Accelerated leadership trajectories in communities of practice

[Cross-posted from this post in my main blog.]

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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Comment by Lilia Efimova on January 21, 2010 at 8:48pm
Petrarca, I think that would be very useful. The first time I was asked to help as a community facilitator (mainly because my experience with tools) I didn't realise what I was getting into - both the benefits and the challenges of it :)
Comment by Petrarca Chawaro Karetji on January 14, 2010 at 11:25pm
Thanks for the article Lilia... I found it very interesting. I'm fascinated about the effect one's participation in communities of practice has on the individual her/himself especially in taking on leadership as it enhances the capacity of that individual within their own roles/spheres of influence outside of the COP.

I guess this might be something we could add as another idea in practice, i.e. asking existing leaders to articulate what the advantage/benefit has been for them in participating and taking on leadership roles in a COP as a way to provide additional motivation/encouragement?

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