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Best Practices in e-Service: Online Communities of Practice

by Krista Maydew, MA, GCDF Cassie Saunders, BA

Increasingly, we are seeing a trend toward the development and delivery of Internet based e-services.  Although e-services are typically provided directly to clients (e.g., online career management services), there also exists the possibility of providing e-services to practitioners and employers via “communities of practice” or practitioner networks.  Such communities are “groups that form to share what they know and to learn from one another regarding some aspects of their work” (Nickols, 2003).

According to Wenger, “members of a community are informally bound by what they do … and by what they have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities.”  Communities of practice can be found in large organizations where their intent is to provide a virtual network for individuals with similar interests or working within similar technical disciplines.  They can also be an effective means to link individuals and groups who are geographically distant from one another.  In most cases, communities of practice are based on the principle that information sharing is important and it can lead to innovation and the creation of new knowledge.  Networks and communities are typically designed so that membership is varied (e.g., entry-level to CEO membership), allowing for the natural synergies that can occur when roles and titles are eliminated.

 

Some notable best practices in the development and implementation of communities of practices are detailed below.

Plan Ahead

It’s important to take the time up front before development to clarify your vision and define the specifics of your network.  Some questions you might want to ask include:

  • What is the purpose of the network?
  • What are some specific goals of the network and how will the network reach these?
  • What system will you use to host the network?
  • Will the network be moderated? If so, by whom?
  • Who will be permitted to join the network (i.e., open or restricted access)?
  • Will you provide an orientation to the network?
  • Will there be a fee for joining?
  • How long will membership last (e.g., a month, a year, indefinitely)?
  • Will there be a maximum number of members?
  • What will be the “code of conduct” for network participants and how will this be enforced?
  • What network activities will be included (e.g., discussions, live chats, collaborative projects)?
  • How will the network be structured?
  • Will the discussions be structured or allowed to develop organically?
  • How will you keep members engaged (e.g., news broadcasts, email reminders, discussion questions, online polling)?
  • How long is the network intended to last (e.g., one year, five years, indefinitely)?
  • How will the network’s success be measured (e.g., feedback forms, polls)?

 

Be sure to take the time to reflect on the implications of your decisions (e.g., if you will charge a fee how will this be collected? if you offer one year memberships how will you track their expiry?).
Utilize a Network Facilitator

In our experience, networks need an active facilitator in order to be effective, successful in a larger context, and meaningful at a member level.  Having an actively facilitated network does not necessarily imply that the facilitation role will be cumbersome or time consuming.  Rather, the facilitator acts as a moderator of sorts by popping in and out of discussions, helping to facilitate the flow of dialogue, and providing support to members who may need some guidance about the way that the network functions.  The facilitator can also help to stimulate discussion, provide clarification, and synthesize discussions.  Although facilitators “manage” the network it’s important to refrain from using a heavy-handed management style (Nickols, 2003).  The key to creating a successful community of practice is for the facilitator to promote idea sharing and dialogue between participants, as well as keep the group on topic.
Consider the Stages of Active Online Learning

Just as there are stages common to group development processes, there are similar stages that have been identified for online groups.  In her book E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, Salmon outlines five stages that apply to online group development:

1.      Access and Motivation: Participants are initially uncomfortable with the new environment and are still learning how to navigate the site

2.      Socialization: Participants familiarize themselves with each other and begin to develop group norms and patterns of behaviour

3.      Information Exchange: Participants begin to collaborate with each other and share information

4.      Knowledge Construction: Participants are actively developing and enhancing their knowledge through the network interactions

5.      Development: Participants become responsible for their own learning and that of the group

 

Just as the participants’ roles effectively change as they gain confidence and comfort functioning within the network, the role of the facilitator also changes to meet the participants’ needs.
Case Example: Supporting Employers Embracing Diversity (SEED) Diversity Champion’s Network
One network we’ve been actively involved in was created for the Supporting Employers Embracing Diversity (SEED) program. Part of the Employer Cultural Diversity Support Services (ECDSS) project of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Employment Services and based on the ROI Model (Recruitment, Orientation, and Inclusion), SEED comprises several tools, including a Cultural Diversity Yearbook – full of quotes, activities, diversity events, and conversation starters; the ROI Virtual Toolkit of Resources – a reference piece for diversity-related questions/concerns; and the Diversity Champion’s Backgrounder and Guide – a support for the implementation of the toolkit and assessments designed to measure the impact.  We developed a network to support the Diversity Champions (i.e., project coordinators) through the test phase of the project.

 

Diversity Champions represented companies from a wide range of industries and organizational structures/sizes.  They were encouraged to join the network and reflect on their experiences with the toolkit, ask questions regarding the test phase activities, and share helpful resources/activities.  As the discussion progressed, shared experiences and challenges emerged, allowing participants to assist each other (e.g., noting particularly helpful resources or sharing personal stories of how they dealt with a similar situation).

 

This is a wonderful case example of a community of practice – champions of diversity learning together and from each other.  In terms of best practices, as a team we planned ahead by addressing logistical questions before we developed the network and we aligned the network discussions/activities with the project’s goal.  We assigned a primary facilitator to monitor and direct discussions, consulting with other facilitators as necessary.  We provided orientation materials (e.g., live orientation, navigational map to network, guidelines for discussions) to address the first and second stages of active online learning and through moderated facilitation of the group, we supported the third and fourth stages (information exchange and knowledge construction).  As we move beyond the test phase, making the program widely available to other employers, we are transitioning leadership of the network by supporting participants through stage five as they develop a sense of responsibility for their learning and that of others.

 

With the fluid nature of such networks, facilitators need to be responsive in order to meet members’ needs.  For example, within the SEED Diversity Champion’s Network, participants began sharing numerous diversity-related resources within the discussion forums.  We recognized that there was a need to capture all of these wonderful resources in an accessible format for reference and future use by the Diversity Champions.  In order to organize these resources more effectively, we created a wiki (a collaborative workspace) for the Champions to record their recommended resources.

 

Although developing and supporting a community of practice online might seem like a daunting task, through careful planning, thoughtful consideration, and facilitated discussions/activities, such networks can prove advantageous for your organization or projects.


Krista Maydew, MA, GCDF is a consultant with Life Strategies and has extensive experience with online learning environments as both a facilitator and student.  She is also a member of two professional practice networks (PPN). Cassie Saunders, BA is a Project Coordinator and the Student Advisor with Life Strategies for their online learning programs.  In her role she’s assisted in the development and facilitation of multiple networks.

References

 

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice Learning as a Social System.  Retrieved from: http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml

 

Salmon, G.  Running E-tivity Plenaries.  Retrieved from: http://www.atimod.com/e-tivities/5stage.shtml

 

Nickols, F.  (2003).  Communities of Practice: An Overview.  Retrieved from: http://home.att.net/~discon/KM/CoPOverview.pdf

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