Leadership Challenge #1

Provocative Question #1 

How are groups and communities of practice (CoPs) different?  How are they alike?  So what?  What now?

Step 1. Prepare for an on-line Conversation

Quotes from the book Page number
 Participation here refers not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certain people, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities.  4
 By associating practice with community, I am not arguing that everything anybody might call a community is defined by practice or has a practice that is specific to it; nor that everything anybody might call practice is the defining property of a clearly specifiable community. A residential neighborhood, for instance, is often called “the community” but it is usually not a community of practice.  72
 Membership in a community of practice is therefore a matter of mutual engagement. That is what defines the community. A community of practice is not just an aggregate of people defined by some characteristic. The term is not a synonym for group, team, or network.  73-74
 The second characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the negotiation of a joint enterprise. I will make three points about he enterprise that keeps a community of practice together.

  1. It is the result of a collective process of negotiation that reflects the full complexity of mutual engagement.
  2. It is defined by the participants in the very process of pursuing it…
  3. It… creates among participants relations of mutual accountability that become an integral part of the practice
 The third characteristic of practice as a source of community is the development of a shared repertoire. Over time, the joint pursuit of an enterprise creates resources for negotiating meaning.  82
 … communities of practice can be thought of as shared histories of learning. (emphasis his)  86
 On the other hand, an institutional boundary does not necessarily outline a community of practice. Careful scrutiny of its day-to-day existence may reveal that a work group, classroom, committee, or neighborhood does not actually constitute a community of practice. It may consist of multiple communities of practice, or it may not have developed enough of a practice of its own.  119
On the one hand, a community of practice is a living context that can give newcomes access to competence and also invite a personal experience of engagement by which to incorporate that competence into an identity of participation. When these conditions are in place, communities of practice are a privileged locaus for the acquisition of knowledge. On the other hand, a well-functioning community of practice is a good context to explore radically new insights without becoming fools or stuck in some dead end. A history of mutual engagement around a joint enterprise is an ideal context for this kind of leading-edge learning, which requires a strong bod of communial competence along with a deep respect for the particularity of experience. When these conditions are in place, communities of practice are a priviledged locaus for the creation of knowledge. a 214

 Applications from workplace setting:

One group to which I belong is, I believe, in the process of being transformed from a simple group into a community of practice. Perhaps I should say, after reading this text, I suspect that the group leader is attempting to put into place reificative structures that help us feel more connected to each other by communifying our practices. This group is the “Academic Unit Heads” (AUHs), who are essentially the department heads for all of the academic departments on campus. There are probably 30 or so AUHs, who are responsible for certain duties but who have wide leeway in how to practice those duties. We have a new Associate Vice Provost, who has been working on developing things like a manual (extremely helpful for codification of expectations, forms, timelines, etc.), and a subgroup for new AUHs. In the past this group met twice a semester to hear presentations from campus entities like the Office of International Programs and the General Education Committee. There was no expectation of shared enterprise or mutual engagement, unless individuals chose to do so. I see the AVP starting to change this – or starting to try.

I think that one of the things I’ve struggled with in my management role is that I have wanted groups to be communities of practice that are actually in small constellations with each other. My first department at JMU was the science library, which consisted of the science librarians (5 faculty) and the service point (6 staff plus a lot of part-time staff and student workers). The department claimed they wanted closer connections across both groups, but no matter what I did it just didn’t work. I see now that the practice of the librarians and of the staff was fundamentally different. Since our renovation we’ve merged the various departments with subject librarians together (this is my current department), and the various departments with service points together. Nurturing community among the librarians is proving to be more successful, which suddenly now makes sense. In my work as the Associate Dean (with these two departments, plus two additional, smaller, ones), it’s very helpful to think of these departments as forming a small constellation within the larger constellations of LET (the unit) and JMU (the university). This implies needs for boundary-crossing at several levels.


Step 2. Hold an on-line Conversation

Notes on the fishbowl: 

  • Using same first quote (or one close to it) as same as chosen above (pp 4-5), interpreted as “a group doesn’t involve practice, but a community of practice would.” This means that while a group doesn’t have to actually do anything, a CofP couples “thinking and [purposeful] doing” in achievement of a shared communal purpose. They don’t just do things, they do them together and for a reason.
  • Reference to basic definition on p. 73 – CofPs are involved in mutual engagement, shared repertoire, and joint enterprise. This is also related to being involved in important mutual activity. But there’s also learning that happens here, which isn’t necessarily the case in groups. Groups may be brief in duration, not complex problem-solving, routine kinds of matters.
  • How does the figure on p. 73 relate to the cohort in the online EdD program? Are we currently a group that could become a CofP? To what extent do we share a joint enterprise? We have individual goals for what to get out of this program, but what joint goals do we have? Also thinking about the creation of shared repertoire through this program – faculty are external to this over the program, since they’re “newbies” each semester.
  • P. 96 – differ from task forces or teams – these accomplish a task and then move on. Communities are different because of durability and creation of cameraderie.
  • To what extent are doctoral faculty a CofP? Search committees aren’t – they’re created for one purpose, and when they’re done, they disband. This program has courses that are coordinated closely from one semester to another and within semesters, which gives the complexity, durability, shared enterprise, space for shared learning about the program, etc. that support the doctoral faculty as a CofP.
  • pp 125-126: 14 criteria for CofP. Don’t have to have all fourteen. #7: knowing what others know… #11: local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter. These suggest knowing each other over time.

Thoughts on the fishbowl:

The idea of the need for a duration of working together over time is one that I think is really interesting, and that I think Wenger could have leaned on a little more heavily. I think about, for instance, the pop-up search committees at my current institution as not being CofPs (in line with the example above), but the standing search committee in my previous institution might have been. The work done was similar, but in the standing committee we developed our own durable materials, welcomed in new members and grieved the loss (figurative) of ones who left, etc.


Step 3. Determine your Leadership Challenge

These next few weeks I want to work with my fellow department heads to identify the communities of practice within our unit (which may or may not align with department boundaries) and to start mapping out the boundary crossing relationships that currently exist and that we want to create. We’ve started this process but thinking about communication flow – I want to recast the conversation in the frame of communities of practice.


Step 4. Implement and Reflect


(see next post)


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