Thursday, March 01, 2007

Nuturing Communities of Practice - Adult Learning Applies

I was in a meeting with colleagues recently discussing the lack of participation in a community of practice. At one point I asked "Given that the community presents a tremendous opportunity for people to tap into collective intelligence to solve problems and overcome challenges, how come no one is tabling issues and asking for assistance?"

One of the answers I got was was that "people afraid to admit mistakes, and be perceived as anything but competent." Which tells me that the community space/conversations are not perceived as safe/healthy learning space. It could also be that members are used to working in a [perceived] fault intolerant cultural environment, and think it extends to the community space as well.

It goes without saying that a fault tolerant, collaborative environment is required for learning and innovation. In their 2002 HBR article titled "The Failure Tolerant Leader",
Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes mention that this type of leader is someone ".. who, through their words and actions, help people overcome their fear of failure and, in the process, create a culture of intelligent risk taking that leads to sustained innovation. These leaders don’t just accept failure; they encourage it. They try to break down the social and bureaucratic barriers that separate them from their followers. They engage at a personal level with the people they lead. They avoid giving either praise or criticism, preferring to take a nonjudgmental, analytical posture as they interact with staff. They openly admit their own mistakes rather than covering
them up or shifting the blame.And they try to root out the destructive competitiveness built into most organizations."

A very clear connection here between the way community leaders need to be in order to lead communities, and the level of of community participation.

The other thing that struck me for some reason, and I'm not sure why it took so long, was the connection between communities and adult learning as I was introduced to by former colleague and friend Brian Keane back in the mid '80s.

If we look at some of the key characteristics of adult learners, referring to Malcolm Knowles work on andragogy, they certainly apply to communities as learning opportunities.

  • Adult learners are experienced, and use experiences as an anchor point for new learning. Experiences can also be a barrier to learning something completely new and different.
  • Adults are generally autonomous and self-directed - they want relevant learning (it's got to meet their needs), and want to have a certain amount of influence or control over the learning content, approach, and evaluation.
  • When they provide feedback on learning programs (or even work environment topics in the workplace) they expect some form of action / result.
  • While adult learners may comply with "Mandatory" training, enthusiasm is seen when they choose their own topics / learning.
  • Adults are reluctant to be vulnerable in group settings, and often fear that their reputation, ego and self-esteem can be at risk if they admit to learning needs unless the learning environment is very safe.

So, it would appear that community facilitators should keep adult learning in mind when designing community structure / process/ environments that support and encourage learning.

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