Dec 16 2011

Access to a world of practice

How communities of practice give us access to observing, orienting, deciding, and acting in a world of practice.

Happy Corner, where the tailors studied by Jean Lave (2011) worked in the 1970’s, was a remarkable community of practice.  The community provided resources an individual couldn’t afford like sewing machines or cutting tables, real-time help making or verifying calculations, opportunities to groom reputations or gossip, partners for more difficult projects, and enough competition to keep everyone on their toes in an evolving economy.  The apprentices in the community become master tailors and then took on apprentices themselves.  In a world where education steadily narrows down (to teach to the test, in the name of efficiency), there’s a lot we can learn from that tailor’s community: work and community were not separate, work and learning happened in the normal course of the day, without separating work or learning from the larger world.  An important point that Lave makes is that the apprentices were not only learning to sew buttons and cut trousers, they were learning about how the world actually works, about how to collaborate and compete, about who’s who, and about how to make a living in a changing marketplace and world–from a tailor’s point of view.

We all change as we participate in communities of practice.  But our communities also change as we participate in them.  And the world changes as communities evolve.  Participating in communities of practice gives us access to knowledge about sewing buttons (or whatever our practice involves) but also gives us access to meaningful observations, orienting, decisions, and actions in the world of practice.  So when we seek to cultivate or support a community, we need to pay attention to how a community can provide that access to that world.  For that it helps to have formal models of some sort, so we can make sense of, and further enable, learning at individual, community and environmental levels.  (Formal models also help us to not romanticize communities, too.)

In this post I use John Boyd‘s OODA loop model to highlight the strategic role that communities of practice can play in giving us access to and making sense of a rapidly changing environment.  An OODA loop, according to Wikipedia, is “a concept originally applied to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations (notably in the design of the F16 fighter jet). (It’s interesting that Boyd’s paper on “Destruction and Creation” (1976) describes some community and learning issues very well while using a very mathematical and mechanistic language.)  These days, OODA loops are also applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes.   I’m going to use a religious community to illustrate how an OODA loop model focuses attention on how communities give access to the world of practice and to a fast-changing environment.

Here’s an overview of the OODA model. OODA is an acronym for:

O Observe evolving situation, tempered with implicit filtering
O Orient based on our genetic heritage, cultural traditions, and previous experiences
D Decide on a strategy
A Act in an evolving environment that includes friend & foe

The diagram in the Wikipedia article shows how the OODA loop is all about feedback:

A conversation on one of Jerry Michalski’s Yi-Tan calls got me thinking about OODA loops as a framework for assessing the role that communities can play in providing insights to a changing world.  At the time one of my clients seemed to think of a community they were developing as an information dissemination mechanism instead of as a learning opportunity with strategic value.  I wondered whether an OODA loop model could help.

It seemed obvious to me that an OODA loop would be a handy way of describing feedback processes involved in learning a simple skill, whether alone or in a more social setting.  So let’s lay the ground by looking at different levels of feedback that are possible when someone is learning to ice skate.  (Thanks to Noah Sparks, a student at Pepperdine University, for getting me to think of how ice skaters learn.)

Learning to ice skate is all about feedback and balance: from our inner ear, from the horizon, and from the ice when we fall.  But trying to skate, falling, figuring out which way is up, getting up, trying it all over again, and keeping at it until we know how can leverage feedback on an individual as well as more social levels.
Learning in the company of others speeds things up and makes it a lot more fun.  Learning partnerships spring up at any moment according to our needs. When partnerships persist over time and involve a group of people, we have a community of practice, which harnesses very sophisticated feedback processes. An individual’s feedback loops are enriched when they have access to other people’s practice.
When we look at the world through a community of practice, at adjacent communities, skills, and resources, we realize that a community’s practice itself evolves over time because of feedback from a fast-changing world.  For example, ice skaters have adopted story-lines and costumes from myth-spinners like Disney to add excitement and commercial appeal to their practice.

Instead of counting or mapping nested OODA loops (individual, group, across-groups) à la system dynamics, it seems most useful to tease out the most significant feedback layers. In the ice skating example we  get involved in a community of practice when we find that repeating a personal OODA loop in isolation doesn’t work as well as we need.  A community of practice gives us access to other ice skaters who are making relevant observations, orienting themselves, making decisions, and acting. (In fact the term “practice” gathers many iterations of OODA loops for a group of people into an intuitive whole that we can name, reflect upon, possibly identify with, and improve upon over time).

