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Conferences as communities of practice

by Adrian Segar

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COP on the beat
One of the reasons I love facilitating peer conferences that use the Conferences That Work format is my enjoyment in experiencing the wonderful support and development they provide for communities of practice (COPs). What are COPs? Why are they important? How do peer conferences support them? Read on!

Communities of practice
Communities of practice—a term coined by educational theorist Etienne Wenger—are a group of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common. COPs include three key elements: a shared domain of interest; a group whose members interact and learn together; and the development of a shared body of practice, knowledge, and resources.

While the term is relatively new, communities of practice have existed in human societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Systems of apprenticeship and professional guilds, developed in the Late Middle Ages, all incorporate the three COP elements. In fact, COPs have been the predominant modality for professional learning for most of human history!

Why are COPs important?
The Middle Ages are long gone and today we can learn in many new ways. Does this mean that COPs have outlived their usefulness? By no means. Here’s what Harold Jarche thinks about the role of communities of practice in creating effective working environments:

My recommendation has been to support workplace activities that are both cooperative and collaborative and also to provide the necessary support structures. However, my observations to date show that a third piece is required, and that is the fostering of communities of practice to connect the two. These communities, internal and external, are a safe place between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. I also see the support of communities of practice, through skill development and structural support, as a primary role for learning & development staff.
First structure the work system, Harold Jarche

In other words, as shown in Jarche’s diagram above, COPs provide an essential link between the work performed by individuals and teams in organizations (where the rubber meets the road) and the rich possibilities for interaction and learning now available from our social networks, both face-to-face and online.

How do peer conferences support communities of practice?
So where do communities of practice reside today? In Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I argue that participation-rich and participant-led peer conference formats like Conferences That Work provide a wonderfully rich environment for communities of practice. At a (well-planned) traditional conference, conference planners invest significant time and effort before the event attempting to determine who can potentially provide an “above average” contribution on the conference subject, but peer conferences make no such a priori assumptions about who is a teacher and who is a learner. Rather, they promote an environment in which teaching and learning are ever-fluid activities; the teacher at one moment is a learner the next. Sometimes, everyone in an interaction is learning simultaneously as social knowledge is discovered, constructed, and shared.

Peer conferences aren’t built on the expectation that every attendee will significantly contribute to the event. Rather, peer conference process provides the opportunity for anyone to contribute, perhaps unexpectedly, but ultimately, usefully.

In my experience, peer conferences are high-quality incubators for communities of practice—they provide a wonderful way for a group of people to explore the potential for creating an ongoing community. The majority of peer conferences that I have facilitated have turned into regular events, but, even when this does not happen, a peer conference inevitably leads to new long-term relationships and communal projects of one kind or another. Conversely, communities of practice can use regular peer conferences to effectively explore and deepen their collective learning and intragroup relationships.

Essential tools
In conclusion, I think of peer conferences as being essential tools—like the radios and scanners used by the other kinds of cops—that support the construction of social knowledge and appropriate learning for communities of practice. Add them to your workplace and conference toolkit and your COPs will reap the benefits!

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A true innovator in the conferences space, Adrian is at the forefront of attendee-driven conferences and meetings. His blog posts are extremely insightful and incorporate ideas and tactics from other disciplines (like physics and psychology) to shed light on how to better plan and manage meetings. His blog is required reading for this industry. — Jeff Kear, http://blog.planningpod.com/2014/05/01/31-must-follow-event-planners-event-bloggers-twitter/

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