Accelerated leadership trajectories in communities of practice

by Lilia Efimova on 18 December 2009

This is something that have been in the blogging pipeline for a while, but thanks to the conversations with John Smith I actually finished it :)

A couple of months ago I went through two different, but somewhat parallel experiences. One is from KM4Dev workshop. During one of the evenings I ended up in a discussion by the core group about the need for a more active – taking charge/leadership – position by the community members. The conversation was stimulating and there were follow-up actions the day after. At the last day I also volunteered to join the core group (which is not very logical for someone new to the community, but I felt like helping out and others were open to see how that would work). Since then I’ve been following the discussions in the core group, realising how difficult it is to figure out how I could add value without being at the community core.

Another experience comes from participating in CPsquare foundations workshop, where modelling of a community life is part of the learning approach. The flow of participation required picking up various leadership roles; I was happy to do so, but in the process had a few hiccups that turned into thinking of how this process could be facilitated.

Community leadershipI always thought of the leadership in a community of practice as part of the core. As a newcomer you move to the center through legitimate peripheral participation, starting from learning about the community practices by observing, than participating a little, than more and more… The closer you move to the core the more leadership tasks (e.g. welcoming newcomers or organising events) you pick up.

Now I see that view as a problematic, since leadership practices of a community ≠ community practices. Lots of leadership activities are invisible in the daily life of the community (that’s the art of facilitation, too :), so ‘normal’ members, especially newcomers may not know what does it take to make sure that technical issues are resolved, discussions are active and go smoothly, events organised and attended… Also, an ability to help with leadership tasks often requires crossing a boundary: getting admin rights with the tools or joining facilitator meetings and mailing lists. In that respect moving from the core to the periphery in respect to the leadership in the community requires more than being an experienced member.

Community leadership rediscovered

Of course, it’s not a totally independent process – any meaningful engagement in the leadership tasks requires some understanding of the community practices (that’s why I find contributing to KM4Dev core group so challenging ;). However, you also do not need to move all the way to the core to start contributing (that’s why process facilitators still find a place in communities of practice). The problem is that usually leadership trajectories have to go through the core, because it’s the only way to cross the boundary that gives access to invisible leadership practices. Which not only takes time, but also keeps the workload of existing leaders high, while some newcomers might be happy to help but do not know how.

Now, what could be done to facilitate accelerated leadership trajectories? Make leadership practices in the community more visible, find how to deal with necessary boundaries and facilitate learning.

Some ideas of how it might look in practice:

  • Make the need for new leadership visible for everyone. Facilitation in a community is hard and often voluntary work, but lots of it is invisible, so potential new leaders may not realise that existing leaders would very much appreciate help.
  • Think of possible leadership trajectories in relation to the specifics of your community and make those visible as well.
  • Open up leadership-related discussions when technically possible and politically sensible: invite people to meetings, give access to archives of mailing lists, share summaries of discussions with the community as a whole (most of it is actually done at KM4Dev community, so I’m not very creative here :)
  • Ask leaders to articulate their own practices – what does it take and give back, how to do things, what tools to use when, etc.
  • Make sure that leadership and participation practices are visible next to each other if there are any written guidelines (e.g. online events: how to participate and how to organise)
  • Facilitate leadership-related legitimate peripheral participation by having a pool of small leadership-related tasks that community members can pick up without getting into a bigger commitment

So, what do you think? I’m realising that there should be something on this in the Digital habitats book, but I don’t have it with me…

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Daryl_Hill (Daryl Hill)
18 December 2009 at 20:35
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18 December 2009 at 20:57
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mary bostwick 18 December 2009 at 20:47

Lilia, thank you for making the effort to organize your thoughts and put them into writing in a manner that triggers ideas in others.
In the Foundations Communities of Practice, I see the key process as learning and the maintenance of the infrastructure, planning of learning opportunities, communication as processes that support the learning.
In that context I see leadership distributed in a learning group. For instance I recognized your leadership in raising the challenge of becoming familiar with the technology, Monique’s leadership in raising the challenge of disclosure on the interpersonal dimension, Paul’s leadership in providing a large quantity of resources, Chad’s leadership in reducing the frustration with humor. Others came forward and developed these and other community learning tasks further.
From an alternative perspective, I came to learn about the support needed for a learning community. And like you I learned it required a lot of support. Perhaps another learning opportunity — Foundations II – is learning the support functions. Shadowing John, the facilitators, and other contributors to uncover what you term “invisible leadership tasks”.
Again, thanks for leading me and others to reflect on our experience especially as it pertains to leadership.

2 Helen Hickson 22 December 2009 at 08:28

Hi Lilia,
I have found it very interesting to look through your blog and especially to see the way you have managed your PhD. Congratulations on your achievement. I am starting out on the PhD journey and I can see many links between your work and mine. Thanks for a great blog.


3 Jayme Linton 15 January 2014 at 16:49

This is a brilliant post! I’m using the CoP framework for my dissertation and have been envisioning my conceptual framework in a similar fashion to your diagram. Could I have your permission to refer to and adapt your diagram for my dissertation concept map?

4 Lilia Efimova 16 January 2014 at 01:32

Yes, feel free to adapt the diagram for your work. I’d appreciate if you let me know what comes out of it, but it’s not required :)

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