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Bound by common interests and passion for a cause

Campus Review, 13 May 2003

COMMUNITIES of practice are not about idly chatting around the coffee machine or sending miscellaneous emails. They are groups of people bound together by common interests and a passion for a cause who continually interact.

A new report by John Mitchell (pictured) of John Mitchell and Associates points to the complex tripartite structure that defines communities of practice which he says need to be understood and managed if their full benefits are to be felt within the vocational education and training sector.

Mitchell's report 'Effectively structuring communities of practice in VET' is based on the findings from an evaluation of 48 communities of practice managed by Reframing the Future and funded through the Australian National Training Authority last year. Reframing the Future, the ANTA-funded national staff development and change management program, is designed to support the implementation of an industry-led, demand-driven national training system of high quality.

In 2002, communities of practice were encouraged to develop a greater understanding of the three fundamental structural elements of their communities - a domain of knowledge which creates common ground and a sense of common knowledge in the community; a community that provides a sense of belonging and mutual commitment; and practice which provides a set of common approaches to problems.

According to Mitchell, communities of practice are an attractive theoretical concept for collaborative-minded VET professionals, but they are not always easy to form, nurture and sustain. One of the issues identified in the evaluation of communities of practice in 2001 was the need for members to become more aware of the structural dimensions of a community of practice - the dimensions that make a community of practice different from a work or project team.

On the surface, the domains of knowledge for the 2002 VET communities were similar as they were all required to focus on the implementation of the national training system. Training package implementation, the requirements of the Australian Quality Training Framework, recognition of current competencies, industry-provider relationships and collaboration with other providers were targeted.

Common interests included:

  • Implementing newly-released training packages, including developing strategies for delivery and/or assessment
  • Improving client focus, in order to better customise delivery and assessment
  • Enhancing relationships with other deliverers or assessors, in order to share knowledge and improve service provision

Below the surface, the domain of knowledge differed for each community funded in 2002 depending on factors such as the interests of the members, previous experiences and knowledge of the members and the specific needs they identified.

One case study provided in the report that focuses on the Western Australian rail industry provides an example of a community of practice that begins with an important specific domain of knowledge, but then delves deeper enabling members to gain more from their participation in the community.

Mitchell notes the domain took on "higher and higher levels of meaning for the participants". He goes on to note that more value will be derived from the community of practice as the domain is interrogated and members look at deeper levels of the issues. Experienced facilitators know how to guide members in this exploration.

According to Mitchell, communities of practice in Australian VET are much harder to form than most of those discussed in the literature where communities usually consist of employees of one company usually working in the same building but sometimes located in a different part of the country.

In contract, communities of practice in VET often involve members from multiple organisations, separated by vast distances. Further, membership of these communities can consist of multiple stakeholders, from teaching staff, to educational managers, to industry representatives, enterprise personnel and union officials.

The report chapter on developing a community reveals there are a number of common issues and threads regardless of the type of industry involved. Mitchell found the achievements of communities of practice are pivotal to the implementation of a national training system, including enhancing relationships between providers and industry, assisting with the use of training packages and enabling improved consistency and quality of assessment.

"Communities of practice suit VET and, ultimately, community-building is a necessity, not an option, in the complex VET environment," says Mitchell.

In 2001, the 16 pilot communities of practice were clear about their domain of knowledge and were generally effective in community building. But because they were less effective in exploring the depths of professional practice, Mitchell recommended that communities of practice in 2002 allocate sufficient resources to ensure members understand the practice that underpinned their community.

The following describes the development of practice in a creative arts community. CREATE, the national industry training advisory board for the arts, media and cultural industries, in partnership with its state counterparts, key sector enterprises and RTOs, developed a community of practice in 2002 to investigate industry issues focusing specifically on assessing creativity.

A national workshop was a key activity for the community, raising many valuable ideas, but grappling with the ongoing challenge of maintaining community with members located around the country.

Convenor and facilitator Marie Manidis considers that concrete results from the workshop and the community's interactions in 2002, were the understanding that assessment involves working with industry, the acceptance that there is a mix of subjective and objective factors in assessment, and the commitment to making assessment criteria more explicit.

The CREATE community of practice stimulated reflection on practice in a variety of ways. Strategies identified by community members that could improve their reflection on practice included:

  • Exchanging of anecdotal comments about the experiences of becoming an RTO
  • Ongoing discussion about common ideas and issues
  • Development of an assessor network, operating both online and face-to-face
  • Use of an email distribution list provided to all
  • Development of a database from the distribution which lists expertise so that people can make appropriate contacts as needed
  • An email discussion group, or an online forum. Potential focus areas could be looking more closely at the creative process
  • Subgroup meetings on various topics of interest, working as "mini" communities of practice
  • Access to an online chat room
  • Follow-up meetings to continue to discuss and debate creativity
  • Development of assessment tools for clusters of units that involve the assessment of creativity

In describing the various activities that contribute to the development of practice, Michell notes the discussion pointed to the tacit and explicit resources in each community and different ways that knowledge can be shared, such as by using experts or theories or tools.

"The study shows that future communities of practice in VET could usefully seek out and access the knowledge and competencies of community members and seek to develop communal knowledge resources," he says.

  • John Mitchell heads the Sydney-based consultancy John Mitchell and Associates