I’m going to use an unusual example, from Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, to illustrate my argument because prayer is usually not seen as 1) a learning activity, 2) something that’s polite to talk about (outside one’s own religious community of practice), and 3) something that’s evolving in response to a changing environment. (Maybe I’ll argue these points in a future blog post.)  In the context of combat strategy it’s the speed and agility of an OODA loop that seems to get the most attention; I suggest that in the context of a community of practice, it’s the reach, diversity and coherent focus of a community that is most important. A vital community of practice can help us perceive and adjust to changing environmental conditions (beyond the challenge of just a single opponent in a combat situation) provided that community leadership attends to the possibilities that this OODA loop analysis will highlight.

In a vignette about Saddleback Church, a “mega-church” in Orange County, California, Putnam and Campbell describe an early morning breakfast at a Coco’s Restaurant (pp. 65-69).  Looking at a breakfast meeting as a community of practice helps us understand what’s going on. Listening to each other’s prayer requests over a sustained period time connects people to their church in an important way.  The vignette makes me think that OODA loops can be as much about compassion and fellowship as about combat.

I’ll focus in more detail on a story within the “Prayer Requests” vignette in American Grace to illustrate the OODA loop elements in a community context:

“Christina Firth, [is] a tall, slender thirty-something with an earnest, sober manner. She also is an attorney, but as she takes her turn to speak, she too alludes to a recent job change. Christina had been a top associate at a major law firm, but says she had become uncomfortable with the demanding hours she had to put in, and the consequent strain on her marriage. Through serious discussions with the members of her small group, she was encouraged to quit her job without any idea of where she would go. She took the “leap of faith,” and shortly thereafter was invited to join a former partner in starting a new venture, which, she says, has turned out to be a perfect fit professionally, as well as allowing her to work half the hours of her previous job.” p 66.


Communities of practice give us access to observations about practice and the world — through the eyes of other practitioners.

Christina had shared the observation that her previous job was demanding more time than she was comfortable with.  During the meeting, other people in the group shared news and observations about an open position for a minister at Saddleback Church, the value of the anger management class in the church’s Celebrate Recovery program, and many details about the health (spiritual and otherwise) of their family members.

Communities let us access other people’s observations and imagine that they are our own, extending a specialized gaze much further into the surrounding landscape than would be possible for one person alone.  Our participation in communities can remind us what to observe, how to observe it, and corroborate specific observations.  Having common beliefs (or a knowledge domain), trusting others to share potentially sensitive information, and engagement in a common practice over time are important: all help focus observation, brings in observations from farther away, and gives us a larger repertoire of observations to work with.  As a result we can pool observations of a shifting landscape (including observations of adjacent practices, like “the practice of being a lawyer” in Christina’s example) on a regular basis. Of course communities have agreed-upon blind spots, too: in the example, nobody seems uncomfortable praying in a restaurant while cell phones are ringing, pop music is playing in the background, and wait staff breeze back and forth around the group.

Community leader’s strategy: make sure that your community’s interactions allow for sharing observations — plain old data — about the practice and landscape around your community’s practice. Does that kind of sharing get enough attention in community conversations? Community diversity and uniformity matter a lot here: if a community is too diverse, shared observations may not really be comparable, so they don’t sharpen each other; if the community is too uniform or specialized, sharing observations may feel repetitive, insignificant, and changes in the landscape are missed.  Purposely reaching for observations from further away than normal can be a stimulating and refreshing activity for a community.


Communities of practice give us access to a practitioner’s view of which way is up and what’s up in the world.

Christina thought that the long hours were putting a strain on her marriage. The Prayer Request group is made up of people who work, and work is a major component of their lives. So a lot of their prayers and spiritual life is concerned with work and work life. Making sense of work and marriage in the context of a spiritual practice is a perfect example of “orienting.”

In “Organic Design for Command and Control” Boyd says, “The second O, orientation – as the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences – is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.” The “negotiation of meaning” is a key idea in Wenger 98’s community of practice framework, and that’s what “orientation” is.

Accessing how others orient themselves in the world is a powerful learning opportunity. In my experience of participating in communities of all sorts, holding up my observations and experience against someone else’s orienting framework is a key learning strategy.  A community of practice greatly enables consideration of adjacent practices, understanding their orienting assumptions and traditions. For example, how would a lawyer look at the Prayer Request group and visa versa?

Stepping back from the Prayer Request group, Putnam and Campbell conclude their Saddleback vignette by commenting:

“With its user-friendly form of worship, flexible theology, multileveled membership commitments, and diverse family of small groups, Saddleback Church seem to have found a way to be all things to all people, which may be one explanation for its staggering growth.”

