The DISCUSS partnership currently is conducting a series of interviews with stakeholders and members of communities of practice (CoP), which have emerged in the wider context of the Lifelong Learning Program of the European Union. The major aim is to find out more about the specific characteristics and features of those CoPs, and the experience gained by their members. Looking deeper into the social mechanisms and day-to-day activities of the CoPs is expected to deliver important cornerstones towards the building of a future European platform for CoPs in Lifelong Learning.
From the findings available so far, it seems that a particular topic to take further is centered around the question of institutional embeddedness of CoPs. The feedback from CoP actors here shows quite ambiguous. While some of the communities seem to gain their importance and relevance from strong institutional alliances, key actors of other communities, quite conversely, explain their success by the absence of any institutional ties. Between those two poles we find a bulk of communities, which seek to combine both aspects in a more or less pragmatic way.
Etienne Wenger in 2009 has published an interesting paper, which sheds some light on this issue. The target audience adressed in his reflections is CoPs, which have developed in the context of the EQUAL initiative of the European Union. The author points out a number of core components, all of which are prerequisite for enabling learning across projects, such as the creation of social learning spaces, a sense of commitment and ethics of learning (learning citizenship), the appearance of social artists, who facilitate and drive forward the social dynamics of a CoP and last but not least learning governance.
As with regard to the above mentioned approaches identified during our interviews, we may assume that each of them emphasizes a specific aspect of learning governance. Wenger differentiates between two types of governance processes taking place in CoPs. On one hand, "stewarding governance" as the "process of seeking agreement and alignment across a social system in order to achieve certain goals", and on the other "emergent governance", which "bubbles up from a distributed system of interactions involving local decisions." However, these two types of governance processes, in the context of European programs necessarily interact with horizontal and vertical accountability structures. Roughly speaking, vertical accountability is driving CoPs towards compliance and homogenisation of practices across local activities (good practice model), while horizontal accountability is focused on independence and experimental learning in local contexts. The following table shows the interaction of learning governance and accountability structure:
Source: E. Wenger, 2009
Wenger states: "the configuration of horizontal and vertical accountability to support learning governance is key to the learning capability of a social system. But it paradoxical and dynamic character challenges traditional organizational structures. It requires transversal processes. It cannot be fully formalized and intelligence cannot be designed out through bureaucracy. Learning governance requires strategic conversations with a focus on substance rather than form. The configuration of a productive interface between horizontal and vertical accountability is perhaps the central challenge for 21st-century organizations in all sectors that are concerned with systemic learning and innovative capability."