Last week I made it to one of David Gurteen‘s Knowledge Cafe’s, hosted by Fluor in Farnborough. The format is an opening speaker, followed by small group discussions, focused on a specific question. Chris Collison, author of Learning to Fly and No More Consultants, kicked off the session, with a presentation on communities of practice – looking and principles and examples from organisations around the world who have embraced building communities of practice within, or between, their organisations. He focused on how organisations can increase:

  • Passion
  • Interaction
  • Learning

I captured notes from the groups I was part of. In the first discussion group I was part of, there was quite a reaction to the word ‘passion’ – particularly in the context of the fairly reserved nature of British business culture, but passion is clearly linked to interested ,and interest to inquisitiveness, an eagerness to discover, to learn, to acquire (and share) knowledge. That desire to discover and share knowledge is key to building successful communities of practice.

Getting interaction is a challenge, especially on online platforms, where people often default to being passive observers (the old Wikipedia contribution observation).  Interaction requires a ‘safe space’ where people can be vulnerable in asking questions, and in making or sharing mistakes. That requires a great deal of trust and mutual respect, it also requires a degree of commonality – shared language and values – to enable communication.
Communities connect with purpose (and purpose is strongly linked to passion). The word ‘vocation‘ came up, which isn’t a word I have heard for a long time, harking from the days when a job was more of a calling than just a source of income. Vocation, a purposeful, lifelong journeying in work that you feel well suited to. That is very different from today’s world of frequent career changes, constantly evolving job roles, and continual company reorganisations, yet it does resonate with lots of knowledge work, where success comes from discretionary effort applied to learning.
The next discussion homed in on the mechanics of learning. Learning implies that there are repeatable processes, or meta-processes, that can be optimised and improved. That means there needs to be a level of consistency, to provide a basis for shared learning across the organisation – best practice needs best practice to build upon.
Volunteering and discretionary effort was a theme across the discussions. “Stepping forwards” versus “stepping back” – do people put themselves forward to contribute to communities of practice, or is it more often the case that everyone else staps back, leaving an unwilling volunteer to take on the task. As someone put it: “availability is not a skill” People need to understand why they should participate. They need to identify with the values and purpose of the community, and feel able (competent) to contribute to it. Leadership modelling, and ‘giving permission’ for participation, is also key – showing that contributions are valuable and valued.
The mechanics of communities of practice can be viewed from the individual level, and from the group level. A working community has a strong identity at a group level, which unlocks passion, drives interaction and supports learning. Individuals will connected at different levels and in different ways. They may start with interaction that develops their passion for practice, or they may arrive with passion and enthusiasm that drives them to learn. The inverted-U model and the Dunning-Kruger effect (competence/confidence matrix) and useful tools here. The organisational and community attitude to failure is key. There can be little learning without experimentation and experimentation carries the risk of failure. Most business cultures are highly risk averse, and that stifles both innovation and learning.
The need for communities of practice is a consequence of modern organisational structures. In the early industrial era people with the same skills worked side by side, but with the emergence of new processes and structures – geographic, and customer-centric – practitioners ended up in different groups, driving the need for matrix structures to give them the opportunity to learn and develop. We are still adjusting to these structures, and the emergence of ‘networked’ organisations suggests there is still quite a way to go.
My key take away from the evening was this: Begin with the end in mind (cf Covey’s 7 habits), but specifically begin with an ending in mind when starting a community: Agree that the community will end on a specific date, just as you agree a project end date. The community may ‘restart’ after this, and members may carry it on, but by setting an initial end date you reduce the perceived commitment you are asking people for (it is ‘only for a time’) and you also reduce the perceived risk of failure (you are saying it will stop by a specific date regardless). This  also gives people the opportunity to “step forward” to carry on the community, rather than step back. It puts people in a completely different disposition. It also forces a review of the communities functioning and effectiveness, creating an opportunity for reflection and learning.
David host posted some photos, which give a feel of the evening, and David’s list of upcoming events is on the Gurteen Event Calendar.