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Reinforcing feedback loops power effective communities of practice

A "Community of Practice" is a "group of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Wegner-Trayner & Wegner-Trayner, 2015). Although this social structure has probably existed since hunter/gatherer days, it was first described and named by anthropologists in workplaces where apprentices were being inculcated into the skills and habits of mind of a craft or profession (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The community of practice (CoP) construct has since been applied to a wide range of groups, both inside and outside of workplaces, including in education. The attributes of entities labelled as CoP's vary, but important common factors seem to be:

  • Communities of practice are committed to a shared domain of interest, and value their individual and collective competence in this domain.
  • They engage in joint activities, share information, build relationships that enable them to learn from each other.
  • Individuals in the CoP care about their standing with each other.
  • The group collectively develops a shared repertoire of resources, which may include experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems (Wegner-Trayner & Wegner-Trayner, 2015).

I've been lucky enough to be a part of several groups that I think have functioned as CoP's, and have had the opportunity to observe several others through colleagues, friends, and family. Three examples, to inform our later discussion:

  1. My husband trains with a skilled and dedicated canine wilderness search and rescue team. All are volunteers, and the more experienced humans and dogs teach the beginners. They train twice a week in all kinds of terrain and weather, and everyone picks up a share of the work. Dog-human pairs can progress up through a well defined series of proficiency levels, eventually earning a certification that qualifies them to join the search and response for lost or missing persons.
  2. After hydrothermal vents on mid-ocean ridges were discovered, a community of researchers coalesced around the challenges of understanding the intertwined geo-bio-chemo-physical systems of accretionary plate boundaries. The group was international and interdisciplinary. Some activities were orchestrated through the NSF-funded RIDGE and R2K programs, while others were ad hoc or informal.
  3. Geoscience education has communities of practice at both the K-12 and undergraduate level. An effective cluster of New York State high school Earth Science teachers meet virtually via the ESPRIT list server and in several face-to-face venues. At the undergraduate level, the Cutting Edge and InTeGrate projects have consciously worked at building a geo-ed community to foster the practice of teaching about the Earth through improving both the capacity of individual faculty members and the community as a whole.

As felt from the inside, there are two remarkable things about well-functioning CoP's: first, they make you feel good, and secondly, they ratchet up the competence of both the individual participant and the collective community. Communities of practice manage to be very much more than a zero sum game: value is traded and shared, but both parties end up ahead of where they would have been without the interaction. Moreover, the sharing and trading can keep going, ratcheting upwards towards higher levels of competence or capacity over time.

From a systems dynamics perspective, this behavior of ratcheting upwards over time sounds like the kind of behavior resulting from reinforcing feedback loops. Recall that a feedback loop is a situation where a change in A causes a change in B, which in turn loops around (sometimes through additional intermediate steps) to cause a further change in A. In a reinforcing feedback loop (aka "positive" feedback loop), the influence coming back from the loop tends to push the system even farther in the direction of the initial impetus. This kind of feedback loop is self-reinforcing; the more it works, the more it gains power to work some more.

So I've been trying to think about the functioning of a community of practice as a set of interlocking reinforcing feedback loops. The diagram below summarizes my thinking so far.

STELLA diagram of a community of practice

Provenance: Kim Kastens, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Reuse: This item is offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. You may reuse this item for non-commercial purposes as long as you provide attribution and offer any derivative works under a similar license.

The model is drawn using the graphic language of STELLA. This is just a conceptual or diagrammatic model–there isn't a runnable computational model behind it–but I have found it illuminating nonetheless.

The model has two "stocks" or "reservoirs," shown by blue rectangles. The upper stock is the capacity of an individual to engage excellently in the practice of X, where X would be rescuing people lost in the wilderness, or researching mid-ocean ridges, or teaching geoscience, or whatever else is the domain of the CoP. The lower stock is the collective capacity of the community to engage excellently in the practice of the same X. The observed behavior of CoP's that the model is trying to replicate is to make both of these reservoirs rise in a way that is interdependent and synergistic.

The thick blue arrows indicate flows into the stocks. In the case of the individual, you can think of flow in (building capacity) as Learning the practice. In the case of the community, flow in (building capacity) could happen by gathering resources/ techniques/ equipment, or by creating resources/ techniques/ equipment, or by practicing techniques or by recruiting new members. It is also possible to imagine plausible flows out of each of the two stocks, but let's leave that possibility for another post. Each of the thick blue inflow arrows has a valve on it, to signify that other components of the model can speed up or slow down the flow.

The small blue circles and red arrows can be thought of as "influencers," mapping out pathways by which information or influence flows from one part of the system to another. The influencer paths form most of the steps of the feedback loops. Since we are looking for positive feedbacks, of a type that lead to ratcheting upward of the stocks, we are looking for a pathway that leads from a stock back to the valve that feeds into that stock, with a sense of action such that a rise in the level of the stock leads to more input through the valve.

The first reinforcing feedback loop, at the top of the diagram, mostly involves the individual. Envision an individual who begins with a bit of capacity and interest in practice X, a low but non-zero stock of capacity and commitment. This motivates her towards joining into a CoP activity. Motivation increases the likelihood of participation. Participation, in turn, enables learning, which leads to inflow of capacity into the individual reservoir, completing the positive feedback loop. Let's call this the "individual learning" feedback loop. Note that Amount learned from a CoP activity is also influenced by the other stock, the Community Capacity stock, so that this individual learning feedback loop is juiced up by the capacity of the CoP.

