Keys to a Professional Learning Community: My Own List


I said on a recent post that "Alexandra Minhai says successful professional learning communities depend on four factors: being a safe space, validation by peers, crowdsourcing ideas, and accountability. If I had to create my own list it would be: tools that work, practical value, timely response, and whole-of-enterprise (and beyond!) scope."

In all fairness, I should probably expand on why I think these are necessary (and possibly even sufficient) for the fostering of a professional learning community.

Technology that Works

Nothing works without working technology. This doesn't mean only 'technology that functions as intended'. Not all technology is designed with function and usability as top-of-mind. A lot of technology, especially in a corporate environment, is centered around command and control. This means that while it can be effectively administered, it generally doesn't work for the people trying to use it.

Before the pandemic where I work we depended on Cisco videoconferencing, centralized mailing lists, shared drives, in-person meetings, and occasionally productivity suites like Jira. Our management and administration were done using spreadsheets and SAP. We did not have anything like professional learning communities beyond the occasional seminar or invited speaker. There was literally no way to reach out to someone beyond your own research centre unless you already knew who they were.

When the pandemic hit we got Slack and Zoom in short order. We later layered Microsoft Teams on top of it. We also got much better access to government-wide services like gcCollab and gcCampus. All of a sudden a world of collaborative opportunities arose. In my own case I was suddenly involved in a number of cross-team and cross-departmental projects. I began talking to (and sharing photos with) people I had never met before (even though we worked in the same building!).

That's what I mean by technology that works. It means that there's a way to communicate, to organize, and to create. And you can do these things efficiently and easily.

Practical Value

Even though we had these tools, we wouldn't use them unless there were some actual reason to use them. I know that this should go without saying - and yet, it so often goes unsaid. Unless the professional learning community is serving a real need that will make a difference in my life, it won't be at the top of my list of priorities.

For example: we run multiple networks were I work. This is necessary for administrative and security reasons. And we're required to change our passwords on a regular basis; otherwise, everything stops working. This is not a straightforward process. But over time, a collaborative resource was built up on Slack describing how to change your passwords. It's not the official fact sheet you get from computer services; it's the list you steps you have to take that actually work. And it's checked and renewed by the users themselves any time there's a system update.

That's practical value. Other things have been added to the network during the pandemic: easy ways to schedule meetings, easy ways to access software, publications and resources. Sharing about network outages, weather events, vacation plans, you name it. The things that matter on a day to day basis. Over time, our project management has migrated to the same set of tools, not through any directive, but because it was easier. 

Practical value means solving problems, providing access to resources, sharing information you need right now. It's not defined ahead of time by system designers, it's created by keeping the system open and flexible enough that it can be used to address day-to-day issues, whatever they are.

Timely Response

I can't tell you how many times I've had an interaction on Slack that went like this: 

- "I need help with..."  

- "I can help. When are you available?"

- "I'm available now."

- "OK, I'll connect you..."

That's timely response. Someone who can actually solve problems is basically just monitoring Slack and jumping in when they can help out (actually, a bunch of people do this). By contrast, the traditional method of opening a ticket with a help desk or sending an email asking for some information might result in a wait time of days, even weeks.

Partially this is staffing. Too many help request tickets, not enough staff. But partially this is design. You can only get help from some designated individual (who is probably overworked).

And, you know, it's a lot easier to ask for help on a message board than it is to track down an individual and ask them specifically for help. It gives you access to more than one person, you don't need to know who they are, and it allows people to step in unofficially.

Yes, it does take a professional culture where people actually help each other. This is where things like being a safe space and validation by peers come into play. But these aren't things that can be designed into a professional learning community. They are things that exist only if they're modeled and demonstrated by the people in charge, for example, by offering help rather than instructing them to 'go through channels'.

Whole-of-Enterprise (and Beyond)

One of the major dangers in a large organization (or in any profession generally) is the communication silo. You know what I mean. It's where you work with and interact with people in your own department (or your own company, if you're small) but are seldom able to reach beyond that. Companies and organizations try to manage for that by creating 'matrix' management structures, mandating cross-departmental projects, or organizing all-hands meetings or events. Short, stuffy, and useless.

By contrast, with the onset of the pandemic, as I mentioned, we were able to access much better tools, with the result that we were suddenly put into contact with people we would never meet in person or on a day-to-day basis. In my own case, it was the result of my involvement with projects that pulled me into these collaborative spaces and that had me looking for information, groups and resources that would help me in my projects.

And all of a sudden, it seems, I'm interacting with and working with people in other departments who much the same work that I do, but who previously never had a way of letting me know they existed (and vice versa). There aren't too many people in my own research centre interested in online learning and new media, but there are dozens across the entire organization. The same with ethics in analytics: it's a huge issue, and a lot of people were working on it, but usually only one or two in each department.

This could still be better. Tools provided by companies like Google and Microsoft are often very powerful, but they also introduce an unending stream of access issues because they're designed to be enterprise-first, which means locking out anyone who isn't specifically part of the tool group. How many times have I had Teams say to me "You are not authorized to access this file" when someone has explicitly intended it to be shared!

But still. Before the pandemic we had mailing lists, but these were centrally managed, had to be approved, and nobody was able to send email to every person in the research centre, much less the whole NRC or the whole government. And this made good sense; we wouldn't be able to deal with the email. But providing discussion boards and resources everyone can access nonetheless makes these kind of all-of-enterprise communications possible, and this greatly increases the value of the professional community.

A Caveat

Just one thing, though...

If you're a manager, and you are looking to generate specific learning outcomes, for example, mandatory WHIMIS training, or DEI initiatives, then a professional learning community isn't the tool to use. Sure, you can influence the discussion a bit by introducing resources and events into the community, but the point of a professional learning community isn't to serve your training and development needs, it's to serve theirs - the members of the community.

That's why my list is much more about creating an enabling environment rather than shaping it toward specific outcomes. It it's focused much more on practical day-to-day processes and time-savers than about organizational change.


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