Community members learn together, develop their practice, and share and build knowledge through a wide variety of “learning activities.” This slide is a list of the learning activities that communities of practice typically engage in to learn together.
In the slide this sample of learning activities is organized along three dimensions:
1. Horizontally: Learning from and learning with
When members interact, they learn both “from” and “with” each other. They learn from each other’s experience of practice through stories, lessons learned, and advice; and they learn with each other when they act as learning partners in debating issues or exploring new solutions together. Most activities involve both processes. Even a simple request for information can lead to a debate about the relevance of the information provided. Still, it is often the case that one aspect is more salient in defining the basic structure of the activity.
On the diagram, this dimension is represented by the horizontal axis: activities that are primarily “learning from” are toward the left and activities that are primarily “learning with” are towards the right.
2. Vertically: Informal and formal activities
It is important not to confuse the self-governing nature of communities of practice with an absence of internal structure. Learning activities range from very informal to very formal activities. Some activities require almost no facilitation or organization, such as requests for just-in-time information or spontaneous conversations. Some activities are quite formal, requiring facilitation, organization, and even protocols, such as training sessions, practice-development projects, or the setting of standards.
On the diagram, this dimension is represented by the vertical access with more informal activities towards the top and more formal activities toward the bottom.
3. Inside and outside
That the main thrust of communities of practice is peer-to-peer learning does not entail members have all the knowledge and information they need internally. Finding sources of information and knowledge outside is just as much of a community activity as learning from and with each other. Inviting guests and experts or reading research papers together are ways that communities incorporate broader knowledge into their practice and keep abreast of developments in relevant fields. Such boundary-oriented activities help the community avoid the trap of becoming insular and caught in its own limitations.
On the diagram this dimension is illustrated by the two rectangles labeled as “each other” and “outside sources.” Activities located in the inner rectangle mostly involve members. Activities located on the outer band centrally involve sources of learning outside of the community.
Because activities in the upper left require less commitment, communities often start there, and move progressively to activities in the lower right as they mature.
In addition to locating activities along these three dimensions, the slide also groups them into clusters of related activities that have similar learning effects. These clusters represent variations on a theme and are represented by the bubbles on the diagram:
While this sample of learning activities cannot be exhaustive, it is large and varied. Obviously, not all communities engage in all these activities. In most cases, this would not be a good goal to strive for; many communities function very well with a small subset of these activities. But having a broad panorama of various kinds of activities is a useful tool. It can open the imagination of members and facilitators as to what their community could do to foster learning together. This is mainly a menu that community leaders can choose from to help organize their communities.