How Do You Support a Community of Practice?

Here’s what we’ve learned from the experts — and how we’re applying that to Gather.

Graphic illustration by Nitya Wakhlu, produced at the Experience Engagement conference in October 2015.

hree decades ago, ethnographer Julian Orr decided to study how Xerox technicians fix photocopiers. Arcane, sure, but the findings were groundbreaking: Orr learned that Xerox technicians put limited faith in the company’s official repair manual, which often failed to account for non-routine malfunctions. Instead, technicians mastered their craft primarily by talking and collaborating with colleagues — their community of practice — whose on-the-ground “war stories” provided infinitely more value than the manual’s clinical diagnostics.[1]

Why start here? At the risk of overstretching a metaphor, it’s because we believe modern journalists are in fact technicians themselves, tasked with repairing the broken trust between news providers and the public. The established manual for this work, taught in journalism schools and enforced in newsrooms, instructs journalists to make determinations about what’s newsworthy, present “both sides” of an issue, and maintain a steely independence from the people and institutions they cover.

That manual served journalists and the public reasonably well in the pre-digital world, but in an age of fake news, filter bubbles, alternative facts, and hyperpartisan media, it’s increasingly coming up short, leaving journalist-technicians to innovate new trust-building strategies — like community engagement — to complement the old ones.

To help today’s journalist-technicians share knowledge and resources, the Agora Journalism Center is spearheading the development of Gather, a first-of-its-kind digital platform to support engaged journalism’s community of practice. As part of this process, we’ve been reading up about successful communities of practice and what makes them tick. Here’s a summary of what we learned — and how we’re applying that to Gather.

What is a community of practice?

One of our favorite definitions, from Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, describes communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

We also drew inspiration from Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging, which offers this gem about the building blocks of change-making communities: “Collective change,” he writes, “occurs when individuals and small diverse groups engage one another in the presence of many others doing the same. It comes from the knowledge that what is occurring in one space is similarly happening in other spaces… This is the value of a network, or even a network of networks, which is today’s version of a social movement.”[2]

Another defining feature of communities of practice is that they coalesce organically, as opposed to being created by executive edict. For example, World of Warcraft gamers who frequently play together, school teachers who teach the same subject, or hobbyists who build Model-T toy cars might all develop into communities of practice, even if their respective members share no formal affiliation.

This has certainly been true of engaged journalism’s community of practice. The members of this community hold different job titles, work in different towns and cities, and specialize in different types of engagement. But a sense of shared purpose has brought us together at events like Experience Engagement, The Engagement Summit, and the People-Powered Publishing Conference — and we hope will continue to bring us together on Gather.

What’s needed to support a community of practice?

Communities of practice might form of their own momentum, but it often takes some effort to keep them going and to maximize their impact. In their 2002 book Cultivating Communities of Practice, Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder outlined seven principles for supporting existing communities of practice.[3] Here’s how we’re thinking about them as we design Gather.

1. Design for evolution: Communities of practice need some boundaries, but they also need the freedom to evolve and pivot. And while it’s impossible to predict (or prescribe) how that evolution will unfold, it is possible to create an environment that supports it. As the authors write: “Physical structures — such as roads and parks — can precipitate the development of a town. Similarly, social and organizational structures, such as a community coordinator, or problem-solving meetings, can precipitate the evolution of a community.”

We see Gather as our community’s public square, where anyone can show up and participate in the development of new ideas, perspectives, and techniques. Gather’s community manager (that’s Joy) and curator (that’s Ben) will work to make the public square inviting and engaging, but its character will come from the members themselves, whose collective contributions will shape the community’s evolution.

2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives: Good community design, the authors explain, “brings information from outside the community into the dialogue about what the community could achieve.”

To the extent that we’re building Gather for a broad community of practice organized around community engagement, the “insider” and “outsider” distinctions aren’t all that relevant. However, we also see Gather as an example of Block’s “network of networks,” a digital hub where many narrower communities of practices can come together, interact, and learn from peers both within and beyond their specific areas of expertise. In this sense, every member of the platform will be an “insider” of the large community, even as they’re “outsiders” of many smaller ones.

3. Invite different levels of participation: In our preliminary stakeholder survey, one respondent offered this sage advice about case studies: “What people use is the executive summary. They look for the takeaways.”

It reminded us that journalists are busy people without much time to spare. They need high-value content, but they need it short and sweet.

As we build the platform, we’re looking to include features that invite both high and low participation. For the time-strapped editor with only five minutes to spare, there will be bite-sized content that’s tagged and curated for easy discovery. Meanwhile, for members with a need and desire to go deeper, there will be networking and collaboration opportunities, regular digital meetups, and tools that facilitate rich conversation.

4. Develop both public and private community spaces: Because it’s critical to our mission to spread engagement resources and best practices across the industry, most of the platform’s content will be available to all registered members.

However, FMYI’s technology also allows us to create private spaces on the platform for conversation and collaboration among subgroups. For example, if a community engagement editor wants to seek feedback on a project idea without revealing a draft to the entire world, or if a university professor wants to create a private discussion space for students, Gather will make that possible.

