Communities of Practice: Finding Your Garage Band …

The Practice Collection

It was almost twenty-five years ago that I had a fortuitous dinner with a guest speaker from California. Etienne Wenger would have as great an impact on my thinking then as Peter Senge did a few years before that.

Senge’s work was a challenge for me …

His brilliant “Learning Organization” theory was life changing for me at the time as was my introduction to the field of andragogy, which helped me move from the pedagogical lens of learning (episodic) to the more interesting notion of continuous learning. Senge gave us a few tools for organizational learning but there was something missing.

Wenger gave me that something … he called the idea, communities of practice. There it was, a word to describe what I felt was doing something different from the job and yet still rooted in the workplace … a practice, maybe even a leadership practice.   You would first find your practice and then find your garage band. This band he called your community of practice.

There has always been that tug between theory and practice … so often we were introduced to a fine organizational change theory or flavor of the month but there was not a lot of real-world hands on practice to go with it. I saw the community of practice model, as the ideal theory/practice pairing that would be needed to make this work grounded.

Wenger was a Swiss man who ended up studying computers in California in the early 90’s. It was a project with anthropologist Jean Lave led to them studying apprenticeship in Africa. The big break, though, was their findings that apprentice learning was less from the master and more from the community of apprentices (peers.) Wenger applied this concept to his emerging thoughts around “communities of practice.” He said, “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

The key elements I noticed in his work were …

The Domain … basically this is the practice you have chosen, like coaching, workplace wellness, health and safety and the learning needs to get better at it …

The Community … this is simply the people who share a passion for this practice domain. They could be in the same building, same town or a virtual garage band.

Mutual Engagement … how you will work and learn together usually forged by a Community Charter conversation.

A well functioning informal community of practice has many advantages to an organization. A community of practice will …

  • Build overall organizational knowledge
  • Increase specialized knowledge while at the same time moving the best of that knowledge across the bureaucratic silos.
  • Create a highly skilled amateur, voluntary workforce that can provide needed support and services from the inside.
  • There is enormous pride as people find their entrepreneurial practice, build it and then make a unique leadership contribution to the organization.
  • Communities of practice are fiscally modest.

We almost lost our way, however, over the past years. We were all right with the concept of practice and job being two differing elements of a high functioning workplace. The job was pretty tightly defined. You were paid for the job, had a job description, organization charts, performance reviews, bureaucratic infected hierarchy and strict compliance all kept the job side pretty inflexible. You were a professional on the job and you often do it for reason (pay bills, put kids through school etc.)

Your practice at the corner of your desk, on the other hand, is totally opposite. You don’t get paid, no job descriptions, org charts, performance reporting, compliance, hierarchy or bureaucracy in your practice. You operate like a small entrepreneur and you operate as an amateur full of more passion than reason.

Over my own forty five years of working, I have had many jobs including teacher, burger flipper, molten metal handler, taxi driver, school principal, head saw tailing in a lumber camp, policy analyst, and so on …

I am very short on the practice side. I wish I had known about practice when I was younger. Still I managed to develop practices in facilitation, engagement, event planning, writing, public speaking and leadership

The important thing I learned about practice was that I “owned” it. The jobs all belonged to the organization and when I left they stayed there.

The practices I took with me … and I still have them!

Ti sum it up, you do your job and do it well to make a living, do good for your organization and hopefully find satisfaction in a lifetime of good work.

Your do your practice because you love it, you need more challenge than you are just getting with the work and you want to make a bigger contribution to a better workplace.

There would be nothing wrong with building a community of IT specialists but it would not be a community of practice…it would be a community of jobs. Another way to understand is to compare communities of practice with teams.

Objective …

team wants to complete the work, a community of practice wants to share knowledge and promote learning.

Members …

team wants members with high skills, abilities and accountability. A community of practice is open and self selected.

Organization …

A team is part of a hierarchy with managers and levels; a community of practice is informal and based on effort, passion and self-selection.

Termination …

A team will disband when the project ends and the work is done, a community of practice evolves as knowledge, opportunities and interest grows…if these die the community of practice dies with it.

Value Proposition …

The team looks for quality results and the community of practice looks for knowledge transfer and growth.

So, we are learning that high performance teams and high-energy communities of practice are as different as you can imagine, but both critical for an innovative organization.

Note that the old school notion of something resembling a community of practice was the ubiquitous committee. Often the voluntary non-business efforts in an organizations fell to a committee … god bless committee work but they definitely had their issues like …

  • Same people … more work
  • High effort … low reward
  • The “voluntold” phenomenon
  • Formal meeting (Agenda) type approach rather than informal relationship based, (Storytelling) approach.
  • Limits to growth (lets put six people on this Wellness Committee!!)

Lots of issues … so if we were to turn the bulk of our workplace committees into communities of practice we would probably see an emergence of new and sustainable energy rather than another year on this soul sucking committee.

Wenger used to say that there were four kinds of folks in a community of practice…

  • Leaders … they make things happen.
  • Learners … the wonderfully curious who want to be a part of something.
  • Linkers … those valuable people who connect people, resources and ideas
  • Lurkers … just hanging out, maybe … maybe not

Not exactly how we might describe team or committee members but well suited to a garage band metaphor that wants to get better, give back, learn stuff and make a contribution.

One final thought … more and more we are realizing that there is something going on in modern life that signals a shift in how we communicate, work and relate to one another. As we debate whether or not technology is bringing us even more together or enabling our more drifting apart.

John O’Donohue, great Irish poet philosopher I was so fortunate to meet, wrote so eloquently about belonging …

He wrote … ”When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity. The sense of belonging keeps you in balance amidst the inner and outer immensities. The ancient and eternal values of human life – truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love are all statements of belonging; they are also the secret intention and dream of human longing.”

As our workplace becomes more and more isolated and results focused, we may need to also find each other in relationships, knowledge and learning through renewed workplace enagement. Finding our own entrepreneurial practice and then finding our own community of practice “garage band” may be just one more practical, sustainable and affordable path to that world of better workplace enagement.