The memory of how it all started is still very much vivid. I was one year in my new role as Retail L&D Manager at Ace & Tate, and my manager told me during one of our weekly catch-ups: “I don’t have the L&D expertise to support you, but you could try to find and connect with other professionals who, just like you, run the department alone. You know: to share best practices and learn from each other.”
Ok, this might not have been his exact words, but you get the idea. And I remember thinking: why haven’t I thought about this before? The very same week, I turned to LinkedIn and cold-messaged L&D professionals working in and around Amsterdam, and a fantastic bunch replied.
Fast forward one year later, and we are more than 450 members, connecting, sharing, and learning on LinkedIn and Slack. We organize by-weekly events and have recently launched our dearest project so far: free coaching sessions for any L&D professional finding themselves at a personal or professional crossroad.
This is the story of the L&D SHAKERS community for L&D professionals on a mission to spice learning up. I will share what we have learned so far, and I will make a case for the competitive advantage created by nurturing communities of practice within a company.
A CoP is an informal group of people bound together by a shared commitment to a domain of knowledge that they care about and similar work activities (Millen, Fontaine, & Muller, 2002). Members’ primary purpose is to develop their skills and capabilities by building and sharing collective knowledge (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).
These communities are self-organizing groups of motivated and engaged practitioners that stay in contact for long periods without having an end-date in mind. A community is never ‘done’ – they are in constant change, permanently evolving. These ad hoc groups remain active thanks to their members who enjoy the benefits that come with belonging to such a community: developing their skills and competencies, getting involved in new professional networks, developing their expert identity relative to that particular domain, accessing the community’s resources, and so on.
Wenger (1999) talks about three essential characteristics of CoP:
Besides sharing the same domain and practice, there is one other thing that members of a CoP need to have in common: a willingness to learn continuously and the motivation to take their development into their own hands.
Wenger, McDermott, and Snyer (2002) had captured the very essence of communities of practice when they wrote: “These people don’t necessarily work together every day, but they meet because they find value in their interactions. As they spend time together, they typically share information, insight, and advice. They help each other solve problems. They discuss their situations, their aspirations, and their needs. They ponder common issues, explore ideas, and act as sounding boards. They may create tools, standards, generic designs, manuals, and other documents—or they may simply develop a tacit understanding that they share.[…] Over time, they develop a unique perspective on their topic as well as a body of common knowledge, practices, and approaches. They also develop personal relationships and established ways of interacting. They may even develop a common sense of identity. They become a community of practice.”
Several other learning theories support how learning occurs within a community of practice.
Constructivism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, backed up by Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner’s earlier work, and continued to evolve in the 20th century thanks to the pioneering work of Vygotsky. In a nutshell, constructivism states that knowledge is not merely acquired but constructed. Learners take pieces of knowledge and put them together in their unique way, shaped by previous knowledge, experiences, beliefs. Each person “constructs” something different when compared to others. Constructivism sees learning as a very active, contextual, and social process.
In 1963, Bandura and Walters first used the term social learning to indicate that most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: we observe others and encode the information that will serve as a guide for later action.
Introduced by Professor Reginald Revans in 1980, action learning theory affirms that, to learn, individuals need to engage in activities and experiences and tackle real issues with real consequences. Learning happens through repeated concrete actions and not through traditional teaching methods.
Proposed by David Kolb in 1984, experiential learning states that people learn best by immersing themselves voluntarily in an experience, reflecting on that experience afterward, and then conceptualizing what happened and making decisions to solve other similar problems using the newly acquired knowledge and capability.
Malcom Knowles (1984) talks about andragogy, and he puts forward the idea that adults are self-directed and are taking responsibility for their learning. According to Knowles, there are a couple of principles that we need to consider when designing learning experiences for adults: (1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something (2) Adults need to learn through experiences, (3) Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and (4) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
Right after I ventured on my LinkedIn search for like-minded people that would be willing to share and learn from each other, we had our first informal get-together. Over lunch, we have shared our vision about this community, we defined what “value” means for each of us, and we agreed on some ground rules that we have shared with everyone unable to attend:
Everyone had a slightly different view of how this community should unfold, but everyone emphasized the value of genuine and raw discussions around common challenges we face.
We realized quite early that we needed to better define the type of sessions going further so that the members would know what to expect out of each meet-up. We wanted to steer away from the typical webinar session when someone shares a piece of knowledge that the rest are passively absorbing and move towards creating the space for social learning through open discussion, collective knowledge building, and best practice sharing.
Together with Moniek Suren (Employee Experience Manager at WeTransfer), my partner in crime from day one, we came up with two types of events to kick us started:
We immediately tested both types of events and gathered feedback on whether the format was meeting everyone’s expectations or not, and we have done minor tweaks based on what we have learned.
It was about this time that we have decided to create a Slack workplace as a companion to our LinkedIn group, to allow for a more fluid and structured way of communicating.
Right after the first events, Covid-19 hit Europe, and several countries entered lockdown. It soon became apparent that if we wanted to continue riding the momentum wave, we needed to move the sessions online as quickly as possible.
Moniek and I felt that this was the perfect moment to gather the community and involve the interested members in shaping our next steps. We knew that moving a community of (back then) 80 members forward would require more brains and hands than what the two of us could give.
