Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Session 301 - Communities of Practice (Jane Bozarth)


She gave fair warning, so I should, as well:  This is going to be somewhat fanboyish, as I will go on record as saying I respect/admire Jane significantly.  I stand nothing to gain, aside from friendship, from this.  I just do.  Moving on...

OK...Everyone Get Together and Share Now

Jane's not here to argue semantics, but she's here to present her definition of Communities of Practice.  If you want to improve practice, she's going to share some things with us that will help that happen.  Seems simple enough.

A lot of Wenger's initial work, from which she drew, centered around apprenticeship: How does a practitioner learn to be one?  It's by living in the environment, it's by working in the's not about just hanging out, it's about living it.  "Communities of practice are group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it..."


A body of knowledge, methods, stories, cases, and documents. 

"Collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor" = Tribe learning to survive, Band of musicians perfecting a sound, Surgeons exploring new techniques, M&M Conferences...all these are examples of a community of practice where both successes and failures are discussed to determine how to practice.  Two guidelines re: Practice (and enhancing knowledge):

1.) Knowledge is embedded in practice.
2.) You learn to practice by interacting with good practitioners.

Wenger discovered a basic framework with four aspects to it: Meaning, Community, Identity, and Learning:

1.) Meaning - Participation, Reification, Duality
2.) Community - Joint Enterprise, Mutusal Engagement, Shared Repertoire
3.) Identitiy - Negotiated Experience, Membership, Trajectory
4.) Learning - What the community gains over time

NC Train

A group of educators identified shortfalls in existing practices and began to meet and grow organically to discuss these points.  It was a self-started, organic CoP.  No one was in charge, there was no board, no management - they just wanted to do this.

Early on, the mailing list was snail mail including around 100 people, most meetings having 40-60 people attending.  Grew to 300...still 40-60 attending meetings (see: theoretical membership).  They had membership presented meetings.  One person would say "Hey, here's an improvement to X", while another might say "I'm struggling with Y", and they would all share feedback.  They were working together in the same environment around the enterprise of figuring out what, exactly, is good training.  Social learning before social learning was cool...

Over time, and of their own volition, they created their own train the trainer program, across the gamut of this CoP.  It's evolved over time, but it's maintained its core purpose.


So, how does the group make sense of what it's talking about?  You talk about Participation (Mutual recognition beyond specific activities/people), Reification (Points of focus negotiated), and Duality (Partic + reif = symbiosis, DO things vs. GET THINGS done).

Without participating, it's very difficult to make sense of what to include/to do/etc.  People get together and talk, and talk, and talk, but unless you're actually DOING, nothing will ever happen.  Without understanding how someone else works, you can't really understand that concept.  One of the things that some of us know is that a lot of organizations BUY workshops.  Over time, Jane's group bought a bunch of them, but they all did the same - Hold marker, stop video at time mark, etc.  But until you actually see someone deliver it, you will never make a significant change to your practice.

"Remember the person from the State Lab who taught us about handwashing.  We tried it and then looked at our hands under a blacklight and saw all the germs we missed..." = Active Member

"...just training techniques and stud, I mean I can't name anything off the top of my heade or anything but techniques and styles and little activities and games from the more concrete..."  = Inactive


Helps to hold each other accountable and aware of what we all considers Joint Enterprise (Negotiated, Mutual Accountability, Indigenous), Mutual Engagement (enabling engagement, Satisfies motivation needs), and Shared Repertoire (further negotiate).  This is the "step" in the process where the pain begins - The uninvolved didn't bother learning the repertoire, but they still take the output back and never change their practice.


This is the company you keep...the people you align with.  In it are considered Negotiated Experience (Own markers transition, Particip refined), Membership (Competent membership, Mutuality engagement, Accountability to enterprise, Negotiated repertoire), and Learning Trajectory (Identity is temporal).

We've all seen this...the people who don't belong.  Which do you want to be?  An entertainer or a bona fide, excellent, effective trainer.  This is the point where Jane's group started to see a wide rift form between those who could and those who want to pretend they can/look good.  One day this group realized that they're going to be able to stamp out bad training but wouldn't be able to do it alone.  They needed help.  Enter the train the trainer program, and communities focusing on service. 


This is what the community takes on and learns over time, with three focuses: Evolving engagement (Members gain CoP-wide awareness of subtelties of relationships), Tuning enterprise (Aligning engagement w/ enterprise, learning to hold each other accountable, Defining/reconciling what enterprise is about), and Developing repertoire (Practice "handed down", Tuning repertoire (remember/forget).  You see people come and go, stories get forgotten...

Why Did People Participate in This?
Not everyone cares about getting better (soul crushing fact to some), so why did the people who got in on this do so?  Pride, commiseration, assisting others, fulfillment...and more:

- Makes the job habitable
- Satisfies motivational needs
- Reduces isolation
- High performers
- CoP is place to excel and feel valued for it
- Passion...pure and simple

How can we use CoP as a motivational a developmental tool...


Here's the deal: No one cares if they learn anything...they're perfectly happy to play the same songs, week in/week out.  They don't necessarily care if they learn new songs, it's about a sense of belonging...a sense of community itself.  But is it a CoP?

Four questions to ask:

1.) Is (or is not) meaning being made?
2.) Is (or is not) this a community?
3.) Is (or is not) identity affected?
4.) Is (or is not) the CoP learning?

How you answer these determines whether or not you are a CoP and certainly indicates how your CoP (or group) performs.  If you're subject to the "bro crew" who high fives each other all the time reminding one another how awesome they are...just because they're probably means they're not a CoP, and they may actually end up doing more harm than good by not honestly critiquing and improving.


CoPs could be an incentivizing tool, but what else?  Stronger network, less duplication of effort and more...

- Help with challenges
- Access to expertise
- Confidence
- Meaningful work
- Personal development
- Professional reputation
...and so on...

Is there value?  OF COURSE!
- Immediate Value (Having fun, engagement, reflection, interaction (quality))
- Potential Value (Making good contacts, Inspiration, Tools/documents, etc.)
- Applied Value (implementation of advice, innovation in practice, use of social connections)
- Realized Value (Personal performance, Organizational performance/reputation)
- Reframing Value (Change in strategy, New metrics, New expectations, Institutional changes)

(On a personal note, these five bullets firmly solidify/concrete what I have known all along...that organziations like eLearning Guild are among the very best CoPs out there.  My journey from 2008 to today followed these very steps, in various degrees/progressions.  Wow.)


There's a reason Jane Bozarth has been one of the most influential figures in my professional development, and having an inside look into her dissertation was amazing.  CoPs, like so many other things in learning/development/etc., are a concept that can just become assumed.  But by drawing the line in the sand between workgroups and CoPs, showing what truly makes them different, you begin to see why there are tasks/things we LOVE and others we LOATHE. 

"We need a place..."

Find yours.


  1. Wowza! Thanks for the great coverage, Shawn. People wanting more can find my resources at .

  2. This was awesome! Thanks for the details notes, Shawn, and a great workshop Jane. So glad we connect in this CoP.