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Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
– Chinese proverb
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 75 | Issue 5
September 2007

Communities of Practice and Your Connection to ACUI

Ever wonder how you can create a network of peers who share similar primary job functions with you? Have you thought about strengthening your network of professional colleagues through identifying those with similar personal interests as you? You’re not alone.

These are the desires identified through a series of surveys and focus groups with ACUI members (Association of College Unions International, 2007). Those results, in combination with organizational benchmarking and current research on professional networks, have led ACUI to begin an important initiative: The development and facilitation of communities of practice.

A story about a car

One case study in the successful development and facilitation of communities of practice comes from the automobile industry (Wenger et al., 2002). In 1988, the then-“Chrysler Corporation” faced significant competition from Japanese auto manufacturers. At the time, the process for producing a new vehicle at Chrysler looked something like this:

  • The design division would come up with a new concept and send it to the engineering division.
  • The engineering division would give the design a reality check and would send it back for redesign.
  • The two divisions would send the design back and forth for checks and rechecks.
  • Once the design was solid, it would be sent to the manufacturing division.
  • The manufacturing division would look at the plans and send it back to the engineering division until it was “manufacturable.”
  • This system fostered a sense of inefficiency and duplicity in the manufacturing process, which often took up to five years to complete a new design cycle.

Because of this, Chrysler reinvented its division structures. Instead of having corporation-wide design, engineering, and manufacturing divisions, they reorganized to create platforms around the segmentation of the auto market. The large cars, small cars, minivans, trucks, and Jeep platforms each consisted of design, engineering, and manufacturing teams specific to that division. This reorganization cut their manufacturing time in half, a significant achievement by any standard.

While the new efficiencies in Chrysler’s process were certainly a luxury, new problems were created. Often each platform used similar parts, but there was no coordination among the suppliers from respective platforms. Additionally, innovations made in one platform that could assist another platform were not shared. How could Chrysler encourage cross-platform collaboration without losing the successes found in the creation of platforms?

The answer was Tech Clubs. Tech Clubs at the Chrysler division of the DaimlerChrysler corporation are informal networks of colleagues in similar functional areas. There are Tech Clubs for brakes engineers, for vehicle developers, and for body and chassis mechanics. These networks help employees do their jobs better by providing a forum for the exchange of ideas, the innovation of new practices, and the standardization of industry procedures. These clubs are informal (meaning there is no relationships between them and the management structure of the division and membership is completely voluntary) but they receive sanctioning and support from the organization.

The community of practice
And so the community of practice was born. Social scientist Etienne Wenger (1998) recognized this model as a powerful idea that could revolutionize businesses and associations.  Along with his colleagues Richard McDermott and William Snyder (2002), he studied and developed the concept of communities of practice into a model that companies like DaimlerChrysler have successfully put into action and that ACUI will shortly adapt to fit our own needs for networks of practitioners.

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2007, p. 1). We are all members, in one form or another, of informal networks. Perhaps we exchange parenting tips during a child’s soccer game. Others of us gather in cafes with friends to discuss art techniques, the latest Broadway musical, or the last book we read. What sets communities of practice apart from other informal networks are three important ingredients:  a set of issues that members of the community care about (a domain), a community of people who are invested in the domain, and shared practices developed by community members in order to be more effective in the domain. Only when community members identify their domain and work to develop standard practices do they truly become a community of practice.

The development of communities of practice within ACUI will take time and dedication. However, we stand to gain much from moving in this direction. Field research indicates many benefits of communities of practice to both the organization and to individual members (Wegner, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). As an organization, communities of practice can provide ACUI with an arena for problem solving with direct member input, resources for implementing strategic direction, stronger connections between the Association and individual members, and the ability to take advantage of emerging trends and technologies to truly be a leader in creating knowledge about the college union and student activities field. As individuals, ACUI members can see many benefits from such an approach. By participating in communities of practice, members can find help from colleagues who care about the same domain, an exciting new connection to other professionals, a forum for expanding expertise and skills in a content area, and a stronger sense of professional identity.

Your connection to ACUI
Fortunately, we do not have start from scratch within the Association. ACUI has a history of voluntary member participation in communities, both as more formal committees of the Association and as less formal connections between members. As we reported in July, current members enjoy that participation in existing communities (such as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community and the Small Schools Community) and feel that those communities can be further developed through enhanced online tools and greater support from the Central Office. Members of those communities want to become communities of practice by focusing on the connection between people and on the development of practices and skills.
However, ACUI has also learned that there are many other important communities of practice that could be developed as we go forward. There is a demand for support for professionals who advise student organizations on their campus. Members want a network for professionals working in building operations and with student building managers.
“Then, what is the plan?” you ask. ACUI is committed to giving communities of practice the opportunity to thrive and grow. Starting Sept. 1, 2007, Zack Wahlquist will be the Central Office staff member liaising with communities of practice. By the end of 2007, ACUI will work with existing communities to help them make the transition to communities of practice. We will develop a process by which any member of ACUI can set up a community of practice around a domain about which you are passionate. Additionally new services will be made available to communities of practice, including:

  • On-demand conference calls
  • The ability to identify as a member of a community of practice in online member profile
  • A specific home on the ACUI Web site to include membership rosters and information about each community
  • An online repository for shared documents and practices
  • A discussion board for each community of practice
  • Support for meetings and events at the annual conference

“If organizations fail to take active steps in this direction, communities of practice will still exist, but they are unlikely to achieve their full potential” (Wegner et al., 2002, p. 13). It would be naïve to think that communities of practice do not already exist within the Association. However, by acknowledging their existence and putting resources into the enhancement of growing conditions, ACUI can encourage communities of practice to reach their full potential. By doing so, ACUI will be a leader in creating knowledge and professional standards within the important work of college unions and student affairs.

References

Association of College Unions International. (2007, July). Association news: Results from ACUI surveys on communities. The Bulletin, 75(4), p. 54.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wegner, E. (2007). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Retrieved July 9, 2007 at http://www.ewenger.com/theory/communities_of_practice_intro.htm.
Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W.M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.