What makes a good community of practice?

I've had a couple of conversations about Communities of Practice lately. One person said to me that Communities of Practice don't really work. It might be that they’re not a good fit for what they’re trying to achieve, but there are also lots of things that aren’t often taken into consideration that can determine the success (or not) of Communities of Practice.

Why might we need communities of practice?

There isn't a silver bullet approach for gaps in traditional learning provision, but we need to give consideration to how learning from training can be applied in reality. The gap between learning and practice is usually smaller within communities of practice because the content is driven by learner needs. Communities of practice within single organisations are also better placed to grapple with their organisational context.

There are some great quotes from Prof. Donald Forrester et al's research in this brilliant Practice Supervisor Development Programme guide on Communities of Practice. They describe how “culture eats training for breakfast” and that we need to “focus not just on helping individuals to improve their practice but also on changing the organisational contexts which they work in.”

This is bang on, and reflects lots of what I've learnt from communities of practice over the years. Here’s what sticks out for me.

What's in it for me?

Before starting, it's important to have a clear idea of what you want the community of practice to achieve. In doing so, it's important to go beyond the benefit to the host organisation or department. The benefit to us will be quite clear – we're developing a supportive learning environment which will yield deep learning. The bigger question is what's in it for the community members, and how can we demonstrate and articulate this value at the outset? What is going to make people put in the time and effort to contribute? This is a particularly important question to ask in the social care sector, where time is a precious commodity and large caseloads are well documented.

They're free?! What are we waiting for?

Organisations spend thousands of pounds on training every year, whilst self-hosted communities of practice are free… in theory. The “in theory” is doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Whilst there isn't a cost for the facilitator, it takes a lot of staff time to make a community of practice work. Whilst it's tempting to think that all the amazing people who have joined your community of practice will just immediately crack on and start sharing expertise and information, the reality is that people will be participating on top of their day job. The role of the “Community Gardener” (as it’s called in the PSDP guide) is really important – you need someone to tend to the community to demonstrate that it is a safe and welcoming space where learning is both welcomed and encouraged.

Not as many people will contribute as you think

The community of practice will start out quite low on people's priority list. There will be a lot of lurking going on until you can demonstrate the value of the space. Even then, the participation rates will likely be quite low.

It's important to have a large community so that you have a high number of active participants. This excellent post on communities of practice by WhatsThePont suggests that only 1% of people will actually create content, 9% will edit, modify or comment on that content an 90% will be lurkers. This feels about right from my experience of multi-agency Slack groups over the years.

Slack Emojis appearing on a Slack themed background

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

When you get lots of people together in one place with rich practice knowledge, you can unlock so much information that would otherwise be hidden. This paper on 'Theories and Frameworks for Online Education: Seeking an Integrated Model' encapsulates that nicely. When analysing Siemens' theory of connectivism, Picciano looks at how “learning rests in a diversity of opinions.” If we apply a strengths-based lens and see the wealth of knowledge that participants bring with them, we can see how the range of ideas and viewpoints can help us to grapple with the complex environments in which we work. There is no one size fits all, but collectively we have lots of knowledge and expertise that can help us to explore what might work.

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