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Definition What is the Council about? How does it function? What capabilities does it produce? Council's Artifacts Reflections

Communities of Practice are a natural part of life. They are defined by what its members do... the sharing of experiences, collaborative learning, doing in various social and/or professsional contexts and in so doing gaining knowledge. [1] They are defined, in other words, by their shared practice, their common tools, their artifacts, their common interests. Members participate and interact at different levels with one another, moving in and out of the roles of expert, each one sharing in the shaping and molding of his/her own identity as well as the practice and character of the community.[2] According to Etienne Wenger, a community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:

  • What it is about - its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
  • How it functions - mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity
  • What capability it has produced - the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc...) that members have developed over time. [3]

Communities are what actually "produces the practice," even if it were formally sanctioned by an organization with specific mandates. Members, through their shared learning and shared knowledge, participate and interact to shape their own identities. Communities of practice cut across intra as well as inter-organizational boundaries. They are found when people share in the continual or recurring process of solving problems together, when important knowledge is distributed across business units or even across businesses or organizations themselves. Learning is achieved through doing...

According to Wenger, "Communities of practice have different relationships with the official organization. The table [below] shows different degrees of institutional involvement, but it does not imply that some relations are better or more advanced than others. Rather, these distinctions are useful because the draw attention to the different issues that can arise based o the kind of interaction between the community of practice and the organization as a whole." [3]

Relationship Definition Challenges typical of the relationship
Unrecognized Invisible to the organization and sometimes even to members themselves Lack of reflexivity, awareness of value and of limitation
Bootlegged Only visible informally to a circle of people in the know Getting resources, having an impact, keeping hidden
Legitimized Officially sanctioned as a valuable entity Scrutiny, over-management, new demands
Strategic Widely recognized as central to the organization's success Short-term pressures, blindness of success, smugness, elitism, exclusion
Transformative Capable of redefining its environment and the direction of the organization Relating to the rest of the organization, acceptance, managing boundaries

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CASE STUDY

What it is about...

The Student Services Council is about student services... it is about delivering quality service that makes sense to our students, that maintains integrity to their student records, that minimizes the runaround or simplify the complex web of activities that are traditionally inherent in even the simplest of students needs... It is about learning how each of us affect the rest of the university in our practice, our policies, and our interactions with one another... This community is comprised of student services professionals who directly interact with and serve the undergraduate students at our institution. The membership includes office managers from each of the academic divisions, representatives from the Dean's Office, Financial Assistance, the Registrar's Office, Student Accounts, Enrollment Management, Academic Advising, Public Safety, Information Technology, Telephone Services, and Student Affairs (including student activities, housing & community living, health & counseling). The members are key players in their respective departments or divisions, who possess in-depth knowledge about their own policies and practices and who also can make decisions that affect their own functional area. Each member serves as the "expert" for his/her own area. Back to top

How it functions...

Formally established as a working group in 1998 as part of our institution's efforts to develop a "one stop" student service center to better serve our student, this group had its roots in the former NSO (New Student Orientation) committee that was formed in 1988. The domain for the NSO Committee was planning and executing orientation programs for the new students who came in January as well as in August of each year. The committee's agenda only focused on these specific programs. The committee meetings usually began with "formal status presentations" from each functional area, sharing information regarding the incoming class, scheduling of preparatory events and functions (i.e. mailings, publications, etc...), as well as how each area was preparing for the receiving of the new students. The "meat" of the meeting was when we "walk through" the orientation week schedule of activities and events. Since each event or activity involved multiple areas and affected subsequent events, the "experts" from each area played critical roles in providing knowledge and insight to the effective development of each piece of the orientation schedule. There was a masterful "dance" that was developed among all the members, people moving in and out of the "center" of the discussion, adding to the knowledge of the group with each interaction. The "walls" that divided us into funtional areas became more of "dotted lines" that distinguished our expertise rather than hemming us in. We were free to question, to add, to take, to share, or even to be silent. Often, standing members would bring other staff members to committee meetings to add their insight or just to "silently participate" and learn from the process. Often, these "peripheral" members are able to shed new light on various issues through their questions about things that we have come to accept through rote practice. What the experts have deemed to be "traversed territories" are new to the newbies... Their questions allow us to rethink a process, and either affirm what we have been doing is still effective or open us up for new opportunities to develop new grounds...

