the session. They don't reflect the richness of the conversations that place.
There are so many expressions - community of practice, learning community, discussion forum ... what's the difference?
Community of practice is a unit of analysis. Rather than asking, is this a community of practice a discussion forum or a learning community we should ask: is it helpful to look at something as community of practice? Do people bring their practice to the community? The demand of understanding the practice was ongoing and the leading force of the community. In a community of practice you have experience of ownership of the learning experience of the members. The community can call an expert in... but the process of developing of the community is driven by the learning demands of the community
How does a community become sustainable?
A community sustains itself because it becomes indispensable. How does it sustain itself past the task? Example of community in Canada came together to write a toolkit, but when it was done they continued to stay a community. Someone once described a community of practice as a learning friendship. That doesn't mean there are no conflicts, but rather that conflicts become productive rather than constructive. A community that avoids conflict probably won't sustain. When you bring experience to the table you're going to have conflict.
Important in a community is a sense of time. You can revisit the issues; there is an evolution over time. There is a commitment over time that allows this learning friendship to develop.
You need someone in the community who is skilled at opening a space for conversations when they arise. Anchoring the learning process in the practice of the members is absolutely key. People don't share knowledge in the abstract, they share knowledge to help someone solve a problem. You have to make sure the learning is anchored in the practice of the members and that the practice is meaningful to the participants.
What are the ways to create a community without it being a task?
Role of the convenor is important. The convenor is someone who has the legitimacy to call people around a question in a community of practice. You could just send an invitation. It doesn't require a long-term commitment. When you invite someone on a first date you givetry and give someone an experience. You make sure its nice. A community is a first date. The message is - I don't know if i want to marry you, but I want to give it a chance
Marriage expresses the social delicacy of a community and its resilience and its evolution.
It is also important to give people some tasks so they have an experience of learning together.
Question that will help is to know if there is an identity that people have in the community. If you have a professional community who already have an identity then you can create a broad invitation. If the community has no identity invitation could be more specific.
Story of a group of health professionals supporting a child at risk. Invitation is around the child not their profession. It is an issue of the values people care about. People from different professions came together as learning partners, overcoming their professional identities in the interest of the child. So you need to find some activities that will enable people to work together without fighting.
The community as a relationship is reinventing itself. Sustainability is involved in the reinventing of itsef. You can invite the community to reflect (pause) to look at what where is this going. Question: where is it going for you? Let the community take ownership of how the community is working for them.
You don't want a community to last longer than its useful, a community shouldn't go beyond its usefulness.
Is the manager of a community the manager of a relationship?
Community manager has many roles both in terms of relationships and the domain. A lot of my work is with private conversations. It's about orchestrating relationships and domain. There is no recipe but community manager has a nose for knowing what a community needs and an ability to open a social space in which the right conversatiosn can happen.
Is it possible to have a community of practice without strong leadership?
Communities have existed for a long time, with and without strong leadership. I prefer to talk about Co-ordinator, because there are many different types of leadership roles (like social leaders, thought leaders ... etc) not just one. It's better to talk about an ecology of leadership. The question is if the leader has the legitiamcy to be perceived as having the voice for the community.
Is the role of manager/coordinator/facilitator a specific task that can be assigned to someone?
Most communities don't have the funds to do it, so they have to do it themself. It has turned out in these cultivated communities that it pays to have a small group who have the legitimacy to do it. Role of the Coordinator is to hold the space. Nowadays people are very busy. Many communities die, not because there is no use for them, but just because it's noone's priority. You need to have someone who feels a commitment to holding the space. One of the role of the coordinator is a connector. Holding the space is more complicated than just arranging visible things.
(Comment: The group is like the grandmother... you can get away and come back and the grandmother is still there.)
To make a community sustainable you need to find that core group. Not everyone has the same commitment because it depends what the community means to them. The person or group who is holding that space has to have some specific commitment. It is a complex role because it has to do with the formal aspect (e.g. organise meetings) but also the invisible aspcet by keeping the pulse.
How do we go from practice to learning? We begin in a communities of practice and how can we learn with a community of learning. If we have some rules then we could have a community of learning. Everyone comes in with different perspectives and then put in a moderator - perhaps that is the way. All the teachers have a training in CMS and LMS, building virtual classrooms.Lots of people spread over Portugal all doing the same thing.
I will refuse to make a distinction between practice and learning. Learning is a political question.. who is learning and who is not? Learning is anchored in an experience of practice. Communities get stuck in places and need a kick in the butt to move. The kick in the butt has to be anchored in practice. Learning is driven by the challenges of practice. Practice has this interesting characteristic - both very local and very global at the same time.
Sometimes in a community of practice you feel like you are walking old lady across the street. How do you know when to close it... in a way that people still have a relationship. If a group is forced to participate, or if participation is made to achieve a certain goal, do we still talk of communities of practice?
In general i would say make participation voluntary. But in my research of claims processors, the claims processors had to be there (to get their money). If people are there for obligatory reasons it doesn't mean that it's not helpful to look at it as a community of practice. A community might die from neglect... as a community leader have to say "am I forcing it or am I enabling it?" You have to keep the pulse of a community and seeing when a community is losing its usefulness...
What's your opinion of a big community bringing together small communities?
It's important to view a domain as having sub-groups.
What's the role of the organisation?
If a small community invites another one in, that's different to being told by the Ministry that they have to come together. If i see that my workers need to improve their practice I can support them in the community.
How active can you be in keeping a community alive?
This notion of convening is important because it's based on legitimacy to drive the process together. Find an ally who shares your vision about how the community should evolve. An important concept is that of legitimacy to start and end a community. Who has the legitimacy to do that? It comes from a place of real practice, not political expediency or authority.
Rapporteur: Bev Trayner