Sunday, May 07, 2006

Advising communities of practice: Process consultation revisited

I reread Process consultation revisited by Edgar H. Schein. When I first read it some 5 years ago, it was one of these books that seemed to describe what you are doing (or rather trying to do ...) but would never have been able of describing it this way. I just reread it. I actually never thought of linking it to communities of practice, but I starting realizing that advising communities of practice deserves its own stream in my blog. The reason is that I'm exploring what it takes to advise a community of practice in such a way that it will grow to be more effective in fostering learning and innovation. Knowing the theory is one, but advising CoPs/CoP leader is another.

There is often confusion on what a process consultant does, and Schein explains that very clearly by contrasting it with the expertise consultancy. Process consultation is the creation of a relationship with the client that permits the client to perceive, understand and act on the process events that occur in the client's internal and external environment in order to improve the situation as defined by the client. The principles he outlines for a process consultant are:
  1. Always try to be helpful
  2. Always stay in touch with the current reality
  3. Access your ignorance
  4. Everything you do is an intervention
  5. It is the client who owns the problem and the solution
  6. Go with the flow

Particularly number 2 is important for capacity building in development; lots of workshop allow people to reflect and talk outside their organisations about their organisation, but Schein argues that a consultant cannot be helpful for a client system if there is no diagnostic information to the client and consultant about the here-and-now. The here-and-now means talking about actual situations and giving feedback, which translates in actually sitting in and observing eg. meetings in an organisation (in contract to just talking about meetings).

He moves on to explain that in human communications we have a strong, learned sense of what is an appropriate and fair exchange ('learned rules' for communication). Face work is what both parties engage in if the relationship should be sustained in spite of an disappointing interaction (eg. laughing when someone makes a joke). The reason for face work is to reassure one another that we are acceptable; without face work, the world would become too unpredictable and dangerous for people. It is important for a consultant to be aware of his/her own filters/biases - in order to be able to build a trustworthy, constructive helping relation where the client can discover their real problems. Often this problem is unfolding itself only after a longer relationship. If the consultant is not aware of his/her filters, there is a risk to misinterpret the situation. (I actually think doing a lot of work across cultures helps to sharpen this awareness of your own filters- you become more flexible in postponing judgements in a situation).

Schein labels some major groups of interventions in the service of learning: deliberate feedback and process interventions covering task processes and interpersonal processes. Schein argues that there is the most potential for help in the processes (task, decision-making, boundary, interpersonal), as this is where most organisations derail as process effects on the quality of content discussions are underestimated. This is where I think the whole set of interventions (and considerations of where to start) would apply for advising communities of practice and you could probably 'translate' them towards that specific situation. I think an external advisor can help a community of practice on a process level, rather than on the content level. Often, a process consultant will start from the task process (reason for being called in) but intervening at the other levels when there is clear evidence that they are harming the group's effectiveness.

It might be a nice (but thorny) exercise to make an inventory of consultant interventions with communities of practice. I get the impression there are more books and articles analyzing and describing the beast (CoP) rather than critical interventions to make them work better (which is what I find myself struggling with now).

Last but not least the book is full of great examples, which are both recognisable and make the theory very practical.


josien kapma said...

great post, food for thought, lots to read, lots to learn. From the little I know what you are saying makes sense, but I think you might have to ´sell´ advise to CoPs as being more tangible: e.g. as help to set up a specific project/activity in the CoP

John David Smith said...

Your post makes me want to go read that again (I think that I read the book before, maybe I should be more certain!)...

I think that there's a further question about exactly who can receive or use advice and support in a community of practice. It may be problematic to advise the community directly; it may be easier to advise a community's leader or leadership group.

I agree with you that there's more written about "the beast" than about "dancing with it." :-)