Becoming Exceptional: Communities of Practice

Smithsonian _2028 Copyright Shelagh DonnellyWith whom would you rather work: EAs/PAs who are treated royally or as the elites among the admin. staff in your organisation … or people who exercise their influence to empower others? Which type of colleagues better serve their company?

Not that long ago, I helped launch a new internal organisation at my place of employment. It’s not a committee or network; rather, it’s an association of adminstrative counterparts, both unionised and non-union (management) employees. This entity embodies the spirit of IYOTSA 2014, the International Year of the Secretary and Admin. Assistant.

Drawing on an undertaking I’d proposed and helped launch back in 2006 at my previous place of employment, I began informal conversations with colleagues. My early conversations took place with others who shared influence and capacity to help launch a COP, also known as a community of practice, with membership based on roles within the organisation.

Once I was able to confirm others’ interest, I approached my boss, the CEO, to begin discussion of an internal COP.  Wait, you say; just what is a COP, or community of practice?

COP: a group who share a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact

This articulation of COPs comes courtesy of Etienne Wenger-Traynor, an educational theorist engaged in the field of social learning. Have a look at the Wenger-Trayner website to learn about Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Traynor, and what they do.

My interest in forming what became known as the Administrators’ Community of Practice (ACP) stemmed from a belief that we could collectively shape a new means of collaboration that would benefit individual colleagues and our institution as a whole.

Synergy: increased effectiveness resulting when two or more people or businesses work together

My vision included empowering one another and splintering and even shattering silos as we shared knowledge, working in synergy rather than potentially reinventing wheels and duplicating efforts.

More than a network, members share a domain of interest, competencies that distinguish them from others, and a mutual commitment

On reflection, I’ve helped launch and participated in more than one community of practice but was unaware of the term until touching base with that 2006 group – still going strong in 2015 – while preparing the business case for my current employer’s COP.

If you’d like to consider establish a COP within your orgnisation, an early step is identification of other influence leaders. This will include administrators within and beyond the C-suite. You’ll want to have an early conversation with the EA/PA to your CEO; s/he will have valuable insights and may be aware of initiatives or issues that may impact formation of an internal COP.

Even if the EA/PA to the CEO does not actively participate in development of your COP proposal, s/he can point you to colleagues who should be involved. You want to be thoughtful of your HR colleagues and their mandates; they may be working on similar or related initiatives, and you can help one another. You also want to be mindful, in any such conversations, to not overstep authority or identify the initiative as a foregone conclusion.

Set aside job titles; come together in conversations and activities that help one another and include information sharing

What do communities of practice look like? What do they do? I particularly like Wenger-Trayner’s outline  of means by which such COPs work together to develop their practices. You’ll see the list below reflects excerpts from Wenger-Trayner’s site; check their web page and see whether his theories resonate with you.

  1. Problem solving – you can turn to peers, in a safe environment, for help, brainstorming and benefit of experience
  2. Information requests – how do we do x? Where can I find information on y?
  3. Benefit from others’ experience with similar situations – it’s highly likely that peers can offer constructive insights based on their experiences; just be sure to recognise that this is a two-way street and reciprocate by doing the same wherever appropriate
  4. Sharing/re-using assets – why redesign templates when you can help one another? This goes to the CASE approach espoused by one peer, Korena, who happily invites counterparts to copy and steal everything that is public information intended for sharing of best practices. Of course, those of us who have benefitted from her expertise are equally happy to attribute our modifications of this stellar EA’s work to she and to her organisation, giving credit where it’s due.
  5. Coordination and synergy – here we go to achieving efficiencies of time and resources
  6. Discussing developments – again, through time and experience, you can create an environment in which you trust one another for pragmatic discussions
  7. Documentation projects – how many of us function without SOPs/Standard Operating Procedures?
  8. Visits – communities of practice needn’t be in-house within a single organisation or department, and they create opportunities to visit and explore one another’s worlds for ideas and insights
  9. Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps – you’re able to asses shared knowledge, and areas where the group lacks specific expertise; the next step is to identify other people or groups to whom your group can turn to fill such gaps

How does this translate to your workplace? It’s a given within a community of practice that you share and help one another as you can, while exercising discretion. Trust works in both directions, and we don’t disclose information intended as privileged, or confidential.

Members are active practitioners who, over time, build shared resources – tools, experiences, and means by which members can resolve problems

Have a look at my article about building the case for a community of practice within your own organisation or peer group, and ideas for rollout. In the interim, IYOTSA 2014, with its Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter sites seeing increased activity and information sharing weekly, is serving as an inspirational community of practice of its own.

A 2015 update: As my role has evolved, so, too, have the demands on my time. As such, the EA to our CEO and I now benefit from sharing the support afforded by a terrific Assistant, and so I have this year bowed out of our own COP. I know that the person assisting me represents our area effectively at ACP meetings. I watch the progress of this body with keen interest and, rather than attending meetings as a participant, have facilitated a couple of workshops for the group in recent months.

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