In one of my early Considering Community posts I outlined several broad types of community – from communities of interest to communities of circumstance – and I mused on whether the different types might use online tools distinctly.
In reflecting recently on the different communities represented in the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program that I run, I realised that it’s time to dive a little deeper on this topic – considering some of the different configurations of community specifically within science.
In this first post on the topic, I discussed professional societies for scientists and what I call infrastructure or “halo” organisations. In part two I considered research collaborations. In part three I’m going to discuss communities of practice.
What is a community of practice?
The term community of practice originated in the field of education to refer to groups where members who share a profession or craft come together to share experiences and expertise, and thereby improve themselves professionally or personally. Communities of practice are distinct from communities of interest where expertise in the subject is not a requirement for membership.
Communities of practice serve key functions in learning. As well as giving an opportunity to codify explicit knowledge in the form of best practice materials, the connections between members of the community may also serve in the sharing of tacit knowledge about how a field or profession functions.
Some examples in science
- The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows Affinity groups – AAAS runs an annual year-long science and technology policy program in which one of the activities of the fellows is to join STPF affinity groups. These groups have typically been in existence for many years, and two Fellows in their 2nd year of the fellowship (which can be one or two years in length) act as co-chairs for the groups. Groups may work to organise monthly invited speaker events, create other materials or apply for funds to run a larger one or two day symposium at AAAS. Active members of the group are likely to be current fellows, but mailing lists and online groups allow previous fellows and sometimes even expert members of the wider scientific community to remain involved.
- STEM educators creating new teaching materials – Several groups of STEM educators that I’ve encountered have come together to create teaching materials which may be i) for a particular demographic of students e.g undergraduates ii) using a particular methodology e.g. process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) and iii) focused on a particular subject area. Typically the group members are educators located at different institutions and may be working on this as a supplemental project to advance the field as a whole.
- Departmental or collaboration-wide journal clubs – The practice of holding regular journal clubs to dive deeper into a paper of note is widespread in science. These might occur on a lab-wide, collaboration-wide or departmental level with the goals of learning more about a particular piece of research and also critiquing its methodology and significance together as a group.
- Various scientific working groups or committees including grant review boards – These groups may come together periodically – typically a few times a year – to carry out activities for the benefit of their research area of the scientific community e.g. looking into grants in a particular topic area, considering diversity and inclusion within their field and so on.
- The community engagement manager role within these communities may or may not be formalised – In the examples I’ve shared, some of the communities of practice have chairs – who would effectively be carrying out a community engagement function. Others may have a less formal organiser e.g. a post-doc or final year PhD student who coordinates the journal club. In many cases, because the role is supplemental to the organiser’s core role, the main personal reward is likely to be a line on their CV and the building of social capital within their immediate community, rather than any financial gain.
- Is there a size limit to the number of members in a community of practice? If the group is to continue learning together in a productive way it would seem necessary either to limit the number of members in the community or to consider carefully how to welcome new members, such that they may feel able to contribute to the group. One more complex example is the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows affinity groups which have a rotating active membership – see above. In this instance, the number of active members likely stays somewhat similar over time, but the composition of those contributors changes.
- What motivates the members of the community of practice to stay engaged? Given that many communities of practice involve voluntary participation, the motivation of the members is key to ensuring that it stays active. This might include creating something of benefit to the wider field, personal learning and development.
- Meeting and working together in person is likely to be important for many communities of practice for several reasons. It ensures dedicated time to focus on the group’s activities which may otherwise be supplemental to the members’ day jobs e.g. in the case of curriculum development or sharing of best practices. Given that learning often requires a back and forth discussion about a topic, this is likely to be more effective in person, particularly for complex topics and those spanning multiple fields of expertise. Finally, participation in communities of practice is influenced by the proximity of member relationships – and members are more likely to cement or form those relationships when able to meet in person.
- When does a community of practice become a halo or infrastructure organisation? In common with the halo or infrastructure organisations that I described in a previous post, communities of practice often carry out projects that may be seen as somewhat “supplemental” to scientific research, and which may also operate outside of the bounds of a single organisation – although this is not meant to infer that these activities are unimportant. When does a community of practice become a halo or infrastructure organisation? I suggest that this occurs at the point at which the group shifts from being led strongly by the group’s members and instead becomes formalised to the extent that a core organising body is enacting a roadmap for the community. This might simply become a necessity due to receiving grant funding (on a larger scale?) which requires more formalised deliverables and activities. However, it is not necessarily assumed that all communities of practice evolve into formalised organisations in this way.
Are you part of a community of practice? Who is the person in the community manager role, if there is one?