I’ve been working for a decade now helping organizations leverage social tools to support workplace learning efforts. One thing that’s always frustrated me is the desire for everyone to have “their own.” A separate Facebook group for their own sales training course. A new LMS discussion board for every iteration of the same customer service academy. Different Yammer groups for each instructor’s version of “wellness”. Most groups struggle to survive much beyond the initial burst of interest. This is especially true of groups designed not just to sustain some post-event chatter but to help people implement new ideas into their work and get better at it as time goes on—communities of practice.
Lately I’ve been offering group ukulele classes at my local library. My city has an active local uke community, with several local, regularly-scheduled play-along groups. While the groups welcome new players, they don’t do much to explicitly accommodate them, expecting people to come in with minimal understanding of how to form basic simple chords and strum in time. My classes are intended to fill that gap, with performance objectives targeted at helping the new players feel comfortable when they first attend a play-along.
And then what?
Not long ago I was chatting about the uke lessons in a Twitter conversation and how my goal was to prepare people to join the larger community. Almost immediately someone asked whether people in my classes formed their own beginning-player groups.
They don't, at least not that I know of, and I’d never even thought to suggest it. Grads wanting more can participate competently in other local groups with some other novices, a leader, and some more experienced players. I offer to set up introductions with the leaders and even tell participants which play-alongs I’ll be attending so they know there will be a friendly face.
Trajectories and the life of groups
Which brings us to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation. Successful communities are living, breathing organisms. It is natural for people to come and go, to participate more or less actively depending on topics or on others involved, or on the number of life and work distractions in the offing. And within established communities there are different levels of participation—a topic Etienne Wenger explored in-depth in regards to communities of practice (see the reference at the end of this column). Communities develop their own routines, jargon, and in-jokes; members learn each other’s personalities, likes, and dislikes. But a healthy group morphs over time. People change jobs, move, retire, or just find other interests. In the local uke scene, some are pulled away by life events or even physical challenges like arthritis. Some just outgrow the group; several of our former novice players have developed advanced skills and formed popular local bands. Wenger describes community members as being on trajectories—some outbound, some inbound—as the community breathes.
Have some goals
While I want to give people what they want from the lessons—some just want to play a few songs with their kids—I hope to help put new uke players on the inbound trajectory in our local uke communities. Some people may never attend a play-along at all. Some come once, ask for access to the music (usually kept online in something like a Dropbox folder), and never appear again. If they come repeatedly but never print or download the music that’s been shared, or come and sit apart from everyone, skip playing most of the songs and don’t sing, they’re on the periphery, maybe, but the behavior falls into what might be called lurking. They aren’t participating.
My goal in starting the group lessons was to help novice players become legitimate peripheral participants, armed with enough skill to join play-along groups and mostly keep up, to know what sort of songs and chords to expect, to try it out without feeling excluded by in-jokes and personality quirks. It’s working pretty well, with many graduates attending and staying, and some moving into more central established-member roles. It’s the participation that matters—joining in conversations, sharing a new song, asking for help, getting the jokes, learning the unspoken rules, and finding out which members bring what value—that will help them move to fuller membership and, I hope, will help them speed up their playing, expand their skills, and maintain their interest in playing.
It’s interesting that the first question in that Twitter conversation was whether people had set up their own new, separate groups for beginning players. Is that really the best way for a new practitioner to learn? Depends, I suppose, but I’d argue that finding a way to help novice players engage with more experienced practitioners would get you more bang for the buck. I’ve had pretty good success with establishing and sustaining workplace communities, both face to face and online, by helping workers with newer skills integrate themselves into larger communities. Here are some tips:
- Prepare people to participate. What’s some baseline knowledge or skill that will help them at least feel they can join in some conversations?
- Welcome newcomers. Maybe have a space for basic introductions, or some standard questions new members answer. Quick conversations about work interests are important, sure, but chatting about alma maters, pets and kids, sports obsessions, and favorite foods can help people make new connections, a particular challenge with online communities.
- Look at opportunities to span the trajectories. As people finish your customer service certification program or your leadership development course, feed them into a larger group of all the graduates of that program. You’ll find that some never join, some never participate, and some start moving toward the center. They’ll know some people going in, and will be with others who understand as they work to implement new learning or develop their practice. Older members may outgrow the group or just move on to other things—but a few will likely stick around as mentors and community moderators.
- Think across job tasks, not just titles. Who in your organization makes presentations? Participates in launching new products? Interacts with customers? Would it make sense to draw them together into a larger community?
- Help the peripheral participants start to move to center. Pull them in to conversations where a newcomer’s perspective might freshen old conversations. See if they’re willing to help with group maintenance activities. Ask them to start a new conversation. Instead of you sharing the article you found, see if they’d like to post it for reactions. Work with the “old-timers” to help bring the newer ones into the fold.
- Communities are more than just the topic. There are norms (in the local uke world groups are decidedly pro- or anti- “Wagon Wheel”), in-jokes, vocabulary, unspoken rules, and references to past company events or to people who no longer work in the organization. It can seem clubby. Help new people feel included. Encourage them to bring something to share, offer to partner with them on a task, privately message another member and ask them to reach out.
- Watch out for too many rules. It’s hard to be enthusiastic when you’re constantly worried about getting your hand slapped.
- Remember the goal is to bridge learning and practice. What else can you do to support that?
Wenger, Etienne. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.