Another small reinforcing feedback loop, at the bottom of the diagram, contributes to driving the CoP capacity stock. Note that in the center of the diagram, Participation in CoP activities led not only to learning, but also to Warm collegial feeling of a belonging and accomplishment. That, in turn, led to Desire to give back to CoP. "Giving back" could take the form of contributing materials, working to organize or lead events, teaching novices, etc., and all these kind of contribution have the potential to feed the inflow into the CoP capacity stock. The final limb of this feedback loop comes about because the upwelling of Warm collegial feeling of belonging and accomplishment is influenced by the capacity of the CoP. Let's call this the "affective feedback loop," as it contains key steps related to feelings and emotions.

Desire to contribute without Capacity to contribute can be worthless, or even annoying, so there is a third reinforcing feedback loop that runs around the perimeter of the model: As noted earlier, the Community capacity stock influences Amount learned from a CoP activity, which in turn increases the learning inflow into the individual's stock of capacity for the practice. Capacity at the practice itself also increases the individual's Capacity to contribute to the CoP, because the individual now has more insights to share and more skills to pass along to less accomplished practitioners. Capacity to contribute combines with Desire to give back to speed up the inflow into the CoP's capacity for the practice, thus ratcheting up the stock of Community's Capacity for Practice of X.

Looking over the model as a whole, it seems that the engine that drives the system, the distinctive characteristic that sets a CoP apart from an ordinary teaching-learning school transaction, is the central affective loop running through Warm collegial feeling... and Desire to give back... Let us now return to the three examples described earlier, and see how well this model fits.

The canine search and rescue group is in some ways the easiest fit to the model, because all the elements are out in the open. The commitment to continuously improving the capabilities of both the individuals and the team are explicit (bottom of page). The teaching function and the process for inculcating novices into the community are explicit. The expectation that participants will contribute to the community's capacity is explicit, in terms of investing lots of time, bearing the expenses of participation, and carrying a share of the work at each training session. The participants are volunteers and the only reward they get is affective, the warm collegial feeling of being part of a competent group learning new things and doing important work. The leaders of the group are highly proactive at stoking the engine of Warm collegial feeling of belonging and accomplishment: the dogs get lots of reinforcement for each accomplishment–and so do the humans.

The situation with communities of practice related to one's paid employment is a bit murkier. In the case of the scientists working on mid-ocean-ridge processes, they were all getting paid by a university or other employer for creating new knowledge through research. Most were funded by NSF or another government funding agency that required dissemination of research findings as a product of the grant. Under such circumstances, is it meaningful to speak of "contributing" to the community, or to envision the desire to "give" to the community as an engine that empowers the group to be more than the sum of its parts? I think so. In the earliest days, there was no place to learn about mid-ocean ridge processes other from one's colleagues–no textbooks, no courses, no degree programs–and so the emerging community of practice had a near-monopoly on learning opportunities. The capacity of the community of practice for uncovering the secrets of the mid-ocean ridges was rising at a dizzying speed, and thus the potential for a sense of accomplishment was very high for scientists who migrated into this new community. Although the RIDGE community had its share of rivalries and fights, it was also remarkable, especially in the early days, for the degree of collaborative sharing of shiptime, equipment, data, and ideas. Collectively, this community accomplished far more than they could have individually, ratcheting up the capacity of both the individuals and the community, across disciplines and across national boundaries. This example suggests that the effectiveness of the affect-driven feedback loop may be a function of not just the level of capacity in the CoP stock but also its rate of change.

The undergraduate Geoscience Education community of practice is the clearest example among the three of building up the capacity of the community with inputs contributed by the participants. Workshops are structured so that participants must contribute as well as learn, in the form of reflective essays, or educational resources, or program descriptions in advance of the workshops, and report outs from small group discussions during the workshops. Community inputs are mixed together with insights from experts and the research literature to create capacity-building resources around challenges such as increasing diversity in STEM disciplines, or preparing future teachers to teach about the Earth. This CoP is also particularly effective at making sure that emerging Capacity to contribute to CoP does indeed lead to increased inflow into the Community Capacity stock, by proactively tapping individuals who show capacity to take on leadership roles in the CoP.

So we find at least some support for this model by comparing the model against the observed behavior of three communities organized around different practices by different people. One final point in common among our three examples: they each center around an accomplishment that is important and difficult. It's my hope that this model may be of use to people trying to catalyze new communities of practice, be it around geoscience education research, energy education, or transitioning towards a low-carbon future. Well-functioning communities of practice make people feel good and can accomplish great deeds. We need more of them.

Sources and resources:

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. See also references therein.

Cathy Manduca provided the first clue that led to this model, in describing how workshops in the Cutting Edge and InTeGrate programs are designed, so that individual attendees and the project as a whole will both come away from the same event with new knowledge and enhanced capacity.

Thanks to Paul Morris, President of the Massachusetts Rescue and Recovery K9 Unit, Inc., for permission to use MARK-9 as an example and for his additional insights. I also thank the members of communities of practice of which I have been a part, including some of those described above, plus the Nottingham house, the mother's group, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the First Religious Society of Carlisle.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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