ISSUE 3 - Community

Communities of practice. A case study

community

The memory of how it all started is still very much vivid. I was one year in my new role as Retail L&D Manager at Ace & Tate, and my manager told me during one of our weekly catch-ups: “I don’t have the L&D expertise to support you, but you could try to find and […]

The memory of how it all started is still very much vivid. I was one year in my new role as Retail L&D Manager at Ace & Tate, and my manager told me during one of our weekly catch-ups: “I don’t have the L&D expertise to support you, but you could try to find and connect with other professionals who, just like you, run the department alone. You know: to share best practices and learn from each other.”

Ok, this might not have been his exact words, but you get the idea. And I remember thinking: why haven’t I thought about this before? The very same week, I turned to LinkedIn and cold-messaged L&D professionals working in and around Amsterdam, and a fantastic bunch replied.

Fast forward one year later, and we are more than 450 members, connecting, sharing, and learning on LinkedIn and Slack. We organize by-weekly events and have recently launched our dearest project so far: free coaching sessions for any L&D professional finding themselves at a personal or professional crossroad.

This is the story of the L&D SHAKERS community for L&D professionals on a mission to spice learning up. I will share what we have learned so far, and I will make a case for the competitive advantage created by nurturing communities of practice within a company.

What are communities of practice (CoP)? 

A CoP is an informal group of people bound together by a shared commitment to a domain of knowledge that they care about and similar work activities (Millen, Fontaine, & Muller, 2002). Members’ primary purpose is to develop their skills and capabilities by building and sharing collective knowledge (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). 

These communities are self-organizing groups of motivated and engaged practitioners that stay in contact for long periods without having an end-date in mind. A community is never ‘done’ – they are in constant change, permanently evolving. These ad hoc groups remain active thanks to their members who enjoy the benefits that come with belonging to such a community: developing their skills and competencies, getting involved in new professional networks, developing their expert identity relative to that particular domain, accessing the community’s resources, and so on.

Wenger (1999) talks about three essential characteristics of CoP: 

wegner-CoP

Besides sharing the same domain and practice, there is one other thing that members of a CoP need to have in common: a willingness to learn continuously and the motivation to take their development into their own hands.

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyer (2002) had captured the very essence of communities of practice when they wrote: “These people don’t necessarily work together every day, but they meet because they find value in their interactions. As they spend time together, they typically share information, insight, and advice. They help each other solve problems. They discuss their situations, their aspirations, and their needs. They ponder common issues, explore ideas, and act as sounding boards. They may create tools, standards, generic designs, manuals, and other documents—or they may simply develop a tacit understanding that they share.[…] Over time, they develop a unique perspective on their topic as well as a body of common knowledge, practices, and approaches. They also develop personal relationships and established ways of interacting. They may even develop a common sense of identity. They become a community of practice.” 

Learning theories and communities of practice 

Several other learning theories support how learning occurs within a community of practice. 

Constructivism 

Constructivism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, backed up by Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner’s earlier work, and continued to evolve in the 20th century thanks to the pioneering work of Vygotsky. In a nutshell, constructivism states that knowledge is not merely acquired but constructed. Learners take pieces of knowledge and put them together in their unique way, shaped by previous knowledge, experiences, beliefs. Each person “constructs” something different when compared to others. Constructivism sees learning as a very active, contextual, and social process. 

Social Learning Theory 

In 1963, Bandura and Walters first used the term social learning to indicate that most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: we observe others and encode the information that will serve as a guide for later action.

Action Learning Theory

Introduced by Professor Reginald Revans in 1980, action learning theory affirms that, to learn, individuals need to engage in activities and experiences and tackle real issues with real consequences. Learning happens through repeated concrete actions and not through traditional teaching methods.

Experiential Learning Theory 

Proposed by David Kolb in 1984, experiential learning states that people learn best by immersing themselves voluntarily in an experience, reflecting on that experience afterward, and then conceptualizing what happened and making decisions to solve other similar problems using the newly acquired knowledge and capability.

