Why every learning organization needs a strong community of practice, especially now.
Communities of practice have an important role in our current moment, particularly in the field of learning. Educators, mentors, and instructors of all stripes are reinventing their practice right now: everything is, in some way, a new approach, and everyone is trying things to see what might work. There are no true “experts” to look to for models or strategy or best practices yet; the only way we can learn is by sharing with each other. Therefore, communities of practice are more important than ever.
What defines a community of practice?
CoPs have been around forever — in fact, you’ve probably been a part of one at some point. They can exist in any field and have taken root in the education arena. In a CoP, the practice is dynamic, everyone is a learner, and the community acts as a living curriculum. The theory behind them is simple, and yet, CoPs not only help the practice of the members, they often contribute to building a field at the same time.
While CoPs can look vastly different, all of them are defined by three characteristics:
- Members have a shared domain of interest. A domain is not just a network of people or a club of friends. Membership implies a commitment to the domain.
- Members are part of a community. Members of a specific domain interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, and exchange information/resources with each other. They build relationships that enable them to work together and learn from each other.
- Members are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources such as stories, helpful tools, experiences, and ways of handling typical problems.
A community of practice can be formal or informal, small or large, and can develop the practice of its members through all sorts of activities, including virtual ones.
A Deck of Lenses: Using play to build a strong and vibrant community of practice
When it comes to the communities we are already a part of, whether formal or informal, big or small, how might we optimize our structures to ensure the greatest impact for members?
If we are walking the walk of a CoP, we are sourcing opinions, strategies, and approaches from the members themselves. CoPs are impactful, in large part, because they harness the expertise, strategies, and experience of the members to elevate the practice of everyone involved. Therefore, it makes sense to use these same assets to strengthen the structures of a CoP from within.
But that doesn’t mean the process can’t also be playful. In 2019, we had the privilege of working with Chicago Learning Exchange to cultivate its existing community of practice. We created an activity called Community of Practice: A Deck of Lenses., a remix inspired by The Art of Game Design, We designed cards that allowed the members themselves to define what made the community strong and what could make it even stronger. Giving each group a simple, focused prompt to discuss allowed folks to dive deep into important considerations without being overwhelmed by the task of improving every aspect of the work. After a time discussing their assigned cards, each group had the chance to walk around and see what other groups had discussed, and were invited to add ideas, questions, and feedback to each poster.
As it turned out, people had a lot to say! A complex set of ideas emerged from simple cards, along with increased ownership and stake in the path forward for those who participated.
For example, this card asked the group to think about the CoP through the lens of the problems the community solves. Simply having the chance to list out and debate the wide variety of problems that the community addresses is a powerful exercise. Members had a variety of viewpoints on which were the central problems being solved by their common community. That gave way to a rich discussion about how to encompass everyone’s ideas within a broadly defined set of problems, as well as an exercise in defining the best approaches for the members to be ready to respond to and address new problems being faced by the community.
There are myriad ways to use our CoP Decks of Lenses cards, both in person and virtually. Today, the learning needs of educators, both formal and informal, are shifting at alarming rates. Our Deck of Lenses is one of the many ways Convergence helps support communities of practice.
By offering powerful strategies for generating critical new knowledge, we help people transform their practice and adjust to ongoing changes across our learning ecosystems.
Check out more stories and resources below and don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more about how we might help you strengthen your CoP.
Convergence Design Lab is a 100% woman-owned, full service research and design agency on a mission to build resilient learning ecosystems.