5. Focus on value: This one hardly needs explanation: People will only use Gather if it adds value to their work and their professional development. That’s why we started the project by surveying key stakeholders about their needs, and why we recruited a diverse pool of potential end users for our steering and advisory committees. Their input is helping us understand where existing platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Groups fall short, and where Gather can pick up the slack.

A screenshot from one of our steering committee’s Zoom calls earlier this year.

6. Combine familiarity and excitement: According to Wenger and his co-authors, communities of practice should be places “where people have the freedom to ask for candid advice, share their opinions, and try their half-baked ideas without repercussion.” That’s the familiarity part. The excitement, on the other hand, comes from injecting a supply of “divergent thinking and activity” that shakes up the community’s regular routines.

One way we plan to maintain excitement is by continuing to organize in-person conferences and workshops like Experience Engagement. Community members asked for more events in this mold, so we’ve lined up an exciting schedule for 2017, including the four-day Elevate Engagement un-conference in Portland in May, as well as three workshops, which will be hosted in Detroit, Charlotte, and Boulder this summer and fall.

7. Create a rhythm for the community: While in-person events help the community maintain a rhythm from year to year, we also want the platform to facilitate routines and connections from week to week. One idea is to organize regular “Lightning Chats” that allow members to host a video call and seek input on a challenge they’re tackling. Another is to create a set of newsletters featuring the week’s best reading on engagement, the latest engagement-related research, and lists of upcoming events and workshops.

We’re excited to keep developing these ideas with our steering and advisory committees, but we also want to hear from you. What content or community networking event would be so valuable that you wouldn’t dare miss it? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll follow up!

How does technology fit in?

In 2012, NYU professor Christopher Hoadley outlined four techniques for using technology to support communities of practice: link people with similar practices, provide a shared repository of information resources, support communication, and provide information context.[4]

Communities of practice, including ours, already use technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google Groups, and Slack to serve these functions — but we’ve found there are some gaps in what they provide. Here’s how we anticipate Gather will help fill them.

1. Link people with similar practices: Members of our community of practice currently connect primarily through Facebook Groups, including Engaged Journalism, Social Journalism, and Experience Engagement, just to name a few.

The challenge with Facebook Groups is that (a) there are so darn many of them, (b) they can be hard to find through organic searches, (c) they don’t allow for cross-pollination, despite the many overlaps, (d) they only present posts in reverse chronological order, so you mostly only see the users who post a lot, and (e) they don’t encourage subgroups to form around specific or temporal interests.

The goal for Gather is to be both more fluid AND more focused than a Facebook Group. If you’re diving into engagement for the first time, for example, Gather will allow you to browse resources and discussions that span the spectrum of engagement, from comments to community events. But if you’re an experienced veteran who wants to bounce ideas around with three or four trusted colleagues, or who’s looking to develop a collaborative project between newsrooms on opposite coasts, Gather will have you covered, too. (In fact, companies like Nike are already using FMYI’s software for project management and communication, so we expect that feature set to be a major strength.)

2. Provide a shared repository of information resources: One of the main findings from our research last summer is that members of our community of practice want access to “resources that are curated, tagged, and searchable.” That’s hard to do on Facebook and Twitter, where only the very latest posts are visible, and the search functions only allow content discovery if you know exactly what you’re looking for.

On Gather, the case studies, articles, research studies, and other content will be tagged and curated. In fact, two of our steering committee members have already started devising a tagging system that will allow users to search for content by engagement type, experience level, media type, and other criteria. The goal is to create a repository where anyone can quickly see “what’s new,” but also find the oldies-but-goodies that are worth coming back to again and again.

3. Support communication: For people who currently use Slack for communication, many of Gather’s features, including threaded comments, subgroupings, and targeted notifications, will seem familiar. But there will also be some fresh twists. For one, FMYI’s platform allows users to create tasks, which can be assigned to collaborators and accompanied with an email alert and reminder. The messaging system also integrates with email, so users can respond to messages on the platform without leaving their inbox.

Because we recognize that conversation is what really holds a community together, we’re working with FMYI to make the communication tools even more seamless before our public launch this spring. From there, we’ll count on your feedback to make it even better.

4. Provide information context: To illustrate this function of technology, Hoadley gives the example of an online bookstore (think Amazon), which “might provide automated recommendations that would help a member of a community uncover what sorts of books are typically read by the same people.”

We’ll be honest — providing information context at Amazon’s scale is going to be a tough hurdle to clear, especially in this initial design phase. But we are working on some more basic features, like the ability to link the site’s “featured projects” with profile pages of the practitioners who are working on them.

Community of Practice Reading List

In case you’re dying to learn more about communities of practice, here are citations for the books referenced above, along with some other handy links:

[1] Orr, Julian E. Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.

[2] Block, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

[3] Wenger, Etienne, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

[4] Hoadley, Christopher. “What is a community of practice and how can we support it?” In Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (Second ed.), edited by David Jonassen & Susan Land. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Bonus Reading:

The Role of Communities of Practice in a Digital Age by Tony Bates

What are Communities of Practice: A Critical Review of Four Seminal Works by Andrew Cox

FAQs: Social Learning, Communities, and Networks by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner

The Community of Practice Platform for Engaged Journalism (aka Gather) is a project of the Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. Project funders include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.

Stubborn believer in local news and occasional writer of words about media.