In my February newsletter, I highlighted the fact that self-directed learning involves a number of people: people who impart (teach), people who engage, and people who inspire. When you can get all three of those dynamics mutually occurring in one group of people, you can begin to get a sense of the community of practice advantage.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Three characteristics are crucial: a shared domain of interest, members [who] engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information, [and] a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems.
~  Introduction to communities of practice, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, 2015

The phenomenon of communities of practice

Communities of practice are naturally-occurring groups created by the people involved in the community. The concept of communities of practice was seminally framed in the 1990s by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave. I first became interested in the concept because it perfectly described a high-performing group of instructional designers that I supervised at the time – I was impressed with the degree of mutual support, creative energy, and camaraderie that a subgroup of my team exhibited with one another, and I wanted to understand those dynamics – and how to replicate them – much more. Fortuitously, my interest coincided with the emergence of a number of books* and research studies on the phenomenon. I’ve been a fan ever since.

How communities are formed

I learned that an interesting part of the community dynamic is that it is very difficult to start or nurture a community from outside the community. Building communities is best done from within. People who care about their learning and the quality of their practice can search out compatible people to form a community of practice. That’s what was occurring on my team. As much as we might like to promote that by bringing people together, encouraging deeper and more frequent interaction, and providing them with collaborative tools and comfortable meeting places, the impetus must come from the people who care about the practice. A plan to “build it and they will come” doesn’t work.

Some theorists and consultants have softened their stance on the degree to which you can deliberately build community (including Etienne Wenger), but just like any other learning phenomenon, people have to want to engage; it won’t work if it is required. Advocates for “creating” communities of practice have good advice, but it remains that the best way to build community is for the people who care to come together themselves. That’s where you come in.

Only the community can build community

If you’re interested in your own professional development, you would do well to find like-minded colleagues and work together in ways that form you into community. Build your internal and external networks to strengthen ties between yourself and others who do the same type of work or who care about the same outputs.

Here is some of the best advice I’ve gleaned for forming a community for personal professional development.

  • Find people who are already committed to excellence in a particular area of practice
  • Start with a small group; participation must be voluntary
  • Establish your purpose; highlight the community’s alignment with outcomes the group cares about
  • Work together on projects and challenges
  • Keep it simple; don’t make a lot of rules or require specific forms of participation
  • Define leadership roles as needed; engaging in the community should be the desire of everyone in the group, not necessarily led by one individual (although some roles may be useful)
  • Deliberately encourage engagement by making sharing and conversation normal and routine (peer-to-peer)
  • Collaboratively determine tools the group finds useful for communicating, sharing, and working together
  • Celebrate successes

Essentially, my recommendation is to loosely form a small group of people with whom you can discuss your ongoing learning and work projects. Together, you can shape each other’s thinking, advance your knowledge and skill, and improve your outcomes. The social context makes the community engaging and energizing and the work focus makes it productive. That’s why a community may be just what you need to bolster your self-directed learning.

“The collaborative learning process of ‘thinking together’ is what essentially brings communities of practice to life and not the other way round.”
~ Thinking together: What makes Communities of Practice work? By Igor Pyrko, Viktor Dorfler, and Colin Eden. Human Relations, 2017

Recommended short guides:

*Seminal books on Communities of Practice:

This blog post is part of a broader series giving advice on crafting and executing successful self-directed learning projects. If one or more of your 2022 goals involves learning, my newsletters and blogs for the first quarter of 2022 expand on the research-based advice I offer in Charting Your Course. Also in this series:
>> Everything you know about writing goals is wrong – how to define goals for your self-directed learning project
>> When practicing what you preach doesn’t quite work – nuances of writing self-directed learning plans
>> Be self-directed, but don’t learn alone – advice on looking for people who impart knowledge and skill, people who engage in ongoing conversation, and people who inspire you to be your best