A conversation with Etienne Wenger about Communities of Practice…

by Willem Bettink

On Tuesday morning some 20 colleagues from FAO, WFP and IFAD gathered in the Qatar centre at IFAD for an informal conversation with Etienne who (upon Roxi‘s request) had volunteered his spare time in Rome before traveling on to Portugal.

Etienne is a practitioner, writer on CoP, Networks, a researcher of learning and much more! I encourage you to visit his website and read for example an article about Communities of Practice (http://www.ewenger.com/theory/) and many other interesting articles and publications.

Etienne started the conversation by telling us that the term CoP was created while he was studying apprenticeship as a learning model. He said, usually we think of apprenticeship as a relationship between a novice and a master. His studies of apprenticeship revealed a more complex set of social relationships through which learning takes place. It was not the master but fellow travellers and more advanced apprentices that were providing learning. This sounds very similar to what PROCASUR has been elaborating in its learning routes methodology.

We asked him what makes a CoP? Etienne referred to the three core characteristics that are crucial: which domain or what is this CoP about- its identity or shared interest of the members ; which community –given the domain or shared practices who are the partners to be engaged given their relevance to the domain; and which practices- members of a CoP have to agree on a focus –their shared practices-stories ,tools ,ways of solving problems. These practices should create “value” for people through conversation and other activities.

Most CoPs come to life by having a “core group” of practitioners who are willing to invest some of their energy to the CoP (Let’s not forget that supporting a CoP is no one’s first job!!). A CoP requires commitment or accountability to develop the practices of a domain to make it succeed. The core group can provide a learning leadership –-not to direct the CoP or projecting its ideas on how it should be, but being as leaders open to the community to improve one’s own practices. A key ingredient and motivator is the willingness and interest to learn together, from each other, to improve capabilities and practices in the domain.

Quite a few of us asked how we should/could keep a CoP active. As in a human being the “rhythm” or energy level of each CoP varies-thus there is no prescription or model to follow. Some CoP may meet only a once a year in an f2f -meeting which satisfies their interests and needs. Others interchange very intense interactions over shorter periods with more regular and less intense forms of engagement. To keep energy in a CoP it is important that the core group is clear about what energizes the community. Every now and then one may create a PULL to this energy - in other word attract people in what engages them in conversation about their practice. An example of such a pull activity is for example a case clinic- a member of the CoP present a concrete problem on which I got stuck and for which I seek advice from the CoP.

For me a very valuable observation was when Etienne said “the point of knowledge management is to develop our strategic capabilities that we need to succeed in our work”. As such a CoP -a learning partnership with relevant partners- is to focus on strategic capabilities critical for our work.

And I ask myself how far our CoPs are helping us to develop the strategic capabilities to succeed in our mission?