Whether or not an employee is a member of anything as formal as a professional association, they almost certainly belong to a body of practitioners of a particular skill or trade. These bodies can be formalised either within an organisation or more broadly across a country or region as a community of practice. The benefits are profound, as Seely Brown and Duquid make clear: “In learning to be, in becoming a member of a community of practice, an individual is developing a social identity.”
Peter Henschel , formerly of the Institute for Research on Learning, and a keen proponent of social learning, famously set out these seven principles:
- Learning is fundamentally social. While learning is about the process of acquiring knowledge, it actually encompasses a lot more. Successful learning is often socially constructed and can require slight changes in one’s identity, which makes the process both challenging and powerful.
- Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities. When we develop and share values, perspectives, and ways of doing things, we create a community of practice.
- Learning is an act of participation. The motivation to learn is the desire to participate in a community of practice, to become and remain a member. This is a key dynamic that helps explain the power of apprenticeship and the attendant tools of mentoring and peer coaching.
- Knowing depends on engagement in practice. We often glean knowledge from observation of, and participation in, many different situations and activities. The depth of our knowing depends, in turn, on the depth of our engagement.
- Engagement is inseparable from empowerment. We perceive our identities in terms of our ability to contribute and to affect the life of communities in which we are or want to be a part.
- Failure to learn is often the result of exclusion from participation. Learning requires access and the opportunity to contribute.
- We are all natural lifelong learners. All of us, no exceptions. Learning is a natural part of being human. We all learn what enables us to participate in the communities of practice of which we wish to be a part.
Outside the workplace, it has become ever easier for people with common interests to form online communities, whether informally, through some type of online groups facility (as provided free by Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google and others) or, more recently, using social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn. While it is unrealistic to expect employers to make use of sites which are primarily intended for personal use, many social networking ideas can be borrowed for use in enterprise systems:
- Establishing an online profile.
- Forming relationships with other users of the site who have similar interests or requirements in order to create your own personal network.
- Sharing news, thoughts, links with others in your network.
- Contributing resources (documents, presentations, videos, podcasts) which other members of your network might find useful.
- Adding tags (descriptive labels) to resources, so they can be easily found by others.
- Rating and commenting on the resources of others.
These activities are now so commonplace outside the workplace that employees will increasingly become frustrated when they are denied the same opportunities at work. In high-tech companies, they will not be disappointed: according to John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, the firm saved $150 million through collaborative tools that harnessed networks of ideas. “For the first time, collaborative IT will be so intertwined with the business strategy, you won’t know the difference between the two,” he said.
Bradwell and Reeves emphasise the new importance of networking: “Humans are social animals, spinning intricate webs of relationships with friends, colleagues, neighbours and enemies. These networks have always been with us, but the advance of networking technologies, changes to our interconnected economy and an altering job market have super-charged the power of networking, catapulting it to the heart of organisational thinking.”
Communities of practice are:
- at their best when they come together naturally, when members share freely, when democratic, open and responsive;
- best avoided when artificial and contrived, hierarchical, conservative.
The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Report from the Future: Sustaining Innovation and Continuous Improvement by Peter Henschel, Institute for Research on Learning
Network Citizens: Power and Responsibility at Work by Peter Bradwell and Richard Reeves, DEMOS, 2008, http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/networkcitizens