Example of Community Practice in action: At one point, the health center was struggling with how to communicate to new students who would not be able to register due to the incompleteness of their immunization records. Since one of the main purposes of orientation was registration for classes, a student's inability to register is of paramount concern to the whole committee. During the discussion, the director of student accounts, who had access to the student database containing all student holds, offered to generate the list for the health center. The director of admission proposed that the students on that list be discretely identified and communicated to as soon as they arrived on campus so that they can take steps to remedy the situation before their registration time. After much brainstorming, the "red dot" was born. Each new student receives an NSO packet containing all of their information. It was decided that a small red dot would be placed on the cover of the packet, alerting the orientation counselor who greets the student of the immunization hold. The counselor would then instruct the student on the steps necessary to remove the hold and the importance of such remedy. The year that the red dot was born, there were no surprises at registration with regards to registration holds. Students had ample time, due to the early warning, to take necessary steps to clear the way to registration. For years to come, the "red dot" would serve to remind us of the value of a community of practice working together to solve problems. Newbies to the committee would eventually ask out loud, "Why does the director of student accounts have anything to do with the health center's holds?" And the answer would be, "Because she can!" When territorial lines are "dotted", allowing community members to freely move in and out to participate in the learning and developing process, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In this example, the NSO group learned through our shared practice that we do not need to be limited by our job descriptions or departmental "charters." We learned that our expertise, gifts and talents can all be used to enhance our practice and define our identities.

In 1998, when we began the process to implement the concept of a one stop office to deliver student administrative services, this group was convened by the OneStop steering committee. The domain, this time, was larger than orientation programs; it became the delivery of student services in the context of a student-centered mission. The knowledge that was contained in the members of this group was and is invaluable in any tranformational process. Each member was encouraged to share his/her knowledge about how the current delivery of services as well as "dream out loud" about how we can improve the process. In the last several years, this group has become a valuable resource for our institution in developing new practices and revising policies to better reflect our student-center mission.

Although this group was convened and its domain defined formally, it functions independently of the established organzational structure. Each member still formally reports to his/her own functional area, but we work together as a cross-functional community. New members are invited to join based on their practice in the field of student services in our institution. As the coordinator of this group, I work to keep us regularly connected through regular monthly meetings and through email communications in between meetings. I also communicate individually with new members and "orient" them to the nature, personality, and practice of our group prior to their first personal encounter with the council. Although the domain of student-centered student services remains as the arching theme, the focus of each meeting changes to reflect the specific needs of our institution for that time period. For example, our meetings in late summer and early fall focused primarily in the functions of the opening of school. It was an expanded version of the old NSO Committee. The NSO Schedule was folded into the work of this committee, while resources and overall campus activities related to the opening of school were the at the heart of the discussions. This year, there were several new key staff members who came into the council. Their specific functional areas directly oversaw the planning and implementation of the NSO program, which was a key component of the opening of school. The "newbies" spent much of the first meeting observing the interactions among the "veterans" of the group. I invited their contribution through their reporting of the progress of orientation planning. Their participation was limited or partial due to the lack of time on the job, the subsequent email communications revealed a much more active and full participation level from the "newbies," adding to the process knowledge pool. In the same meetings, we tackled some key issues that were problemmatic from the year before. With historical knowledge, the veterans fully participated in the discussions to design new processes, create inroads, and move us to new plains of thinking to address these critical areas. Once again, this community of practice worked together to more effectively deliver quality student service, this time in the context of the opening of school.

The subsequent meeting after school started was an assessment meeting. Members self-assessed, shared stories of success as well as areas of difficulties. It was interesting to note that in these stories, there were mutual links among various departments. For example, in the meeting before the opening of school, the office manager for our modern languages department expressed a major concern that we would not have enough space in our Spanish course offerings for our new students. Timing and budget limitations did not allow for the hiring of new professors and the adding of extra courses. Here was a challenge for our council to wrestle with. Various members would ask clarifying questions, probe for different answers, suggest options... Through our shared discussion, several members suggested that our orientation counselors be trained to help steer our new students to other classes rather than the language classes if Spanish was their language of choice. The counselors would be trained on providing alternative and creative schedule building options that would allow the students to register for classes that they need without having to start taking Spanish during their first semester here. Viable options for our students were extensively discussed (i.e. students who had taken Spanish in high school, and who are planning on attending our international program in Germany will not want to take Spanish, since their German classes to be taken during their year abroad would fulfill their foreign language requirement.). This sharing of knowledge helped to alleviate what could have been some major frustrating moments in the registration process for our new students as well as their faculty advisors.

