Tag Archives: informal learning

Bill Snyder on Communities of Practice

18 Jul

Bill Snyder, expert on communities of practice, spoke at the Learning Organization Academy last week. My notes below. For the record, Bill co-wrote Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge.

The Engaged and Messy Nature of Knowledge and Learning

Knowledge, according to Bill, is not abstract, fixed, and unconnected from life. It’s “situated, tacit, dynamic;” “social;” and “practical.” It’s interwoven between and among people and what they’re doing and need to do, in the environment where they are. Correspondingly, learning is largely informal, is built on communication and connections—stories, conversations, experiences, coaching. It depends heavily on trust and reciprocity.

Communities of Practice Steward Messy Knowledge

The kind of knowledge and learning above aren’t that well-served by formal education. What works better are communities of practice–groups of people sharing a particular domain of knowledge who gather and talk about what they know and what they do. The emphasis is on social relationships and communication; communities of practice are heterarchical as opposed to hierarchical. There isn’t a rigid power or control structure; they grow up where people who share a particular passion feel a need to talk to each other. They’re voluntary. As such they stand in contrast to the hierarchical workplace, its emphasis on control and outcomes, and its investment in its own existence. They can be “natural” in that they occur on their own when a few people find their way together, and intentional, in that people actively develop them, though this is an art. They can be conceptualized using a three-mode framework: domain (or subject matter); community (the people); and practice (how they apply the knowledge they share).

Peripheral and Core Participation

A key feature of communities of practice is that they allow for a variety of ways to be involved. You don’t have to be an expert: peripheral participation, or lurking, is OK, and even seen positively (because it’s a way to enter into the field—consider the apprenticeship model).  Usually, though, a core group comprising 3 – 5% of the people ends up being responsible for most of the activity of the community; these people are generally experts and well-respected (though there is a role for some in that core group to focus on the organizational details who don’t therefore need to be a subject mater expert). Importantly, the community of practice allows you to shift from lurker to middle to core group and back—in fact, you can see that movement as a kind of sideways Zone of Proximal Development.

Distinction Between Communities of Practice and Project Teams

Bill makes a key distinction between communities of practice, which self-organize to shepherd the learning in a social group, and project teams, which are formed, usually by fiat, to achieve a particular end. The community of practice focuses on knowledge sharing, is voluntary, has a long-term focus, boundaries are permeable, and the nature of the group is often emergent; the team is different—it has a clear outcome in mind, it gathers information on whether it meets that goal or not, it ends, roles are kinda fixed, it reports back. The project team works well in the hierarchical workplace of course; but it’s not antithetical to the community of practice. A project team can peel off of a community and go work on a project then share outcomes with the community. Just don’t assign a discrete, short-term, actionable goal to the overall community.

Phases of Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice go through various stages: Potential (basic parts are there: topic, social group, desire to share); Coalescing (community begins to work together and build trust); Maturing (clarification of the subject, individual roles; identification of gaps in knowledge); Stewardship (focus on action and maintaining momentum, attracting new members, keeping knowledge up-to-date); Transformation (its work may be done; members may leave; it may go dormant to return later).  Bill notes that it’s important to accept the community where it is—the stewardship phase isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, for instance: a community may function perfectly well and serve its members even in the early stages.

Things to Avoid

There are some things you shouldn’t do if you want your community of practice to be successful. You can’t tell it what to do—the passion has to come from the people involved (although you can find and build on existing passions). You need the domain to be somewhat practical and problematic; if it’s too superficial—that is, only about relationships and pleasantries, it won’t work. The topic also can’t be too narrow or too broad. You have to be wary as well of problems that occur in all communities: cliques and factions, and people who “squelch” or “spoil.” And a key pitfall: “impermeable boundaries”–if people can’t move from the fringes to the core group and every stage in-between, it’s not a heterarchy anymore.

Communities of Practice Improve Performance

You might think such an ephemeral structure might not result in anything tangible, but it does—those relationships and passions drive the participants to “build, share, and apply” core practices and capabilities, increasing their capability, and all that of course translates to improved performance outcomes.


About Faculty-Student Interaction

22 Sep

We’ve been talking about Faculty-Student Interaction on my campus lately. It’s one of the key criteria of the success of a learning institution, it’s about whether your students and faculty talk to each other, and it’s hard to get right.

For our discussions we read Cotten and Wilsons’ “Student–faculty interactions: Dynamics and determinants,” in Higher Education, 51, 2006, which includes a good overview of the literature and describes a qualitative assessment of faculty-student interaction on a campus that I think is pretty representative.

Here’s a stream of thought influenced in part by Cotten and Wilson and in part by my own observations.