Adult Learning Theory and Lifelong Learning 

Malcom Knowles (1984) talks about andragogy, and he puts forward the idea that adults are self-directed and are taking responsibility for their learning. According to Knowles, there are a couple of principles that we need to consider when designing learning experiences for adults: (1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something (2) Adults need to learn through experiences, (3) Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and (4) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate relevance to their job or personal life.

The L&D SHAKERS journey from one person to 450 members today

The kick-off

Right after I ventured on my LinkedIn search for like-minded people that would be willing to share and learn from each other, we had our first informal get-together. Over lunch, we have shared our vision about this community, we defined what “value” means for each of us, and we agreed on some ground rules that we have shared with everyone unable to attend: 

  • Invite other L&D of HR professionals that could add value through their experience.
  • Meeting once every month – the host will prepare a short keynote on L&D relevant topics and will facilitate the session.
  • Have longer meet-ups allowing us to deep-dive into a specific topic.
  • Mix and match session formats: keynote, discussion, case study, short workshop, resource sharing, etc. 

Lessons learned:

Everyone had a slightly different view of how this community should unfold, but everyone emphasized the value of genuine and raw discussions around common challenges we face.

The initial momentum 

We realized quite early that we needed to better define the type of sessions going further so that the members would know what to expect out of each meet-up. We wanted to steer away from the typical webinar session when someone shares a piece of knowledge that the rest are passively absorbing and move towards creating the space for social learning through open discussion, collective knowledge building, and best practice sharing. 

Together with Moniek Suren (Employee Experience Manager at WeTransfer), my partner in crime from day one, we came up with two types of events to kick us started: 

  1. L&D brainstorming workshop: a two-hour-long Intervision session, where groups of 5 would gather and take turns to present one real challenge they are facing. The group would brainstorm ideas and advise the person in the ‘spotlight.’
  2. Deep Dive session: a four-hour-long session (including networking over lunch) during which members would discuss two main topics more in detail, sharing best practices, ideas, resources. 

We immediately tested both types of events and gathered feedback on whether the format was meeting everyone’s expectations or not, and we have done minor tweaks based on what we have learned.

It was about this time that we have decided to create a Slack workplace as a companion to our LinkedIn group, to allow for a more fluid and structured way of communicating. 

Lessons learned:

  • Identify early on who are the community drivers: those members that will keep the momentum and nurture the community by orchestrating events, shepherding initiatives, and engaging with the other members meaningfully and regularly. 
  • Thinking together about real-life problems that people genuinely care about constitutes the core of a community of practice. Knowledge is collectively built rather than simply transferred from one person to another.
  • Critically analyze the first events together with all the attending members, and don’t be afraid to ask them: Is this what you expected from this session? What didn’t work? What could be improved and how? Iterate as fast and often as you need to based on the feedback you receive. 

The turning point 

Right after the first events, Covid-19 hit Europe, and several countries entered lockdown. It soon became apparent that if we wanted to continue riding the momentum wave, we needed to move the sessions online as quickly as possible. 

Moniek and I felt that this was the perfect moment to gather the community and involve the interested members in shaping our next steps. We knew that moving a community of (back then) 80 members forward would require more brains and hands than what the two of us could give. 

And that’s what we did: we facilitated three co-creation sessions with the purpose of co-designing the community guidelines together with anyone willing to take this journey with us. We guided the members through the “purpose-to-action” liberating structure and ended up with a blueprint of our community foundation that still stands today: 

  • The community purpose and why do we exist;
  • The people we would like to attract as members as we advance;
  • The structure of the community (“Core Team” to steer the long-term vision, “Event Catalysts” to organize and manage the logistics around each type of event, and the “Event Team” to support the catalysts and coordinate every new project the community comes up with).
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By the time we finished this co-creation process, we were already 100 members, organizing bi-weekly virtual events. Members were becoming more and more active, asking questions and sharing ideas on LinkedIn and Slack. 

Lessons learned:

  • The community doesn’t belong to one person, and it belongs to the members that want to get actively involved and shape the space where they plan to learn new skills and expand their practice. 
  • Create the opportunity for co-creation as often as possible. Brainstorm ways to add value, whether through events, networking, collaborative projects, community optimization, and so on. 
  • After each session, harvest the main take-ways and decisions and communicate them to everyone unable to attend.

