Innovation Leadership Teamwork

Communities of practice @WestminsterATL impact change

In their 2000 Harvard Business Review article, Communities of Practice: The Organization Frontier, Wenger and Snyder discuss the value of organizations promoting more informal communities of practice that are flexible groupings of people who have “shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.”

People in communities of practice share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems.

Communities of practice differ from other formal team structures in the following ways:

  • Members self-select to be part of the experience
  • Members come together to build and exchange knowledge freely
  • Members’ passion for the reason for coming together drives their commitment
  • Members stay together as long as their interests are nurtured through the work

At Westminster Schools (@westminsterATL) in Atlanta, we have a variety of formal groups that regularly meet: board of trustees, leadership team, OS1 and OS2 teams, professional learning communities, division teams, grade-level teams, department chairs, and many others.  With almost all of these groups, you have to be invited in order to attend.  These diverse groups meet to accomplish the business of school, but rarely is their purpose and agenda structured to create, build and exchange knowledge through a free and open dialogue.  They all serve a vital purpose to forward the mission and philosophy of the school, but do not necessarily create new knowledge in service of the school.

On the other hand, there are many groups of people at Westminster that function as communities of practice.  These groups have open meetings where anyone could in theory attend, participating in the group’s work provided he or she shared in the purpose and passion for which the group has assembled.  These groups add tremendous value to the organization because they are often creating new knowledge that infiltrates and shapes the program in some way, either in the short or long-term.  Here are some examples:

  • A Middle School STEAM group organized by a foreign language teacher.
  • A STEAM Cohort of cross-divisional faculty meets weekly to discuss and plan STEAM experiences culminating in a STEAM Showcase in February
  • As part of our SAIS accreditation, we have three groups of faculty and staff, representing different areas of the school, meeting on three topics that serve as focal points of our self-study.
  •  We have student and faculty affinity groups that come together to discuss important issues pertaining to particular passion that draws them together.
  • We have book clubs that self-organize.
  • Members of our leadership team come together monthly as a “critical friends group” to work on aspects of our leadership that need attention
  • Middle School teachers participate in a “FedEX Day” gathering on a monthly basis (see Daniel Pink’s Drive for more details).  During these gatherings offered by colleagues, teachers select a learning experience that aligns with a passion or a need.
  • Design teams, working through AK12DC (@ak12dc), meet to address a school challenge identified as important to address.

There are probably other examples of conmunities of practice at Westminster Schools that are unbeknownst to me.  What all of these groups have in common is that are mostly informal, self-selecting groups of people who share a passion, meeting to build and exchange knowledge.  In some cases, their work and the knowledge they generate remains somewhat under the radar.  While in other cases, the STEAM Showcase, their work is creative, inspirational and public.  In all cases, the communities of practice add value to the school’s work of teaching and learning.

In their article, Wenger and Snyder write:

As communities of practice generate knowledge, they renew themselves.  They give you both the golden eggs and the goose that lays them.

The authors recommend that to get communities of practice started in an organization and sustain them over time, leaders should:

  1. identify potential communities of practice that will enhance the organization’s strategy capabilities;
  2. Provide the infrastructure that will support such communities and enable them to apply their expertise effectively;
  3. use no traditional methods to assess the value of the organization’s communities of practice.

From their experience, promoting and sustaining communities of practice allow organizations to successfully innovate around the periphery of their core work.

Communities of practice are the new frontier.

What communities of practice exist in your organization?  If they don’t exist, what could you do to seed their development?


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