Working Smarter not Harder: Communities of Practice and Organizational Learning

If there was ever a time in which higher education administrators were asked to work smarter and not harder, it is now. One need look no further than to the numerous examples of institutions involved in some form of prioritization planning process (PPP) to see that efficiency and accountability to institutional mission and mandate rule the day.

Postsecondary institutions are in the midst of substantial organizational change, in large part as a result of financial constraints. Administrators are looking for ways to serve more students (I’m unaware of any institution recruiting fewer students) and typically students with more diverse backgrounds (first generation students, international students, mature learners, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities) but often with a budget that isn’t any larger than the previous year.

How to support a more diverse student body in achieving their personal and academic goals on a reduced budget (whether that reduction is in real or proportionate terms) while doing so in a way that is efficient and aligns with the institutional mission and mandate. These are challenging questions and ones that the Supporting Student Success research team heard at a number of institutions during our site visits.

It’s interesting how postsecondary institutions and postsecondary professional associations face related challenges in terms of meeting needs and expectations in ways that are flexible and nimble. Like many colleges and universities in the Supporting Student Success study, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) is in the midst of organizational change. From six divisions affiliated under a broad umbrella, CACUSS is responding to member interests and needs through the organic development of Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Etienne Wenger and colleagues (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). They can connect people, provide a shared context, enable dialogue, capture and diffuse existing knowledge, stimulate learning, and generate new knowledge (Cambridge, Kaplan & Suter, 2005).

I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue at #CACUSS2014 about CoPs and how they can be effective in both meeting members’ professional development needs and advancing CACUSS’ goals. Similar to postsecondary institutions where an issue like supporting student paraprofessionals spans across functional areas like orientation, residence life and health promotion (to name a few), interest in this and similar issues spans across CACUSS divisions. Rather than duplicate the conversation across multiple divisions, the CoP model allows members from across the association to find one another, share practices and develop resources that inform and advance one’s practice.

The Supporting Student Success team heard about the power of CoPs during phase 1 and 2 data collection. At one institution, a respondent shared about the value of bringing people from across the division together to discuss student leadership development. The perspectives varied and from learning together the staff were able to work efficiently and synergistically to strengthen the support they provided student leaders.

At another institution, we experienced the potential forming of a CoP as a result of the focus group. In this situation, focus group participants learned that they both were involved in developing peer mentoring programs but didn’t know of the other person’s work. At the end of the focus group, they exchanged information and set a time to meet to discuss developing joint training materials.

I’m a big advocate of finding ways to work smarter rather than harder. For me, this naturally means looking for opportunities to partner, collaborate, share resources, and look for synergies of what I’m doing with what others are doing. I see Communities of Practice as a means for community members to learn from one another in ways that inform and improve practice. From a higher education administrator perspective, CoPs may provide additional knowledge and ability to leverage resources to best support a more diverse student body. From a CACUSS member’s perspective, engaging in a CoP (or several CoPs) may allow one to seek professional development and contribute to the professional development of others along the multiple facets of one’s professional identity.

I think we are in for many more days of fiscal restraint. In the current political climate, the pressure toward efficiency and accountability is likely to grow stronger. This has implications for both higher education administrators and the professional associations that aim to meet the professional development needs of those administrators. As Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter note, CoPs have the potential to help people organize, introduce collaborative processes, share existing knowledge and generate new knowledge — all important aspects in today’s world.

I want to hear from you! Please share your experience as a member of a CoP in the comments section below.

By Tricia Seifert, Primary Investigator for Supporting Student Success research study.

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