L&D Shakers today

During the past few months, the community started to grow at a very fast pace, and it now attracts more new members than it ever did. We believe several factors contributed to this growth:

  1. As we kept growing, it became clear that engaging the new members was becoming harder. That prompted us to prepare a one-pager with the community guidelines, which we send together with a personalized welcome message to each new member. We now see new members more active on LinkedIn and Slack and joining events during their first month. 
  2. Mid-January 2021, we have launched our “Coaching for L&D” project. Since then, our 16 community Coaches have offered more than 60 free coaching sessions to L&D professionals that needed guidance while under the supervision of Lena Nasiakou (Core Team member, Event Team Manager, and Coach Supervisor). The reverb created by this project on social media attracted many new members that have identified themselves with the value of giving back and supporting each other through hard times. I am so incredibly proud and humbled by our Coaches’ feedback.
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  1. Our LinkedIn and Slack collaboration forums are very active – members ask questions, come up with solutions, share their experience, plan short calls with each other to exchange ideas. To know that whatever problem you have or challenge you are facing, there is someone within the community that can give you a hand. It’s priceless!
  2. Like clockwork, our event catalysts, under the guidance of the Event Team, manage to organize by-weekly events rotating between:
L&D Shakers Core Team
  • ThoughtLab is a webinar/ workshop series where internal and external experts facilitate a session on a topic of relevance.
  • Playground is the space where we experiment, try new tools out, dare to make mistakes, and receive candid feedback from participants.
  • Intervison is a peer-coaching event where everyone brings a challenge they are currently facing and leaves the event with actionable advice from the other three L&D peers.
  • Learning clusters are informal learning groups brought to life by members interested in exploring one concrete topic with other professionals. 
  • Networking Event – we are launching a monthly networking event to bring people together and ease new members’ interaction in the broader community.
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Lessons learned:

  • As a community builder, know when to step away from the forefront and make space for other motivated members willing to facilitate engagement within the community. Know when to let go and hold space for others. 
  • Make new members feel welcome and guide their first interactions within the community: invite them to Slack, share the community guidelines, the next event, the current projects, and match them with another member they would benefit from getting to know. 
  • As a community, we need to find ways to capture, share and organize the tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, links to resources, and everything that reflects our shared experience. 
  • Being an active part of a community of practice creates a shared learning commitment between members. Even a good conversation can create accountability, as the members are held to the expectation of domain relevance, and they can’t just drift away into unrelated topics. 
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We have many plans for 2021, and I am confident that the L&D Shakers will have a more significant reach and a bigger impact than ever before. Stay tuned! 

Why companies should foster communities of practice within, and some implications to consider 

Knowledge, especially tacit one, has long become an asset that drives competitive advantage. Retaining employees who can generate and implement innovative ideas has become one of today’s companies’ top priorities. Rapid technological advances increase the complexity of knowledge and demand more specialization while decreasing the half-life of knowledge. We need to learn and unlearn at unprecedented speed if we want to keep pace with the changes.

Companies need to identify what knowledge is crucial for strategic business areas. They need to find ways to keep this knowledge up-to-date and flowing throughout the organization. Communities of practice might offer the solution to this challenge for at least two reasons:

  • Employees feel enabled to acquire and manage the knowledge and skills they need.
  • Learning happens on the job and directly impacts employee’s performance. 

Personal benefits from a community of practice include professional development activities such as learning new tools, methods, and procedures; accessibility to other professionals in their fields; and a better understanding of what others are doing in the organization (Millen et al., 2002). Moreover, Lesser and Storck (2001) performed a case study based on seven organizations and identified four outcomes associated with communities of practice: (1) decreased learning curve; (2) increased customer responsiveness; (3) reduction in the amount of rework; and (4) increased innovation.

If their value is being proven repeatedly, why don’t we see more successful communities of practice within organizations? 

