Tag Archives: sharing

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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Deciduous Scissors

11 Jun

We recently made up a game called Curly Cravings for our grandmother for her birthday.

Here’s how it works. You make three teams. Your team is given a noun, an adjective, and a problem randomly selected from hats filled with pre-populated items of the respective categories written on slips of paper by players in advance. You’re required to conceive of a solution to the problem you draw that makes use of the noun and the adjective you draw. You then give your solution to another team, who draws a picture of it, and then to a third team, who dances it. All the while, you’re drawing and dancing other people’s ideas, too. At the end you have a “Curly Craving,” which is the 3-part combination of an idea, a picture, and a dance.

For more information, here’s a link to the instructions; and the “Picto-Instructions” image from those instructions is below. Note: the instructions make intentional use of alternate English spelling conventions adapted by our game-development team.

By way of example, in the legendary first game, one team was asked to solve the problem “Keep People From Killing the Animals” using the adjective-noun team “Slippery Eyeball.” The solution involved a rapidly moving eyeball keeping watch on all would-be animal killers, and flashing them to sleep with a powerful wink method immediately prior to the act of killing, at which point the animals would escape. We’ve lost the remarkable picture drawn of this solution, but we remember still the actor in the role of an wild, but gentle, animal grazing contentedly, the actor playing “Eye” and his dramatic wink, the actor playing a hunter overwhelmed by drowsiness even while in the very midst of aiming his rifle.

Some things I like about the game:
  • It’s an exercise in constrained problem solving. You inherit problems and try to solve them with components you have no real control over the selection of. In this way it’s like life.
  • It makes you creative. You put together things that generally don’t belong, which is the essence of creativity. “Deciduous Scissors,” one such unlikely combo, was a favorite noun-adjective pairing from another past instantiation of the game. There’s a mad-libs-like, surreal quality to the combinations and the solutions developed from them that helps people escape, as it were, from the dictatorship of conventional psycho-realism and its social restrictions, fixed attitudes, beliefs, group think, anxieties.
  • You care about other people’s ideas. You receive the ideas of other people, and you interpret them by drawing. You interpret someone else’s interpretation by dancing. This has a funny way of making you feel like the solutions are part of you, too. In this way Curly Cravings draws on the core power of other idea-sharing structures, like World Café facilitation methodology.
  • Memory is engaged. You’ll never forget a Curly Craving once you’ve drawn it, danced it, or seen it danced or drawn. Something about seeing my friend Richard (name changed to protect her identity), for example, embodying the role of a Deciduous Scissors as it “healed” a Rusted Combine-Harvester (played by me) will never allow itself to be forgot.
  • It’s inclusive. Curly Cravings uses verbal, visual, and kinesthetic thinking. As such people of almost any age and learning style can be involved.
  • Nobody wins. Even though the instructions say “vote on best” at Step 6, everyone essentially wins, because they’ve contributed part of each solution or its representation. Also, by the time you get to voting, everyone has had to dance, which serves as a kind of positive cathartic moment. After the dance, the voting is an emotional denouement and nothing more.

But the thing I like about it the most? It’s very much unlike work.

In the average workplace we generally don’t dance, draw, or combine unusual things. We generally don’t hand off our naked new ideas to others for safekeeping, nor do we act as stewards for someone else’s thoughts. On the contrary: new ideas are more likely seen as destabilizing threats to our status quo that we mush squash or commandeer.

The world, however, is slowing realizing that workplaces which overly reinforce a status quo are at a disadvantage in a context of change, when learning, experimentation, and risk are all to be foregrounded. We’re realizing we need more ways of developing new insights, creative solutions, and unexpected combinations, as silly as they may at first seem; and we need to treat these insights and sometimes-crazy thoughts, these Slippery Eyeballs, as carefully as we might treat babies, because they might just grow into the bold strategic plans that reinvent our work and reshape our industry, etc.

Use Curly Cravings at work? That sounds crazy . . . until, that is, you imagine yourself replacing the random problems like “Keep People from Killing the Animals” with an equally difficult problem that’s relevant to your work, or until you imagine replacing the randomly-chosen nouns and adjectives with resource components you have in place at work or skills your staff happen to have, etc. Then you begin to see that the solutions people playing this game might develop could be the kind of thing that helps you rethink the way you do work. It might even be the kind of place you would think of adding the “repeat” to lather and rinse (to refer to a famous case of creative problem-solving in the shampoo industry).

So maybe we won’t see Curly Cravings itself, but I suspect we’ll see a proliferation of similar kinds of simple processes designed to help us conceive of and honor new ideas. And won’t they be fun to play? I hope they keep the dancing part.