Revitalising communities of practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 3, 2007
Filed in Collaboration

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.

  • maybe the community needs new domain areas or domains that were once on the periphery need to be brought into the centre
  • perhaps the community needs to explore new tools and practices to expand its repertoire
  • perhaps there are members who have left the group in the past who might now like to re-enter and invigorate the community

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.

Actio-oriented CoP

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:

3 Responses to “Revitalising communities of practice”

  1. John Parboosingh Says:

    I concur with these recommendations for revitalising a CoP. In the health care field I find people are not use to talking about their own practice and need help. I have devised an approach to how to talk about practice in a two page MSWord handout which I am pleased to share. Just send me an email.
    It also has an idea for a CoP Journal for keeping conversation notes based on three approaches to “practice talk”.

  2. tonyj Says:

    Your story of Etienne Wenger is quite intruiging, as it reminds me of a different aspect of emergence within communities. Etienne’s answer seems to be very much in line with one of my favorite books, Peter Block’s “The Answer to How is Yes.” Block emphasizes that how we think about the situation is more rewarding than the process of working through the problems. He contrasts archetypes of Engineer and Economist to archetypes (i.e. patterns of thinking) of Artist and Architect. His takeaway is that engaging with people who will share certain perspectives is more far helpful to the emergence of answers and communities than the process undertaken to get there. Your conversation with John Smith, someone with an artistic or architectural viewpoint if I may be so bold, illustrates the soundness of Block’s thinking. It also illustrates the value of good stories.

  3. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Hi Tony, thanks for your comment. Coincidentally, I started Peter Block’s book yesterday and I look forward to learning about his perspectives. I’m going to put some of the ideas into practice next week as I have a meeting with a group of engineers and their first question was, How are we going to evaluate our content management system? Definitely more time will be spent now on whether they are doing the right thing.

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