Community-Driven Institute

Learning Communities / Communities of Practice / Learning Circles
What are they? How do they work? Why would we want one?
by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc.2009 ©

If ever there were an area where organizations feel they must go it alone, that area would be 'capacity building.' Suggest to a group that they spend time with the leaders of “competing” organizations to learn how to do their job better, and the discussion will eventually turn to the group’s fears about sharing “proprietary information” and the like.

Sadly, the every-organization-for-itself approach to capacity building has not built noticeably stronger organizations. It has also not built strong communities. On the contrary, what it seems to have strengthened is the sense that each of us is alone, struggling to survive on our own, while the quality of life in our communities is not significantly improved.

Learning Together and Supporting Each Other

Consider for a moment a different kind of capacity building - the “capacity building” that is at the core of the world’s religions. When we practice a faith, we are seeking our higher selves. We are looking to gain strength, stability. Just like "capacity building!"

Being a good practitioner of every major faith around the world requires regular practice - perhaps daily prayer or meditation, perhaps a weekly sermon, perhaps a teaching / learning session mid-week. And every faith gives us the opportunity to share our practice with others. If we are to learn how to be a better person, we need the support of others who are walking that same path.

That is precisely what a Learning Community provides for your mission.

Simply put, a Learning Community (also called a Learning Circle or a Community of Practice) is a group of individuals who learn from each other and with each other on an ongoing basis, with the goal of improving their work.

This is not just a study group or reading group. The goal of a practice-based Learning Community is the practice - what you will DO differently in your day to day work, and how the group can help each other DO that.

In a Learning Community, group members will learn new approaches to doing their work. They will stretch to incorporate that new learning into their own work, and then share with others in the group what they learn from putting that learning into practice. Then the cycle continues.

Learning Communities / Communities of Practice are asset-builders. They build learning upon learning, trust upon trust. They build wisdom upon the wisdom of those in the group, and then leverage that to create not only more and more wisdom, but to share that wisdom with those outside the immediate group.

And when the focus of a Learning Community is a shared vision for making the community an extraordinary place to live, well you can imagine the possibilities!

Learning Communities are therefore wisdom-building systems that inspire participants to learn more, to bring new knowledge into the group, and to bring their questions in a spirit of trust and cooperation. In a Learning Community, everyone is in it together - learning together, teaching together, building higher together. The approach is inspiring, connected, energizing and engaging.

As you consider the limited capacity-building dollars available in your community in both good times and bad times, building a Learning Community can accomplish something no organization can accomplish on its own: You will be building collective community-wide capacity. And that cannot help but increase the results your community will see.

Building a Learning Community: A Simple Format

Once you have gathered a group together, there are some simple steps you can take to make your Learning Community a success.

Establish the Group’s Purpose
At your very first Learning Community meeting, the group will obviously want everyone to introduce themselves. Don’t skimp on time for this function. If you are all going to build trust together, you don’t have to rush through the introductions to get to the “good stuff.” Those introductions are part of the good stuff!

In addition to name and organization, you might ask participants to answer questions like these as well:

  • Given your mission, what would the community look like if you were successful? (This question moves away from “my organization’s health / mission” and moves towards the thing everyone in the group cares about - making the community a better place.)
  • What is your vision for what this group might accomplish for each other?

From those introductions, that first meeting can then focus on determining the group’s purpose. Starter questions for that discussion might include:

• What do we want to be different because of our learning together?

• Different about our results in the community?

• Different about our ability to work together?

• Different about the work each of us is doing individually?

• Different about the way we engage others in that work?

Establish Ground Rules
Based on the group’s shared values and shared purpose, ground rules help move things forward. Here are a few we use in our own groups. They may work for your group as well, or you may want additional parameters.

  • Our conversations will always center around our ability to create better results in the community. If we are discussing an internal “means-related” issue (fundraising, board issues, etc.) we will always work to put that issue into the context of why it is important - the end results we want to create for our communities.
  • We will support each other’s efforts. Our group will only be successful if all our members are successful.
  • “Don’t tell us why you can’t. Tell us how you can.” We will support each other to build on our strengths and possibilities, not our weaknesses and reasons why not.

To determine ground rules for your own group, the following questions may be helpful:

  • What does great discussion look like? What conditions lead to such great discussion? What ground rules would help guide us to create those conditions?
  • What core values do we want to model to each other and to newcomers? What talk do we want to walk?
  • What does it take to build trust? What ground rules would help us encourage each other and build that trust?
  • What values do we want the culture of this group to be based on? What ground rules might help us put those values into action?

Establish a Meeting Format

Develop a consistent meeting format that builds upon last time while aiming towards next time. This will help the group get beyond a lament heard often in community groups: “We met for a year or two, but it really wasn’t going anywhere, so we eventually just stopped meeting.”

Having a consistent format will create traditions, so that new members can sense the rhythm of the group and know what to expect. Those traditions will help the group evolve and grow together, to continue focusing on the group’s reason for being.

One easy tradition to instate is to include introductions at the beginning of every meeting, especially if you are encouraging new people to join the group. You might have name tags every time (first name only, big and bold). You might have food every time.

The following is a simple format we have used, that helps bring everyone to the same page quickly while always moving the group forward. This format splits the meeting time into three distinct sections and assumes the group has committed sufficient time to the meetings to make each section effective (an hour simply is not enough time to learn AND build trust AND reflect / absorb!).

1) Time to Reflect
During the first portion of the meeting, group members share what they have experienced as they have put their new ways of thinking and being into practice. These observations may focus around questions such as:

  • As you put into practice what we learned / shared last time (or have been learning all along in this group), what surprised you? What excited you?
  • What stood out for you? What changed? What was different?
  • What was disappointing, that you learned from or were frustrated by?
  • What new issues arose, that you did not anticipate and could use help with?

2) Learning Together
The second portion of the meeting is where the new learning happens. This time can be spent with a speaker imparting new knowledge - perhaps a skill you have all decided you want to learn, or more information about a specific issue that arose as part of the group’s reflections during a prior meeting. This could also be time spent in facilitated dialogue about a topic that has been pre-arranged by the group. Make sure to leave time for lots of Q&A and/or group discussion, to keep moving the group’s learning forward.

It is important to note that this learning portion of the meeting is not determined by an outsider but by the group’s own discussions. As you share your reflections in the first part of the meeting, it is the perfect time to say, “We should have a speaker on that next time!”

3) What’s Next?
In the final portion of the meeting, the group shares two things:

  • What stood out for you in this meeting? What was new / inspired new thinking for you/ brought up new questions? What will you be putting into practice?
  • What do you want to spend time learning next time?

From this format, each meeting builds upon the others, and the group is always moving forward, generating new approaches to put into practice. The key is that everything that is discussed, shared and learned is centered around the group’s core purpose - its reason for being.

As you participate regularly in a supportive Learning Community / Community of Practice, you will find these are meetings you wouldn’t miss for anything. By learning together, supporting and inspiring each other in your work, you will be gaining the kind of “capacity building” you could not possibly have gained alone.

Your work will be stronger, and your community results will be stronger. And the reason for that is simple: By participating in a Learning Community, you are modeling what it looks like to build community. You are showing what is possible by your very actions. You are proving what is possible.

Being part of a Learning Community is one step towards being the vision-based, values-based, interconnected, strength-based change you want to see in your community.


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