First of all, the research generally says that more student-faculty interaction is better–for student learning, development, self-worth, persistence, and other things. It also says that this interaction can come in lots of ways: it can be formal, informal, in-class, out-of-class, social, academic, accidental, planned, one-on-one, in a group, etc.

But the literature also says it happens surprisingly rarely. Why? Well, a lot of factors come to mind. Faculty and student time, the way campus space is designed (faculty and students have their own ghettos, if you will); the difference in age and activity (faculty are at “work” and students are learning and living and having fun); even differences in, um, feedback styles. Cotten and Wilson note that faculty are trained to find fault and eliminate it, while students often need just the opposite–validation.

To my mind a little bit of fear is involved, too. Many teachers seem have a deep-seated fear of having their personal life overrun by needy, informal, chaotic students asking for extensions, calling them by their first names at 3 AM, and generally acting 18. Cotten and Wilson point out students have a fear as well, of feeling obliged by a closer relationship to do more, take more responsibility, of being afraid to let the professor down. You can see each fear as the shadow of the other; in both cases people worried about the unpredictable effect of these mysterious new relationships on their work and life.

Of course these fears both assume extreme cases. You can probably hang out with students a little bit more without suddenly having them stalk you, and you could talk a little bit to a professor about their research now and then without feeling like they would show up in your dorm room if you slept late one day.

Cotten and Wilson also share what I think is a key idea–that what’s really behind improved interaction is simply a better sense of community. It does seem that people in a community do better–maybe because they have more opportunities to understand what’s expected, more room to explore how to be themselves, more room to grow into and try on new ideas and roles, something more lasting than grades and keg parties to invest in, a feeling people care about them, a feeling they are part of something bigger. But of course you can’t have a community made of ships passing in the night. (On a side note, when you start to think about community, you also realize that there are a lot of other ships passing in the nocturnal sea of our campuses. Shouldn’t we be talking about faculty-staff and student-staff interaction? Staff-parent interaction? Faculty-visitor interaction? Interactions with grad students? Etc.)

What’s sad for me about limited student-faculty interaction is that we’re missing an opportunity to let people discover their own personal path to learning by seeing how other people do it. When you think about it, the intrinsic motivation to learn–that desire to discover, learn, understand, share, improve the world, solve problems–that reason why faculty like their subjects, are drawn to research and scholarship and teaching–that wonderful motivating spark–is a deeply personal, simple, humane, human essence. That’s what we’re tying to help students find in themselves, but that’s not really communicated well in formal instruction–that’s the kind of thing that you see when someone lets their guard down, inside the Actor’s Studio, if you will, at ease in their lab, or being reflective over lunch. Situations where you don’t need to be right or official, but just yourself. If we don’t have good faculty-student interaction, students won’t get a lot of chance to see this in their faculty; if they figure it out on their own, it’ll be as it were in spite of school, not because of it.

So that’s the trouble. The solution is likely (as usual) a smörgåsbord of options. A lot of great programs exist already to improve interaction. Mentor programs, have class over for dinner programs. Take a faculty member out to lunch, Anthropology Department candle pin bowling night, etc. These are great. Even little things like reminding faculty to “act like you care about the students” or nudging students to “ask your professor about their research” help a lot, too.

As I reflect off the top of my head on additional possible things we could do, I come up with four, which I array for you free of charge, as my concluding device:

  • Share space. Let your campus space be a big studio where faculty, students, and staff are interminged in their various moments of work and play. Build buildings and networks of buildings that are not designed for any one thing–be it study, teaching, living, or research, but that allow them all. Let the Reggio Emilia idea of the environment as the “third teacher” influence the way you work together. Even let faculty live on campus! I know, crazy.
  • Eat together. You probably can’t have the magic ceiling and floating candles, but you probably have some of the other attributes of the Harry Potter dining hall experience in the big cafeterias on your campus. Why not make it so no classes or meetings or work may happen from 12 – 2 and then require people to all repair to the cafeteria? Make the food free. Add some announcements. Summer camp effect.
  • Advisory Committees. I’m a big fan of the personal advisory committee made of people outside your context (I should blog on this). It’s like peer review for your life. One boss and a colleague or two from your small sphere is not enough feedback or breadth of input for your serious and meaningful plans and personal improvement. The advisory committee could work for faculty-student interaction: imagine if each student were required to sit on the advisory committee of a faculty member not in their major, understand their research, give them suggestions on their challenges, contribute feedback on their activities, tell people about how great they are. Wouldn’t that feel neat? Call it an adopt-a-faculty member program.
  • Co-labor. This is of course rather basic, but it’s probably the best way to improve faculty-student interaction, at least of my four: give your faculty and students some task they need to do together, something they can’t do on their own, with a shared goal, and hold them mutually accountable. They will know each other fast.