How do you build a community of practice?

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I’ve just finished teaching this year’s PGCert in Creative Education at UCA. Quite a few of the participants have expressed an interest in continuing to engage with the course culture (which hopefully suggests they had a good experience…).

Through my work with the Quality of Experience Company (QoE), we’re also looking to deepen engagement with our members. The reason is the same as the above – members find what we do useful, and would potentially value the opportunity to engage with us (and with each other).

Both of these challenges suggest a need to create and sustain a professional community. Which sounds relatively easy, but how do you do it?

Richard Millington points out that a community must provide four fundamental things:

  1. A sense of belonging: a succcessful community provides a place where members can truly be themselves, and gives them a strong feeling of being included in a group.
  2. Mutual support: members receive support from people who are knowledgeable and willing to offer guidance. This can help members discover new opportunities and resources that they otherwise migth not have been able to access.
  3. Greater influence: participating in a community gives members greater influence that they could have by themselves, and this in turn generates high levels of self-efficaty and self-worth.
  4. Exploration: by working with others, members are able to explore new ideas, resources and experiences collectively in a way that is much more effective than exploring alone. Importantly, this can lead to crowd accelerated innovation.

 

 

A useful theory to support this is Wenger’s theory of Communities of Practice, which has gained a lot of traction in both education and business environments over the last twenty years. Essentially, the theory proposes that we participate in a large number of communities of practice during our lifetime, and that much of our learning comes from (and happens in) these communities. The theory states that a successful community needs to provide ‘joint activities and discussions’ for its members. So let’s break this down.

Discussions: you could be forgiven for thinking that creating discussion in a community is easy. But discussions have to be both relevant and timely, and respond to the changing needs of community members. Millington notes that a key strategy for providing effective discussions is to interview members regularly, so that you can find out the topics, issues and questions that they want to discuss. This is fundamentally important, as it shifts the emphasis of the community from being ‘about me’ to ‘about you’, and gives members a greater sense of ownership of the community.

Joint activities: this aspect of Wenger’s theory is often overlooked. While many communities provide a place for discussion, far fewer offer the opportunity for members to get involved in creating or doing something for the community. Examples of joint activities might be putting together an event such as a conference, creating an artefact such as a manifesto, picture, proposal, podcast or video. Providing the opportunity for members to contribute to a joint activity enables them to share their knowledge and skills, and does a great deal to strengthen their emotional investment in the community.

Do you have an example of where you’ve had a great experience in a community? Feel free to share it below, I’d love to hear it.


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