We continue to meet on a monthly basis, preparing the way for critical academic functions and events (i.e. registration, student financial management, etc...), evaluating processes (aid disbursement, Title IV fund refunds, etc...), as well as learning how we can better work together to continually improve our service to the students and its delivery.

It is important to note that this council does not serve as a policy making body. It does, however, serve as a place of development and sharing, of catalytic conversations and interactions, where new policies and practices begin their journey of development and implementation. The beauty of this group is that we all come as experts as well as novices... often in the same meeting. We are most effective when our members feel free to experiment with ideas, to share knowledge, to confirm information, and to learn at our own pace, in a safe and inviting environment. Within this community of practice, it is expected that we allow ourselves to be transparent with our ideas and flexible with our thinking. It allows for "silent" participation, and learning occurs throughout the process. It calls us to decenter ourselves and our own practice and established processes, and expect us to keep the student at the center, as called for by our mission.

This community of practice is least effective when information is withheld by one of more members, when there is the inability to decenter self and our own processes, when participation is forced or when fingers are pointed. When we talk about "areas of difficulties," we avoid using language that puts blame (i.e. you could have done this...); rather, we recognize the connected nature of our work and focus on the difficulties and what we as a community can do to alleviate the problems. At times, we come to the conclusion that the process is the problem... that we need to restart with a blank piece of paper and redesign... In those moments, the difficulties serve as springboards for new ideas and fresh thinking. The responsibility for problem solving rests with the community members working together rather than being relegated to a few. There are times, however, that individual members will take it upon themselves to propose changes within their own functional areas, becoming more vulnerable, in order to move us forward in our thinking and our process development. The learning and development that go on in this community are rarely linear, but often rich and transformational. Back to top

What capabilities it has produced...

The Student Services Council has been transformative to our institution. Its members have been able to redefine the environment of service within each of their respective functional areas as well as the student service arena within the university. Since the council's members are made up of managers and directors who have direct influence over the policies and practices of functional areas, their participation in this community of practice is critical to the defining the direction of the development of the student services practice of our school. Our president once told us, "There is no change to the way we do business that cannot be effected with this group. We have the minds and the wills within this group to effect change. We are only limited by what we are willing to do. Talk about possibilities rather than limitations. Before you think we don't have the resources to implement change... ask for them... search for them..."

This community has allowed each of its members to free ourselves from the static notion of policies set in stone. It has allowed us to question practices that are carried out because of policies that were established long ago. It has opened us up to learn from one another through the sharing in the work of serving our students.

According to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, "Language is part of practice, and it is in practice that people learn." [4] Through our working and thus learning together, we have developed new language which allows for questioning ourselves and for one another. Questions such as "Why do we do that?" "Where did that come from?" "What purpose does that serve?" "Who are we doing this for?" are no longer viewed as personal threats; rather, we see them as opportunities to learn, to change... not just for the sake of change... but to make us better professionals and most of all, to help enhance the experience of our students. Back to top

Some artifacts of this community of practice include:

Shared ownership of process: We have given each other permission in this new culture to participate in the development, execution and assessment of student services processes. The culture of "not my job, not in my shop" mentality is slowly disappearing and is being replaced by a more cooperative and integrated culture. Questions no longer pose as threats; rather, they are opportunities to clarify, to better, and to redefine where necessary.

Making things more intuitive: In all we do, we continually ask ourselves, "Can this be done without having to read a manual or a detailed set of instructions?" or "Do the students have to understand our organizational structure and memorize it in order to get something done?" Processes are evaluated in light of those questions.

"Minimize the runaround": This has become our mantra... Even if our offices are located within 20 feet of one another, having the students go from place to place is no longer acceptable. We evaluate each stop and ask ourselves, "Was that stop absolutely necessary for the student? Could that transaction have been done over the phone, via email or via another method? Can the student service professional who is serving the student assist in the completion of a transaction without having to send him/her to other offices/departments? And when the next stop is necessary, have we ensured that the proper doors have been opened (i.e. the person whom the student needs to see is present, that the need is explained so the student does not have to retell the story or to reauthenticate him/herself, etc...)?" Although we still highly value the high touch nature of our institution, we can no longer require the students to participate in a complex web of activity just to get that touch.

