About one year ago, a couple of colleagues from across the country reached out to me. We agreed to meet the next month for an hour-and-a-half, and then the month after that, and voilà! Our Community of Practice is born.
Etienne C. Wenger with colleagues Beverley Wenger-Traynor and William M. Snyder have referred to “Communities of Practice” as groups of individuals sharing a common concern or desire, to both learn and do something better, as they interact and exchange ideas on a regular basis. Three elements to a successful Community of Practice: 1) a domain; (2) a community; and 3) a practice.
A domain refers to the group’s shared common ground, even if, or especially if, that common ground is specific to the members and is not necessarily shared by people outside of the group. In retrospect, we established our Community of Practice because it would afford us a safe space as women of colour, to share our ideas, valuing what we each could bring to the conversation, including our trust for one another, and commitment to equity in planning practice.
Community, as expressed by Wenger-Traynor, is built upon a shared domain. The exchanges across the shared domain are not transactional, instead they offer a foundation to build trust and strong bonds. The fact that we are all planners, and self-identify as we do, are not what make our group a community. What fosters community are our mutual efforts to build connections, to support one another, even outside of our meeting times, while we also pursue our individual interests and shared concerns. Each one of us is at a different stage in our careers and in our lives, and as such, we can learn from each other’s experiences and encourage each other as we move, sometimes boldly, into our, sometimes new, responsibilities. We remain accountable to each other too, as we make our choices, and celebrate our successes on our own terms.
The term practice here refers to the fact that we encourage to practice what we learn from each other. Even though we work in various places, in different cities, and have access to different resources, we share ideas and ways of problem solving. Over time, we have been building our own lexicon, stories, and bodies of work to inform each other’s practice.
When I was full-time academic, I participated in what I thought was a Community of Practice; however, it felt more competitive than supportive, and we tended to exchange what we were reading and our works in progress, rather than exchanging approaches that we could each try out. Over time, I was contributing much more than I was getting from the group. Feeling unfulfilled, I left the group too.
By contrast, the monthly online gatherings of our current Community of Practice are informal, yet we give each other time to speak. These meetings have become a welcome addition to my calendar, and I look forward to them, gathering information weeks in advance to share, or if I cannot wait, I send things off to my fellow members by email for their perusal. When our meeting time comes around, we seem to fall right into a familiar rhythm of comfort, curiosity, and community. Our online exchanges are sometimes fast and furious as we bounce ideas around and share in laughter and exchange the occasional emoji. We are each becoming branches of the same tree, and to take the metaphor further, if our ideas are leaves, then they are lush, even during the winter season.
Wenger, Etienne, and William Snyder. 2000. “Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier.” Harvard Business Review, January-February, pp. 139-145.
Wenger-Traynor, Etienne, and Beverley Wenger-Traynor. 2015. “Communities of Practice: A Brief Overview of the Concept and Its Uses.” April 15, 2015. From https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/