Action-oriented communities of practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 3, 2006
Filed in Collaboration

This a re-posting as I have updated the diagram that goes with the post and there seems to be a growing interest in this simple model.

There often comes a point in the life of a community of practice when the group really benefits from creating tangible things designed to improve the members’ practice. This point occurs sometime after the early days of formation after the members have worked out their domain, and they know who’s participating, how people get on with one another, and how members communicate.

Following is a simple approach designed to coordinate action within a CoP.

There are five parts to this approach:

  • general discussion
  • discussion tables
  • a list of possible projects
  • small groups (ideally 3 people) working on things together
  • database


The general discussion is anywhere the community talks together as an entire group. This might be at regular face-to-face meetings or online using a discussion forum. It’s important not to overwhelm or bore members with too much information or information that is only relevant to some members. The general discussions, therefore, benefit from some level of facilitation.

discussion table is when community members come together to discuss a topic related to the community’s domain. The community coordinator might organise discussion tables on a regular basis. They can be done face-to-face or be conducted online. There should be no more than 12 people at a discussion table at one time to ensure everyone is present and active. If there are more than 12 people interested in the discussion table topic then run multiple discussion tables. During the conversation a participant notes down the ideas of things the community might do to improve their practice. For example, if you were part of a business narrative community and the topic was ‘running effective anecdote circles’ someone might suggest, “we should develop a anecdote circle facilitator’s kit” or “we should develop a member’s training program”. These ideas would be noted and added to the list of possible projects. A summary of the discussion table conservation is also distributed to the entire community.

The list of possible projects is a simple list of all the suggested projects and activities arising from the discussion tables and other forums. You might put the list online and allow members to vote on each suggested project. Members are invited to take on a project from this list in groups of three and ideally with people you haven’t work with before. This simple rule helps the community create new social networks. These small project teams might use an online collaboration space. Once they’ve completed their project they communicate the results to the entire community and store the outputs where members can access them (database).

The community makes progress by hosting discussion tables and encouraging active and robust conversation that leads people to suggest things that would be good to do as a community. The list of projects grows and some are tackled based on the energy and enthusiasm of members. The process of undertaking these projects in small groups creates new relationships which in turn creates new conversations and new ideas for future discussion tables.

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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:


  1. John Caddell says:

    Shawn, thanks for your comment over on my blog. I have looked through your blog and the squidoo lens. Fascinating stuff that has sparked a lot of thoughts and ideas. I’d love to learn what if anything you’re doing here in the US. Please contact me via email, if you’d to start a dialogue about this. I can fill you in with more of my thoughts via email.
    Best regards, John

  2. John,
    I found this very useful. Ive been having some problems getting the Facilitator’s CoP energised at I have in mind to try your approach at a forthcoming meeting I am arranging for CoP members. Thanks.

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