Answer not only the questions that are asked, but also provide answers to the questions that SHOULD have been asked: For example: Often students will come in and ask us to help them do something as simple as withdrawing from a class. The act of withdrawal is simple enough; however, the effects of that withdrawal can be far reaching. An effective student services professional will be able to help advise the student on the withdrawal's impact on her financial aid, housing status, finances, graduation date, etc... In addition to the internal university effects on the student, the withdrawal, if it causes the student's enrollment to drop below full time status, could affect her ability to be insured through her parents' health care plan... So what appears to be a simple transaction, requiring only a few key strokes of system changes can indeed have significant and far-reaching implications. The ultimate decision of whether or not to withdraw remains with the student; however, it is imperative that we own the responsibility to properly inform them of the impact. Back to top

 

Reflections

When I was hired in 1990, one of my first assignments was to plan and implement the orientation programs for our undergraduate students. The orientation files were filled with previous schedules, memos to various departments, schematics of the set ups, and sample letters. My predecessor spent some time "training" me on the planning process. She told me one thing that remained with me to this day, "The best training that you will have will be just to get in there and do it. Call people... talk with them... meet with them... and find out how the whole system works. No charts nor graphs can teach you what you will need to do this job well."

What I did not know at the time was that my trainer was giving me an entree into a new world of what Wenger would call communities of practice. The orientation programs involved multiple departments working together, departments with their own respective policies and practices, departments that rarely interact except for the few planning meetings for specific events such as orientation. So I began my phone calls and my meetings. My first inclination was to learn what each department did. Having just left Wall Street, my only knowledge of student services was limited to my experience as a student here several years prior. I also wanted to learn the flow of the process of the services that our institution provided to our students. What I found through my meetings and conversations with the various departments was that each person knew their functions quite well. Some knew somewhat about the steps just before and just after their functional tasks, but very few saw nor understood the whole process. Learning on the job became an interactive web of phone calls and meetings with all the departments. After the first two weeks, I realized that my meeting one on one with specific departments generated questions that could be answered more quickly if other departments were present. So I began to schedule meetings with multiple departments... first with two or three, then the meetings grew to include more and more people...

We began with me asking questions, which led to more questions by other people... Answers clarified some things while leading to other questions as well. People came as experts in their own field and own functional areas. We were joined in our efforts to plan and implement an effective and complete orientation program for our students. We were joined by our practice... We learned together and gained knowledge through our interaction with one another. The interaction for some involved observance, asking questions, and/or providing answers. We developed a sense of "community," with our own sets of boundaries and our own language. The organizational chart of our institution does not display our group nor the links that it provided. The integrated practice of student services during orientations was quite different from the structured and segregated nature of the delivery of student services for the rest of the school year.

One of the "artifacts" of orientation program was the color orange. This was the color of our student counselors' t-shirts. These counselors' job was to assist students through their orientation week. Carrying luggage, coordinating ice breakers, building schedules, registration, interpreting financial aid policies, guiding them around campus, providing personal counseling and helping them adjust to living away from home... and so much more... No job was too small, and nothing was beyond at least an effort... The orange t-shirt became a passport of sorts, allowing these counselors to cross departmental boundaries... to question... to probe... to guide... all in the effort of serving the new students. Orange became the new color of freedom... the freedom from established functional limitations...

When the Student Services Council was convened to transform the way we deliver student service on a larger scale, one of the first items on the agenda was recalling the orientation methods of serving the new students. One person said, "Maybe we should just paint our offices orange... to remind us how it could really be done."

Orange as a color has not found its way onto the walls of our offices, but what it represents has permeated and is slowly transforming our practice. The council has allowed us to go outside of our functional silos to learn from one another, to develop our practice and transform it. It has exposed us to the other communities of practice to which our colleagues belong. Our shared practice is transformative... We set the boundaries... We move in and out of the roles of expert and novice... learning with each movement, each interaction... Back to top

Sources:

[1] Wenger, Etienne and McDermott, Richard and Snyder, William; A Guide to Managing Knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice; Harvard Business School Press, Boston; 2002.

[2] [4]Wenger, Etienne and Lave, Jean; Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 1991.

[3]Wenger, Etienne; Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System; Published in the "Systems Thinker," June 1998; from http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml

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