And that’s what we did: we facilitated three co-creation sessions with the purpose of co-designing the community guidelines together with anyone willing to take this journey with us. We guided the members through the “purpose-to-action” liberating structure and ended up with a blueprint of our community foundation that still stands today:
By the time we finished this co-creation process, we were already 100 members, organizing bi-weekly virtual events. Members were becoming more and more active, asking questions and sharing ideas on LinkedIn and Slack.
During the past few months, the community started to grow at a very fast pace, and it now attracts more new members than it ever did. We believe several factors contributed to this growth:
We have many plans for 2021, and I am confident that the L&D Shakers will have a more significant reach and a bigger impact than ever before. Stay tuned!
Knowledge, especially tacit one, has long become an asset that drives competitive advantage. Retaining employees who can generate and implement innovative ideas has become one of today’s companies’ top priorities. Rapid technological advances increase the complexity of knowledge and demand more specialization while decreasing the half-life of knowledge. We need to learn and unlearn at unprecedented speed if we want to keep pace with the changes.
Companies need to identify what knowledge is crucial for strategic business areas. They need to find ways to keep this knowledge up-to-date and flowing throughout the organization. Communities of practice might offer the solution to this challenge for at least two reasons:
Personal benefits from a community of practice include professional development activities such as learning new tools, methods, and procedures; accessibility to other professionals in their fields; and a better understanding of what others are doing in the organization (Millen et al., 2002). Moreover, Lesser and Storck (2001) performed a case study based on seven organizations and identified four outcomes associated with communities of practice: (1) decreased learning curve; (2) increased customer responsiveness; (3) reduction in the amount of rework; and (4) increased innovation.
The same characteristics that make communities of practice an excellent enabler for knowledge transfer and creation (self-governance, informality, voluntary engagement, crossing boundaries) also make them a challenge for traditional hierarchical organizational structures. They cannot be ‘set up’ and imposed from outside; they need to be carefully nurtured. Without voluntary participation, members will be less likely to seek, share or create knowledge, build trust with others or even apply the community’s knowledge in practice.
The more we learn from what sets thriving communities apart from others, the higher our chance to truly make them work within organizations. What motivates people to become members? Why did they stay engaged and actively contributed? What are they gaining out of this?
In 2015, Lee, Reinicke, Sarkan, and Anderson set out to theorize a participation intensity model in two project managers’ communities of practice. Here’s what they have found:
Member’s participation intensity was strongly predicted by the intrinsic motivator of enjoyment, the extrinsic motivator of reputation enhancement that comes with knowledge sharing, and the support members received from their manager to engage within the community.
There was no statistical evidence between participation intensity and individual rewards (improved job security, better promotion opportunities, better work assignments, or job performance reviews), nor between participation intensity and the extent to which the organization values the community of practice.
Pyrko, Dörfler, and Eden (2017) analyzed two communities of practice within the UK National Health Service in their quest to find out what makes CoP work. In a nutshell, here is what they learned can make or break anyone’s endeavor to enable a CoP within their company:
Shell has created 13 communities of practice that encompass more than 10,000 users. Anyone who wants to build a new CoP within Shell receives a consultant’s support to interview potential members. They look at common challenges and problems across units and teams that could serve as the base for the community. Besides being a means to collect information, these interviews also generate excitement and enthusiasm for the newly formed community. The second step is for the community coordinator to gather all the members to discuss what activities will build individual and group capabilities and advance the company’s strategic plan.
The chairman of the American Management Systems (AMS) personally invited “thought leaders” nominated by their business units to lead internal communities of practice as the primary way to leverage knowledge within the company. Being a community member at AMS is a privilege, and joining one is possible only if their managers have recognized them as experts. To remain a member, everyone has to complete one knowledge development project per year (e.g., documenting best practices). Their business units cover the participation costs to workshops and their annual CoP conference.
At the World Bank, key people across the organization can take the initiative to create communities of practice. They attend a so-called Community Management Training and receive extensive guidance on setting up and nurturing the community. (find their general guide here). Membership is open, and everyone decides on the level of participation that suits their needs. Each community receives funds for specific activities and manage their own budgets.
In the context of organizations, Wenger and Snyder (2000) conclude that communities of practice “should not be created in a vacuum. In most cases, informal networks of people with the ability and the passion to further develop an organization’s core competencies already exist. The task is to identify such groups and help them come together as communities of practice.” Managers (or L&D departments, for that matter) cannot merely commission communities of practice. Instead, they should focus on “. . .bringing the right people together, providing an infrastructure in which communities can thrive, and measuring the communities’ value in nontraditional ways.” And that is the real challenge.
In my current role at Butter.us, my mission is to create a space where Facilitators, Workshoppers, Trainers, Design Thinkers, Innovation and Strategy Consultants can team up, share best practices, tackle challenges collectively, learn and accelerate their careers together with like-minded people.
In my spare time, I am working with other talented Learning and Development professionals to turn "L&D Shakers" into a safe space, enabling and guiding L&D professionals to connect, grow and take bold actions every day. Our purpose is to enable Learning & Development Professionals to shake their personal and professional development, their organizations, communities, and the L&D world.
As a freelancer, I partner with companies and NGOs to question, rethink, explore, design, implement and showcase learning experiences that are impactful and memorable.
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