Looking at Saddleback Church itself as a larger community of practice that instigates and supports all the small, specialized groups suggests other strategic OODA loops.  The many small groups gives the church access to how members are orienting in their daily lives, against a landscape of evolving practice in the larger society. Someone should be thinking about an important question, “How does work-life in Southern California affect the spiritual lives, needs, and practices of present and prospective Saddleback members?”  All the little groups that make up Saddleback Church put the church in a unique position to deal with this question.

Community leader’s strategy: facilitating conversations that expose the orienting process itself takes real care. Orienting as a process, for example, is inherent in telling stories about practice, but can easily get swamped by “best practice”, which often removes so much uncertainty that “orienting” is forgotten.  If your community doesn’t have enough diversity to make the orientation process a compelling area of learning, consider organizing learning expeditions or field trips where a community looks at orientation in a foreign context.  Repeating “best practice” ad nauseum, which many religious and spiritual communities tend to do, misses signals from the surrounding landscape.

Parboosingh et al. (2011), point out that sharing stories (which almost always involve all the parts of an OODA loop but never leave out the orientation step), gets physicians to begin “pulling” best practice into a conversation in a way that supports practice improvement. They argue that “pushing” best practice (e.g., by quoting “studies”), is less effective and does not create the trusting relationships that enable learning and practice improvements. (This example also suggests how local practice can be impervious to “best practice”.)

Although the first two steps of an OODA loop may be fundamental to learning, when organizations that sponsor communities evaluates a community’s value, observe and orient may seem like dispensable preliminaries — part of the cost side of the equation, not the benefit. It’s the decide and act steps that are most valued and which are directly influenced by regular interaction of a group of people who share a passion or concern.  Absence of “decide” and “act” in a community’s shop talk, suggests that the practice part of the idea is missing.


Communities of practice give us access to the decisions of other practitioners.

Christina was encouraged to take “a leap of faith,” which she did, and it led to a work situation that was perfect professionally and allowed her to work half as much as before. When she attributes the events “to God and to her small group,” it underscores the group’s important role in decision-making.

Deciding is more social than you would assume based on the stereotype of the lonely decision-maker. It may be that the meaning of a decision and the decision itself is set up in the orienting phase of Boyd’s scheme, but participating in community can make decisions better informed, less stressful, and more rewarding.

In 1997 I decided to leave what seemed like a privileged and secure job in the administration at the University of Colorado to seek my fortune in corporate America and later as a solo consultant. I would never have thought of making such an audacious decision without 5 years of involvement in a dialog group that in hindsight was a community of practice about workplace communication and identity. That dialog enlarged the set of conceivable decisions, because the intimacy of the group gave me access to other people’s decision space.  Communities thrive and are most relevant around practices that are difficult, for practitioners that make difficult decisions.

Community leader’s strategy:  enlarging the decision choices, making decisions more visible, and paying attention to the decision-making process are key strategies at a community as well as at an individual level. Identifying decisions by individual community members that were significantly improved by participation in a community is often an essential step in justifying the existence of a community. But being able to track decisions and their consequences takes sustained discipline and systematic listening.


Communities of practice give us access to practitioner’s actions, their consequences and their meaning.

Christina not only decided to quit her job, she went ahead and did it — and she landed a better one!  Christina’s visible action then becomes a resource for others in her community when they think about work and marriage.  Praying at a Coco’s Restaurant is a nice example of just how tricky the question of “action” is in connection with communities of practice. Whether you think that praying is action or not, or causes real things to happen in the world or not, depends on your beliefs (e.g., membership in some larger communities of practice).

How communities of practice interact with the Act step in an OODA loop is the most intriguing because of the “action-oriented” culture we live in and because of our frequently unreflective notions of what “action” is. Ordinarily the “action” part happens in the “real world” — outside of our communities, when we “stop talking about it” and go back to work.  “Just talk” is a common way of disparaging communities.   The notion that a community of practice means a breakfast meeting at a Coco’s Restaurant or a website where we go for chit-chat reinforces the separation between talking about it and doing it.  But Lave’s tailors seem to work almost entirely within their community, so there’s no “back to work” for them and no separation between productive work and the community’s life.  Facilitators and designers should take that level of participation and availability as a guiding vision.

Here are a few examples that connect communities and action in different ways:

  • Josh Plaskoff told a story at CPsquare about the formation of a community of biologists in a big pharma company.  Sharing laboratory resources and eliminating duplicated work was a watershed event for the community and saved a lot of money.  Sharing could only happen because people came to trust each other (and each others equipment and laboratory practices).  As the community formed, the laboratory resource within the company expanded suddenly because scientists at “the other site” were no longer “them” — they were “us.”
  • Recently, when Martin Rouleaux-Dugage presented to the Foundations of Communities of Practice workshop, he observed that the best thing management can do to stimulate energy in a community was to ask something of them.   For a community, speaking out as a community on an important issue where it has real expertise can be a very powerful moment, in this case triggered by someone outside the community.  It extends a community’s visibility and reach when management recognizes a community’s authority on a subject.
  • The Wenger, Trayner and de Laat scheme for assessing community value creation emphasizes the importance of tying community conversations to actual changes in practice (“back at work” so to speak).  In most settings, mapping actions back to community activities requires intention, discipline and effort.

