Friday, 16 November 2012

54. Communities of Practice (civic solutions #2)

This is my second post about how whole place partnerships might employ civic solutions to tackle wicked problems. By civic solutions I mean:
Emergent strategies that involve the whole community including public services and the voluntary and business sectors.
My first stab at thinking about what civic solutions might look like in practice focussed on the public innovation literature and ended by looking at the ways in which whole place partnerships might harness collaborative innovation for problem solving.

I want to undertake a similar exercise in this post but this time I am drawing on the communities of practice idea that has grown out of the literature on learning and knowledge management and that is associated with Etienne Wenger in particular. Wenger has provided a general overview of the theory here.  Wenger has also written a book with Richard Mcdermott and William M. Snyder called Cultivating Communities of Practice and it is from this I am getting most of the content for this post.

I first came across the term communities of practice when it was the name of the predecessor to the Local Government Association’s Knowledge Hub. I’m not sure if that was inspired by Wenger’s concept but there are certainly some elements in common.

Anyhow, to business.

Communities of Practice

Wenger et al's definition is as follows:
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topics, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.
The idea is not a new one; in fact communities of practice are a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be observed throughout history. From the trade ‘corporations’ in Rome to the guilds in the middle ages right up to the tech networks of Silicon Valley in more recent times. We already belong to communities of practice even if we don’t recognise them as such; families, school communities, hobby clubs for example.

At the heart of the communities of practice concept is knowledge management as, according to Wenger et al; ‘knowledge has become the key to success’. Knowledge is collective, a dynamic social process and getting the greatest benefit means finding and utilising the right social structures – and this is where the communities of practice idea comes in. As communities of practice are in some senses natural the way to make them grow is through cultivation – creating the right environment and providing the right resources.

Getting this right can be of benefit to organisations and business in particular. Wenger et al argue that communities of practice have the potential to:
  • Connect local pockets of expertise and isolated professionals
  • Diagnose and address recurring business problems whose root causes cross team boundaries
  • Analyze the knowledge-related sources of uneven performance across units performing similar tasks and work to bring everyone up the highest standard, and
  • Link and coordinate unconnected activities and initiatives addressing a similar knowledge domain
It doesn’t take a much of a leap to see that similar benefits would be very desirable in a civic context. Indeed, while the primary concern is with private companies, Wenger et al are also keen to show how communities of practice can be applied to community problems. So, for example, the approach has been used to set up family services coalitions that address the bureaucracy surrounding ‘at risk’ families seeking government assistance in the US. The learning networks that were formed as a result achieved some valuable benefits such as new after school programmes and a dramatic reduction in the forms that families needed to fill out. The point here is that these solutions were emergent and developed from the bottom up – the leadership role was to facilitate the networks not design the solutions.

If we accept the argument of Wenger et al then communities of practice clearly have the potential to provide a means for whole place partnerships to address wicked problems. But what would this mean in practice?

Cultivating Communities of Practice to Tackle Wicked Problems

To help with the task of cultivating communities of practice Wenger et al break them down into three structural elements:
  • The domain which creates the common ground and the sense of common identity – affirming its purpose and value.
  • The community refers to the social fabric, the relationships and the human interactions.
  • The practice refers to the frameworks, tool and ideas, information, stories and documents that the community members share –in order to ‘proceed efficiently in dealing with its domain.
For whole place partnerships these elements can be translated as follows:
  • Domain = the outcome they want to achieve or the wicked problem they want to address
  • Community = the relevant practitioners, public and politicians
  • Practice = day to day delivery of projects, programmes and services
Wenger et al argue that ‘the most important factor in a community’s success is the vitality of its leadership’. In practical terms the role of ensuring that communities stay focussed on their domain, maintain their relationships and develop their practice falls upon the whole place partnership. Building on seven functions that Wenger et al suggest for the role of the community coordinator it is therefore possible to identify the core tasks for a whole place partnership that is seeking to cultivate communities of practice in order to tackle wicked problems:
  1. Map the important issues that need to be addressed if the agreed outcomes are to be achieved / wicked problems solved
  2. Plan and facilitate community events
  3. Promote informal networking between members in the different communities
  4. Foster the development of individual community members
  5. Ensure that the formal organisations do not prevent communities from functioning – that they give people space, time and flexibility
  6. Build resources to support practice such as a ‘knowledge base’, practice events etc
  7. Regularly assess the health of the various communities and monitor their impact
Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/barkingdagenhamarchive/7545414066/in/set-72157630518709532

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