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Creating an environment for collaborative learning.

In recent years, academics and professionals from the field of knowledge management have developed ways to improve effectiveness and performance in the corporate world by creating communities of practice. Researcher, author, and consultant Etienne Wenger--perhaps the foremost authority on communities of practice--defines these groups (also referred to as knowledge communities or learning communities) as: "... people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on a regular basis."


Associations are also beginning to experiment with such communities, and in January 2005, The Center for Association Leadership launched its own Learning Communities initiative, allowing ASAE members to come together to cocreate new knowledge and learning experiences. The communities are vehicles for connecting ASAE members to other members' stories and experiences, resulting in accelerated learning and the sharing of tacit (or more informal and unstructured) learning about how things really get done and how leaders can be more effective.

Understanding learning communities

I've heard it said that as much as 70 percent of what we need to know to succeed is learned outside of our formal training. Such tacit knowledge is extremely difficult to deliver through traditional educational programs. Hence, the new communities are meant to strengthen and complement structured learning events. ASAE's listservers provide some measure of this; however, the learning communities are intended to go well beyond the posting of a question or a conversation resulting from a spontaneously suggested topic. Rather, they are more deliberately planned and executed in ways that guide knowledge sharing to topics of highest priority to a group's participants.

And while the ideas generated through learning communities are important, Wenger notes an additional value: "A community of practice is not just a Web site, a database, or a collection of best practices. It is a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment."

Supporting the initiative

The initial learning communities include six separate yet interdependent groups, each based on a different domain of knowledge or experience: large-staff associations, small-staff associations, technology, professional development, emerging leaders, and senior staff.

Members who participate in a community share learning through

* attending virtual (and on a limited basis face-to-face) meetings of the community as a whole, or subgroups within the community, centered on topics identified by the group;

* participating in online discussions regarding priority topics within the community's domain;

* sharing documents or work products that help others to avoid reinventing the wheel; and

* developing and organizing specific, time-limited projects based on articulated needs.

Because community participation draws from ASAE's nationwide membership, the bulk of the initial interaction is in a virtual space, either through an online forum or via telephone. Each community has access to a robust online-communication interface through software provided by iCohere, Walnut Creek, California. Within this forum members can engage in discussions, share resources, and plan live events. For face-to-face interaction, each learning community has scheduled a session at the upcoming ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership 2005 Annual Meeting and Exposition in Nashville, August 13-16, 2005.

Each community is supported by four coordinators, who (along with other volunteer members of the group) are primarily responsible for designing and leading the efforts of the community through seeding of discussions, posing provocative questions, and otherwise engaging participants. If you are interested in joining one of the communities, contact Megan Arzt at 202-326-9549.

When we began working on this project, we found a lot of theory, but few association models to learn from. In the spirit of community and knowledge sharing, feel free to contact me if you are interested in launching your own initiative--I'd be happy to talk shop and learn right along with you.


Anne Blouin

Chief Learning and Community Officer, ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Society of Association Executives
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Title Annotation:ASAE UP FRONT
Author:Blouin, Anne
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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