Thursday, April 27, 2006

Advising communities of practice: learning starts by asking questions

I decided to add a new stream: the art of advising communities of practice. This was triggered when I reread a book on process consultation (I will blog this later) which made me think about the fact that advisory skills can be useful for 'nurturing' CoPs either as external advisor or CoP facilitator.

On tuesday we had a wonderful day organised by PSO for development organisations in the Netherlands on organisational learning with Nancy Dixon. The theme of the day was learning starts by asking questions. The theme was brought home already by a simple but very effective exercise. In the morning everyone was invited to think of a question they wanted to see answered by the end of the day. The questions varied from "what is a good article on compentency management" to "who knows a baby-sitter in the Hague?" People were encouraged to ask their question throughout the day, and at the end of the day everyone had some kind of answer to their question or tips where to continue their search.

Through high speed storytelling 6 important themes were identified: from individual to collective learning, fostering a learning culture, stimulating reflection, fostering feedback processes, the role of management in learning and putting learning into action. These themes were deepened through a world cafe and small workshops. 'My' theme as a subgroup facilitator was reflection, so I can share some of the highlights of that discussion. All agreed that the level of reflection in their organisations is insufficient, leading to (too often) reinventing the wheel. There are different levels of reflection we are talking about (level of self -team- organisation) and people have various preferential styles of reflection. Group reflections have the potential to create team spirit and inspire the group/organisation. Some of the reasons that levels of reflections are in organisations insufficient were specified: a low value attached to the results of reflections (as it is often invisible), and, linked to this, results are not always translated into action, undermining the trust needed for subsequent cycles of reflection. So you get a downward spiral. The lack of attention for reflection is also linked to the need for development organisations to show their 'results' in terms of achievements towards poverty alleviation, not in terms of learning.

In the workshop we did, amongst others, an exercise with 'question on your back'- see picture. People formulated questions, and got one pinned on their back, but did not know which question was on their back. By walking around and interacting with other people who would respond to their question they had to learn about their topic and guess the question. It was amazing to see how learning was hampered. People were so preoccupied with guessing their question that it was hard to listen to what people were telling them. This is ofcourse what often happens in real life when we are preoccupied with other things in our heads while talking to colleagues, clients, etc.

Though we did not talk about communities of practice, I have always been attracted to CoPs for organisational learning because I think they can offer that protected space for real listening and reflection.

1 comment:

Dorine Ruter said...

Thanks for this sharing. Triggered by your last remark, I would be interested in hearing some more of your ideas on CoPs in organisational learning. Do you mean you see a role for communities within one organisation (next to cross-organisation)? What are your ideas on setting up such communities? Any chance of success if a CoP emerges 'on request', e.g. when management senses among its employees the need for exchange on a topic and invites several commited practitioners to start a community?