We seem to be an industry that likes to chase the latest and greatest thing. Remember laser disc players? I fell for them. I was an elementary school teacher at the time, and the laser disc player was going to change education as we knew it. We bought and used them and … nothing!
You’d think I would learn. That’s the business we’re in right? Learning? Well, the instructional road I’ve traveled is littered with laser disc-like efforts. The latest is CoPs.
CoP stands for “community of practice,” and it’s all the rage in Web 2.0. Wikipedia defines a CoP as “the process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions and build innovations. It refers as well to the stable group that is formed from such regular interactions.”
Notice, I went to a CoP for my reference, and what a great reference it was. Wikipedia is one of the more popular and successful Web 2.0 environments. It works because it creates the environment described above. The definition also uses the word learning in fairly strong terms with some powerful outcomes. So shouldn’t every learning organization build one? Consider a few issues first.
For the record, I am a big CoP fan. I am a card-carrying member of a few and host two of my own on performance support. But I was a big fan of the laser disc player as well. Like most emerging learning practices, it’s almost never about the potential of the tools but more about their design and implementation. Buying a hammer doesn’t make me a carpenter any more than building a CoP guarantees the powerful learning results in the definition above. Having a well-built tool is a start, but it alone gets you nothing more than just that: a well-built tool. It doesn’t guarantee learning. I have heard many stories of CoPs launched by learning departments that have crashed and burned shortly thereafter.
So why the breakdown between the potential gain and the often lackluster outcome? Let’s look back to the definition for some guidance. It starts out by including “people who have a common interest in some subject or problem.” It doesn’t say “people who have a common subject or problem.”
The operative word is interest. To take the time to participate, each member of the community has to be inspired to contribute. Simply being a member of a department or working on the same project are often not enough. These are shared subjects or problems — they don’t guarantee interest. Interest implies that users see benefit in participating.
The next part of the definition talks about collaboration over time. Participants need to want to collaborate and have the time to do it. Collaboration involves a space that’s safe and mutually beneficial. Adding comments to a blog or wiki needs to be encouraged and supported. It needs to be a space that makes it worth their time and collaboration, rather than something they can do on their own.
Finally, the definition refers to having a stable group that emerges and makes the entire journey worth sustaining. CoPs need a stable infrastructure that remains vibrant and easy to use and a stable community that remains committed. Commitment comes from seeing value. That responsibility falls back on the learning organization. If we launch it, we need to maintain it on every level, including the technology infrastructure, the design infrastructure and the community infrastructure.
If you build it, they will probably come. It’s keeping them there that’s difficult. These environments can be rich and powerful learning resources if the design and intent is well planned and maintained. Like any club or community, members only continue membership if they continually see value and growth. Is your CoP strategy designed to be sustainable over the long haul?