I’m truly blessed in knowing lots of interesting people. I don’t mean to boast but this morning it really dawned on me. I’m very lucky. The other thing I’ve come to understand about myself is that I’ve reached an age, or perhaps a stage in my career, when I’m happy to admit that I don’t know the answer. More than that, I’m comfortable in contacting my many friends and colleagues (usually on Skype) and say things like, “I’m giving a presentation next week and I’m not sure I really know that much about one of the aspects they want me to talk about.”
I said something like that to John Smith this morning on the topic of revitalising communities of practice. He said that I should start by thinking about the Etienne Wenger’s CPD model (community, practice and domain).
Thinking about this model will prompt you to ask a series of questions, he said.
Now here’s the interesting thing. After only five minutes listening to John’s suggestions a whole bunch of things sprung to mind for me. For example, I’ve seen communities flagging because the members didn’t really have a strong, shared identity with the community’s domain. One example is a community I’m part of that discusses complexity science in organisational settings. It continues to struggle because none of us really identify as complexity-dudes. It fails my “I am a …” test.
Contrast this with the communities of practice we’re working with in mining companies. Many of the community members have been with the company for 15 or more years and have only done one type of job. They might be underground safety guys or iron ore process guys or pit optimisation guys. They define who they are by the work they are doing and in many cases a job well done will save lives. When this is the case the community of practice seems to thrive if you also have good community coordinators and it’s developed a good rhythm of activity.
John left me with this thought, “If your community of practice is flagging then get the group focussed back on practice.” One way to do that is to implement my action-oriented CoP process.
A couple of years ago Etienne Wenger stayed with me and my family for four days. The poor man. I kept bugging him with CoP questions and my strongest memory from this time was Etienne’s most common answer to my questions of how to do this and how to design that He simply asked, “So what do the members think?” Get the members to design the community activities, the domain, the practices. So when your community is flagging, go the the members for help.
Having people you can contact quickly to have short, meaningful conversations is priceless. Knowing someone’s name, their contact details and their expertise is not enough. You need to have a relationship with someone, a common language and an ability to absorb what you are hearing. John and I are in a community (of CoP practitioners) which helps this conversation happen. At the same time John exercises choice in what he tells me, how deep or wide he goes, how much time he spends and how much effort he puts in during the interaction. This is his gift.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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