The same characteristics that make communities of practice an excellent enabler for knowledge transfer and creation (self-governance, informality, voluntary engagement, crossing boundaries) also make them a challenge for traditional hierarchical organizational structures. They cannot be ‘set up’ and imposed from outside; they need to be carefully nurtured. Without voluntary participation, members will be less likely to seek, share or create knowledge, build trust with others or even apply the community’s knowledge in practice. 

The more we learn from what sets thriving communities apart from others, the higher our chance to truly make them work within organizations. What motivates people to become members? Why did they stay engaged and actively contributed? What are they gaining out of this? 

In 2015, Lee, Reinicke, Sarkan, and Anderson set out to theorize a participation intensity model in two project managers’ communities of practice. Here’s what they have found: 

Member’s participation intensity was strongly predicted by the intrinsic motivator of enjoyment, the extrinsic motivator of reputation enhancement that comes with knowledge sharing, and the support members received from their manager to engage within the community. 

There was no statistical evidence between participation intensity and individual rewards (improved job security, better promotion opportunities, better work assignments, or job performance reviews), nor between participation intensity and the extent to which the organization values the community of practice.

Pyrko, Dörfler, and Eden (2017) analyzed two communities of practice within the UK National Health Service in their quest to find out what makes CoP work. In a nutshell, here is what they learned can make or break anyone’s endeavor to enable a CoP within their company:

  • The community resources, interactions, and conversations need to provide members with an immediate value that can justify their time involvement.
  • The topics around which engagement is built need to relate to specific problems and challenges that members face in their daily work. Identify some key issues and hot topics relevant to the organization and that the members clearly care about.
  • Start with a small team of 5 experts that can start to model the behavior that members could adopt once they join the community. As a company, create and hold the space that allows this core group to be organically seen as a competent group where learning is being translated into practice so that others might see already value in joining them.
  • Instead of attempting to control what’s happening within the community, the core team can take the role of non-judgemental peer-mentors who support other employees within the company in developing their knowledge about their domain in practice. Let members identify the focus of their collaboration and what needs to happen for them to find value in these interactions.
  • Include the members in the design process. Or even better: let them design their activities within a structured framework. The key is to start with small activities, embrace what works for them, and remove or tweak the activities that do not work.
  • Be mindful of the image you are promoting for the community discussion forum (whether that’s Slack or your intranet). Suppose members perceive that space as a one-way communication path, where the norm is soaking up knowledge others are sharing rather than actively building conversations. In that case, members will always look up to the community managers’ participation in that space, with little engagement from their side.

Companies that have successfully created communities of practice within and how they have pulled it off. 

Shell has created 13 communities of practice that encompass more than 10,000 users. Anyone who wants to build a new CoP within Shell receives a consultant’s support to interview potential members. They look at common challenges and problems across units and teams that could serve as the base for the community. Besides being a means to collect information, these interviews also generate excitement and enthusiasm for the newly formed community. The second step is for the community coordinator to gather all the members to discuss what activities will build individual and group capabilities and advance the company’s strategic plan.

The chairman of the American Management Systems (AMS) personally invited “thought leaders” nominated by their business units to lead internal communities of practice as the primary way to leverage knowledge within the company. Being a community member at AMS is a privilege, and joining one is possible only if their managers have recognized them as experts. To remain a member, everyone has to complete one knowledge development project per year (e.g., documenting best practices). Their business units cover the participation costs to workshops and their annual CoP conference.

At the World Bank, key people across the organization can take the initiative to create communities of practice. They attend a so-called Community Management Training and receive extensive guidance on setting up and nurturing the community. (find their general guide here). Membership is open, and everyone decides on the level of participation that suits their needs. Each community receives funds for specific activities and manage their own budgets. 

In the context of organizations, Wenger and Snyder (2000) conclude that communities of practice “should not be created in a vacuum. In most cases, informal networks of people with the ability and the passion to further develop an organization’s core competencies already exist. The task is to identify such groups and help them come together as communities of practice.” Managers (or L&D departments, for that matter) cannot merely commission communities of practice. Instead, they should focus on “. . .bringing the right people together, providing an infrastructure in which communities can thrive, and measuring the communities’ value in nontraditional ways.” And that is the real challenge.