Can you build a learning community or must it grow?

Last weekend, I found myself at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. This area was built in the early 2000s on the site of the old Sydney Showground. It was designed to be a new recreation and entertainment hub for eastern Sydney but last Saturday, when I saw the empty shops and not that many people, I was reminded of an invited presentation I gave at a professional conference many years ago about whether you can artificially create communities of practice or whether they need to grow organically. My presentation argued that, although you can create a learning and networking community, it needs a lot of guidance and facilitation to be kept up and running. In contrast, in my experience, a community which has grown organically through a particular project, learning need,m or professional affiliation tends to be more self-sufficient.

Using the title “community of practice” is somewhat problematic since it has multiple meanings in current work and learning practice. On the one hand there is the original meaning proposed in the theory of peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger (1991). The original learning theory argues that a community of practice is a group of people who share a common interest and learn through regular interaction. Lave and Wenger (1991) go on to say that the way in which people learn is through participation in multiple communities where they are at first “peripheral” in that they are on the margins of the group, learning how it works, learning basic skills and so on. As people learn they become more and more part of the group. The community is just as much about how the community interacts and the norms of the group as it is about the learning aspect. Communities of practice have also been widely adopted in corporate learning and development as a less formal learning approach which is more social and better aligned with how learning really occurs at work (i.e. through participation). Such groups are often (though not always) started by the learning and development or HR team as part of the broader organisational learning strategy (often 70:20:10 but more on that in a later post). This means that the groups are not necessarily “owned” by the participants but by L&D. This is not necessarily a problem unless the participants are not seeing value in it or the original convener leaves the organisation at which point it generally fizzles out.

So back to my original question, can you build communities of practice or do they need to grow organically? My own research offers a potential answer to this. In my PhD research, I found that social networks were a key part of working and learning in contemporary organisations. These networks were both within and outside of organisations and tended to follow professional groups (e.g. HR, finance, IT, engineering). Basically, people form their own communities of practice as they move through their careers, and technology, specifically social media, has enabled this to an even greater extent. I think that an issue emerges when organisations attempt to co-opt networks or manipulate networks to meet organisational ends. This is not necessarily conducive to learning and may very well be completely counter-productive. In an excellent study examining exactly that, Boud, Rooney & Solomon (2009) investigated how a local council in Sydney, Australia had attempted to “formalise” everyday learning practices of council workers. One example from the study is “toolbox talks” between field workers at the council. Workers would often meet informally to chat about their work, swap stories – effectively, to network. This might be a chat when they ran into each other or an arrangement for a few workers to meet for lunch in a local park. The compliance unit (does anyone else hear alarm bells when you read that phrase?) then decided to formalise these chats and call them “toolbox talks” which the workers did not discuss in the same way and noted how the experience went from something that was informal and part of their everyday practices to something formal that “needed to be diarised”. Although management had the best intentions, their intervention did not engender the same benefits as the social and informal learning behaviours that they had wanted to foster. This is an excellent example of something I see often, the desire to formalise practices either to measure them more effectively or try to somehow capture their benefits. In contemporary organisations which are widely accepted to be in a state of flux and change, I would question the efficacy of such interventions into everyday practices when we have little idea of the outcome. As learning practitioners, we need to be very careful about co-opting everyday practices and become more adept at getting out of the way to allow organic networking and social learning to occur. We need to question our motives for intervening and be certain that there is benefit to be found in formalising something which may be working perfectly well already.

References

Boud, D., Rooney, D., & Solomon, N. (2009). Talking up learning at work: Cautionary tales in co-opting everyday learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28(3), 323-334. doi:10.1080/02601370902799077

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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