The Essentials for a Thriving Community of Practice

We recently delivered a conference breakout presentation on the National Convergence Technology Center’s (CTC) successful community of practice (CoP) called the Convergence College Network (CCN).  In addition to discussing case study specifics about this group of 60 schools across 23 states and the IT faculty members that drive it, we also looked at an interesting study of corporate communities of practice featured in an article by Gilbert Probst and Stefano Borzillo called “Why Communities of Practice Succeed and Why They Fail.”  The authors interviewed over 50 leaders of corporate CoPs around the world to look for trends.  What made a CoP succeed?  We took interest in some of these elements to find out if the CCN followed those corporate best practices.  The short answer: we do.
  • Stick to clear strategic objectives – CoPs need purpose and a concrete direction.  For the CCN, the objective is very clear: support and strengthen the member school’s IT programs.  All CCN meetings and activities are designed to serve that mission.
  • Divide objectives into sub-topics – This may be more relevant for large corporations that host a number of CoPs in different departments.  But the CCN does employ this strategy by hosting CCN “sub-groups” that look at challenges and topics of special interest to those outside of the main cohort of community college faculty.  For example, while we host quarterly meetings – which can attract over 60 attendees – of the large CCN group, the CTC also hosts biannual meetings intended for the university members of the CCN and biannual meetings intended just for administrators.
  • Use a “governance committee” – In the corporate world, CoPs need someone to help assess the CoP output and strategize ways to introduce CoP findings to top-tier management.  For the CCN, we rely on the individual CoP members to disseminate CoP results to their colleagues and peers at their home college.  Beyond that, funded as it is by a federal grant, the closest thing to a “governance committee” for the CTC is a special National Visiting Committee that conducts an annual in-person review of grant progress.  So the CCN, in a way, reports to two levels of “governance committees” – members’ peers and the NVC.
  • Use a best practice “control agent” – This refers to the CoP leader who’s not only a subject matter expert, but also the person who keeps the CoP work on task.  Is the CoP functioning successfully?  The CTC grant staff handles this responsibility.  The CTC’s principal investigator, Ann Beheler, has experience both in the IT industry and also in the community college classroom and board room.  She’s the expert on the intersection of the IT workplace and the IT classroom.  The rest of the grant staff supports her in organizing the meetings and programming the agendas.
  • Regularly feed COP with external experts – New perspective is essential, not just in adding know-how but in motivating continued engagement.  CCN members are regularly presented with outside experts, whether in one-off special webinars (e.g. an IT industry executive provides his perspective on the future of IT) or as part of the quarterly meetings (e.g. a guest speaker presents a workshop on flipped classrooms).
  • Provide measurable performance – CoPs are by their nature hard to measure.  Experts agree that the best way to show CoP success is through anecdotal qualitative evidence that connects the dots – through personal stories – between CoP discussions and the practical application of those discussions.  At the CTC, all CCN schools are asked deliver an annual report that provides this kind of feedback to showcase ways the CCN community has helped.  The CCN also developed a unique gamified “points system” to better quantify member school engagement.  Points have increased engagement.

 

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