Monday, March 17, 2008

The difference between communities of practice and action learning

Tomorrow I'm going to present the difference between the theories of communities of practice and action learning (and between the communities themselves and action-reflection groups). I haven't found any materials comparing the two, so I had to do some brainwork for myself. This table summarizes what I intend to present. (CoP = community of practice, AL = Action Learning). Any input welcome!

IsA theory, little information on methodsA methodology, less detailed theory
GoalStewarding a knowledge domainProblem solving
ParticipationVarying levels of voluntary participationFixed group over period of time
ActivitiesMix of learning activitiesFocus on reflection and questions
ExpertiseDistributed Expertise LeadershipPeer-to-Peer
PeriodCoP life stagesDetermined period of time


macu said...

Hi Joitske,

Ed Mitchell pointed me this way, so blame him... :-).

I don't have much experience with anything called an "action learning group". But as far as I've seen, CoPs are not that theorethical. So here's a few comments hoping they may be of some use...

If you see SAP's developer forums or Macuarium's graphic arts ones, you find people asking specific questions about particular problems in their unique contexts, and solutions coming from other members' diverse experience. Generating a "practice" in any formal shape (say a PDF manual on some aspect of the profession or process, a guide, a review...) is an afterthought, a result of that ongoing, practical examination process. Or something completely tacit.

Yes, often physical CoP gatherings tend to be built around some speaker or case. But that doesn't change the essence of what they seek: applicable expertise.

"Stewarding knowledge domains" has not often entered the minds of professionals gathering to (knowglingly or not) form a CoP. They meet to share. In their case, practice-related knowledge. The other kind of task belongs to guilds, not CoPs. Although maybe some CoP promoters have that kind of goal in their minds.

And if "Distributed Expertise Leadership" means top-down, expert-handing-down-wisdom-to-newbie, I definitely disagree with that definition. A CoP assumes that nobody has been everywhere and knows the best solution for every problem, so every member has something to say... even if it's a question. Yes, there's expertise degrees, but any group that does not assume a (broadly) peer-to-peer mindset is not a community. It might be an online course :-), a fan group, a...

On the other hand I agree that not many CoPs are formed with a time horizon: most are presumptively eternal :-). And also on your take on participation and activities (as far as I know).

"Debating societies" such as many mailing lists can give a different idea, but IMHO a CoP is a CoP because it is eminently practical and oriented to shared problem solving among peers. In short.

Hope this reads constructive; it's meant to :-).

Best regards,


Joitske said...

Hi Miguel, thanks a lot, it definitely reads constructively. I agree that CoPs are not theoretical. What I meant is that the communities of practice is actually a theory about socially-constructed learning, and does not prescribe 'methods'. (leading to more confusion about methods maybe..) would you agree to that?

I like that you point out that knowledge stewarding is quite abstract and not the goal for the practitioners, I will try and stress that. In this case, I talk about corporate CoPs and for management teams that may make sense, for participants less.

If you say CoPs are about problem solving by peers, you don't differentiate it from action learning. But that may be an overlapping area. I do believe that CoPs thrive on experts participation though. Not in the sense of dominating experts, but 'primus inter paris' kind of experts, recognised by their peers. (but yes, that may happen in action reflection groups too). So that may not be such a differentiation, or need more thinking. Thanks a lot, this definitely helps!

Stephan said...

Hi Joitske, thanks for clarifying the 'theory' question, I was wondering about that as well. One other question that came to mind: Isn't what you describe as an action learning group often the start of a CoP? Stephan

Joitske said...

Hi Stephan, I actually think that working from either a action learning theory or a CoP theory leads you to seeing different things and undertaking different interventions as a facilitator. For instance, CoPs may start in many different ways, you may start by informal conversations with practitioners. For action learning sets, you may start by calling a series of meetings.

Dan Dixon said...

Good stuff. I think many people can get confused about the goals of a CoP. They are not for organisational problem solving, which is something I think they become tasked with.

Joitske said...

Hi Dan, thanks for your compliment. Would you have any additions/subtractions to the comparison? By the way, the presentations (3 groups) went well, though in one group people said the CoP concept remained vague. (which may be because it is a theory rather than a methodology)

Dan Dixon said...

One example that springs to mind was a company that I was in. They dissolved the Project Management discipline management and "intended" that a CoP would replace it. 6 Months later they replaced the management structure. CoPs can not be a replacement for traditional organisational management.

Gurmit said...

Dear Joitske

Goede middag!

I agree with the distinctions broadly.

So how do you explain to clients/organisations who want to implement a CoP and are looking for a method/implementation plan and to use it for organizational improvement?

Do you suggest the CoP use action learning first, and slowly, with more trust, transition to action research, and if they are bold, even participatory critical action research as the highest goal?

Best wishes

Joitske said...

Hi Gurmit, thanks for your question. I find organisations opt for one model or the other and just help them clarify what they want and what the frame is they are using.

I guess it helps them make a better-informed choice!

Joitske said...

Hi Gurmit, thanks for your question. I find organisations opt for one model or the other and just help them clarify what they want and what the frame is they are using.

I guess it helps them make a better-informed choice!

Anonymous said...

Hi Joitske,

I was wondering if you have a Journal article or study that captures the difference that you have identified between CoP and AL?

Thank you so much.


Norman said...

Hi Joitske:

Would you recommend a CoP that is composed of stakeholders across different sectors? For example, like the constituents of the whole ecosystem of a business - private sector, pubic sector, maybe some representatives from NGOs, academe, etc.

Thanks much.


Joitske said...

Hi Norman, unfortunately I don't have an article about the difference between een CoP and action learning. I understand your question about composition of stakeholders. It depends on your goal. If you goal is to foster a common practice (and innovation in practice), you would rather search for similar practitioners. However, if you goal is to work on a societal problem (often a complex problem) you would go for bringing in the knowledge of a diversity of stakeholders.