Those examples all raise tricky issues of what actions are “in” the community versus those that are “outside” it: where is the community?  The question of action is also complicated because there are significant actions going on inside a community.  One nice example of “action” occurs earlier in the prayer breakfast vignette: “As they prepare to begin this [the prayer request] portion of their meeting, almost everyone pulls out a notebook and pen to write down what the others say.” The group has adopted a memory aid that potentially changes the practice and experience of prayer (to have requests that are written down).  This whole subject deserves more than another blog post. For the moment, I’ll just claim that communities can give us access and enlarge our sphere of action, can re-frame the significance of actions that we observe, and create an agenda of activities that will increase our capacity to learn.

Community leader’s strategy: “Where’s the action?” can be a really useful test that distinguishes the “Potemkin village” version of communities of practice from the real thing.  If it’s not clear how the talk in your community is influencing action, you should wonder about what it is you are doing. Is it possible for practitioners to look over each others shoulders as they practice? Is what’s visible (and what’s being discussed) really the practice you care about? Are relevant activities in adjoining communities visible? Would members of your community benefit from going on a field trip to observe?


Communities of practice give us access to a world of practice through access to other practitioners.

Thinking in terms of “access to practice” is a reminder that our participation in a community needs to be active, requires a clear intention, effort, and some self-awareness as practitioners.  An OODA loop model is a simple and handy way to think about the value and power of participation in a community of practice — about how exactly it provides access to practice.  Each step in an OODA loop is a facet of practice (essentially the OODA loop model is a general representation of “practice”).  One step may be over- or under-developed at the expense of others.  For example, is there too much emphasis on action at the expense of observation, or vice versa? In his paper “Destruction and Creation,” Boyd begins by making a fundamental point about how we must take responsibility for our perceptions and our meaning-making in a world of constant flux:

To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment. In this sense, the discussion also literally shows why we cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. The activity is dialectic in nature generating both disorder and order that emerges as a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.

I would only add that, although it can take a lot of individual courage to work on matching our mental concepts to a changing and expanding universe, the destruction and creation of these mental patterns is more often than not a collective effort, so we may as well sign up and do that hard work collectively, in a community.

Community leader’s strategy:

As community leaders it’s useful for us to think carefully and more formally about how a community provides access to practice and supports learning at individual and collective levels. The OODA loop model is particularly useful in these circumstances:

  • A common but tricky effort involves shifting a community’s orientation, such as developing “ongoing conversations” when what’s been on offer is “content publishing.” (See Chapter 6 of Digital Habitats.) Paying attention to the OODA loop steps can suggest blind spots or holes in a community’s interaction where the new orientation could make a big difference, so people would be more open to exploration.
  • When the environment around a community is suddenly more turbulent than it has been, it can be helpful to ask “How well do our mental concepts match the changing and expanding universe our practice?” A community of practice perspective, informed by an OODA loop model is a powerful lens. It suggests questions such as: need synchronized is our community with a rapidly-changing landscape?  Are we too narrow or too broad in term of focus or membership?  How can we reach viable, creative, diverse practitioners who are not currently connected?

So to summarize, as leaders we must ask, “does our community provide real access to a complete practice?” and, “is our practice, as we understand it, viable in the world that we can now glimpse?”  These questions are relevant, whether the community’s practice involves sewing pants in Liberia, dog fights in the air, ice-skating at the local rink, or praying at Coco’s.


John R. Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” 3 September 1976.

Jean Lave, Apprenticeship in critical ethnographic practice (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011)

John Parboosingh, Virginia A. Reed, James Caldwell Palmer, and Henry H. Bernstein, Enhancing Practice Improvement by Facilitating Practitioner Interactivity: New Roles for Providers of Continuing Medical Education, J Contin Educ Health Prof. 2011 Mar; 31(2): 122-7.

Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). 688 pp.

Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith, Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities (Portland, OR: CPsquare, 2009)

Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten de Laat, Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework Rapport 18, 978-90-358-1808-8, Open Universiteit 2011.

Thanks to Thomas Hawk, Russ Glasson, and looseends for their good photos.

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2 Responses to “Access to a world of practice”

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