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The Role of Educators in the Community of Practice

Maureen McVey, CBAP, Head of Learning and Development, IIBA

“Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger circa 2007)

So, if this is true, what is the role of educator, instructor, and trainer in a community of practice, if we argue that traditionally an instructor’s role is primarily in the classroom or formal learning environment? This article proposes that they also have a role in a less formal learning environment such as a COP.

In today’s challenging work environment, most managers are loath to have their employees spend two to three days in a classroom. This is a place for the introduction of topics, discussion of merits and application of concepts, and in the end an exercise aimed at increasing productivity, acquiring new skills and reaching performance goals. The classroom is a safe place to make mistakes and apply concepts where the risk is low. 

With little time and increasing workload, the average employee is challenged to increase their skills and knowledge (competency) through traditional channels of learning. It’s great to read a book, or view a webcast, but the true measure of understanding or “getting it right” is validation. In class we have quizzes and feedback from our instructors. On our own we gingerly apply the concepts and hope for the best. We often don’t have the time to “fail” and remain stuck with our old business analysis tool set.

Everything we enjoy in society is a direct result of the accumulated learning derived from millions of mistakes. No mistakes, no progress. Yet we still look at making a mistake as embarrassing, wrong, an act bordering on sin. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re doing new things, taking risks, stretching yourself. You’re growing, learning. And isn't the journey, the experience, not the destination, what life is all about?” –Robert White

A community of practice, as a vehicle for learning, has a place for instructors—the purveyors of fact, feedback and direction. They have a unique role to play because their job is to ensure the right information is provided and applied to improve our craft. Instructors can provide topics for discussion, facts and theory, tools and techniques and feedback to the community on the application of business analysis concepts. 

The COP doesn’t take the place of “formal” learning (concepts, application and measure of understanding) but rather is a critical piece of “informal” learning. More importantly, the COP offers an environment for the improvement of existing techniques and the development of new ones.

The instructor plays a significant role in the learning part of the COP. They provide facts rather than conjecture, they are subject matter experts and can help validate and coach individuals through the application of new skills. They can help mitigate the risk of making errors while learning new skills—and ironically, learn as well.

Image: ©iStockphoto.com/kabliczech