Best Practices in Developing a Learning Community

Colleagues often ask me:  How do you develop a dynamic learning cluster or community of practice with engaged members who are generous in sharing their knowledge and expertise? 

These practices comes from my 15+ years’ experience creating a world-class professional learning network and several communities of practices (COP) for directors, coaches and facilitators.  Successful COPs deliver on these key principles:  Adult learners want an opportunity to talk about what they know and to apply their skills to solving real-life problems. They want a safe space for learning, where it’s comfortable to express what they don’t know and what they want to learn.  It’s important to create an environment that encourages curiosity, learning, and “not-knowing”.

1.     Getting started

In my experience, it’s helpful to start by start by identifying a shared purpose, i.e.: Why do people want to come together?  What is it that they want to learn with, and from, each other?   What resources can they share?  Questions about logistics should be postponed until you have generated enthusiasm for the group – questions such as: How often are we going to do meet? What technology are we going to use? How are we going to schedule meetings?”

  • Start the cluster with each individual identifying his/her learning objectives, and then identify those objectives that are shared by most people.
  • What is it that they want to learn?  What real-life problems can they work on that will benefit from their collective wisdom?
  • Identify topics for discussion. You might choose one of these for the first meeting.
  • Identify the skills that people possess that can be harnessed for a meeting topic, in presentations or in discussions.
  • Spend the bulk of the first meeting on content, not on logistics or on technology.  People are eager to hear “what’s this group about” and “how do I connect to this topic and to this group?”  Save the logistics and technology towards the end of the meeting.
  1. Community Guidelines

Identify guidelines to support connection based on mutual learning and support, that encourage sharing of information.  Mutual learning means coming together to learn with and from one another, without a need to have all the answers.  Design the meetings with a lot of interaction, in pairs or small groups, and then debrief the conversation with the large group.  Small groups allows for maximal participation (you don’t have to wait for your turn among 20+ people), as well as community building and networking.

  1. Participants own the group

This comes from the self-organizing principle of adult learning – adults know what they want/need to learn and they can take responsibility for their learning.  The degree to which participants organize the topics may depend on the nature of the group.  In many cases, it’s up to the participants to identify topics for conversation, and rotate the roles of presenting a topic, choosing a book to read and discuss or generating cases for discussion.

Peer-assists can also be very valuable, where someone presents a case and others help problem-solve. The most effective learning approach is to have participants ask questions to help the presenter get clear about the problem, and begin to offer suggestions towards the middle or end of the session.

  1. Foster Communication between participants

Participants want to be able to communicate with each other between meetings.  Build a platform for multi-directional communication for the purpose of networking, potential collaboration and for people to learn who they can call on with future questions.  This builds the density of connections and strengthens the group for the long run.

That should be enough to get you started!

Questions?  Contact me:

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