Tag Archives: phases

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.

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The Second Phase of Creation

12 Aug

When you think about doing new things, there are a few phases. Four, by my count. First comes the part where you conceive of the thing to do–call it the idea phase. In the beginning there was the word, etc. Then there’s a phase where you actually do the thing you conceived of. The doing phase, which is number three. These two phases are self-evident I think to most people, and I’m not going talk about them here, although I note they get really interesting as you peer into them (How do you actually get that idea? What is it you’re doing, when you’re doing, anyhow? Is there any thinking happening in there during that doing? Etc.)

Less obvious than these is a post-doing phase, phase four, where you reflect on how the thing went and look for ways to improve before you try it again. This phase is crucial because with it comes the feedback loop that is at the heart of all learning and improvement, and that turns your isolated action into something that can grow in meaning and value indefinitely and form associations with other things and attract people and change them and be changed by them and on and on in wondrous convolutions and permeations of beauty influencing beauty forever. Having a loop is really the only way to (eventually) achieve goodness and approach perfection, in my opinion, contrary to the semi-conscious belief of many that excellence precipitates from nothing with no precedent. That good teachers are born, not made, etc. I am not sure you can be or do absolute good; but you can improve relative to yourself, and you should focus on that.

I could talk a lot more about this reflection or feedback phase, as I love it dearly, but I won’t, because I would rather draw attention to a phase between the idea phase and the doing phase–which makes it phase two–a phase that is in my opinion the least well known, and least respected, and most suspected, but it’s important, and it’s poised for a comeback, and it’s worth thinking about.

In phase two, which is hard to name, you go from idea to endeavor. And to bridge that chasm you do a certain kind of applied abstraction, or practical dreaming, or ethical scheming. A spiritual machination, maybe. You continue the generative feeling of the creative thinking mode that started the whole thing and produced the wondrous idea you’re working with, but you begin to arc that generation towards your actual physical, local, empirically-confirmed environment with its tangible stuff and laws and real people and moods and everything.

First you start by asking my favorite kinds of questions: “OK, about this new idea. If we did this, just what would it look like?” Or, “Imagine we did this–how would it feel?” Etc. The answers usually come in little pieces that you build slowly into a larger picture that becomes clearer and clearer and more palpable and more real.

And as it becomes clearer and clearer, look out. Experience teaches me that this is the place where people start to get nervous. The idea was no threat as long as it was just a crazy idea. But now it’s growing into reality–particularly if you’re doing a good job of answering the “what would it look like” questions–and it’s starting to bump into people’s assumptions about life. It’s amazing how easily the defensive mechanisms are triggered in this regard–as soon as the slightest whiff of palpable novelty is intuited, up go the hackles. Why? Who knows–the imagined thing could change the existing power dynamic, we could be asked to do something we’re not good at, the things we think we care about might suffer, someone might say we’re incompetent, it might take more energy than we currently choose to expend, it might put us out of a job, etc.

Usually you don’t even know what is so threatening about the idea. Often the toes being stepped on are so buried in the sand that the articulated objection spurred by them seems disconnected and comes across as irrational. Did I say sometimes? It might be more than sometimes. I’m not attacking this quality of self-preservation (see Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change for an examination of it and a praise of it and a way to work through it), I’m just noting that this is where it comes in.

In any event, after this nervous and visceral, slightly animalistic reaction (which happens to us all, I might note, me as much as anyone), this part of phase two often salvages itself by what David Perkins calls “bracketing,” or asking people to put aside objections to just float along in the happy land of possibilities for a bit longer. This simple move is surprisingly effective–who wouldn’t ride with Willy Wonka on the boat a bit just to see what happens? It’s also akin to the magical cape of the bullfighter. “I’m not going to argue with you about that thing you think,” you’re saying. “It might be right, who knows. I’m just asking you to imagine this very interesting thing over here . . .” Wave of cape. Bracketing comes in handy: without out you can’t keep going.

Keep going, that is, to the bricolage stage, where another fun thing happens: you start to look for ways to interweave reality and your idea. Outlets to plug your idea into; bits of spare fabric in which to clothe it. You ask “What do we have lying around that might be put to use? What existing knowledge, procedures, resources, ideas, experiences?”

Here to my eternal delight we get to have a Rumpelstiltskin moment and to transform mundane things into nifty things. Nifty because they buttress your new idea. Here we find resources forgotten, ideas never hatched, people’s skills untapped, cheap back-door strategies, etc. And we see how we can put them to use. It’s as if the unappreciated constellations reform themselves into new provocative shapes right on the faded star map and right in front of our eyes. This transmutation, repurposing, reuse, resuscitation, re-constellation of old stuff is just fun–addictive really–it might even be the main reason people ever want to do new things. Why? Maybe because it means the world is generative, restorative, salvageable; that there’s eternal capacity for creativity, growth, development. That we’re not actually after all trapped, doomed, predetermined, constrained, and locked in a pit of inescapable despair. Maybe because if you can re-associate the stuff around you, it means you’re alive. I’m not sure.

Anyhow, the end of phase two is marked by another particular kind of question that I love. This is the classic “What’s the first step?” Or the “What achievable thing can we practically do, now?” Key here for me is the now part–that is, doing that accessible thing right then. There does seem to be a kind of clock ticking. And there is the sense that if you don’t act, that bracket that temporarily held back all the objections to the idea will start to loose structural integrity like Star Trek shields, and will no longer be able to fend off the glittering blob of worry pressing in through the windows and under the doors.

But I won’t follow that thought, because here we are at the end of phase two. Of course once you do something, even just the first accessible step, you’re technically in phase three, doing, which I said I wouldn’t talk about. So ends my blog post: think about this phase the next time you set about doing something new, and see if you can’t see it at play.