Communities of practice in the policing workplace

Communities of Practice bring together autonomous, action and lifelong learning, practitioner action research, enhancing of the evidence base, innovation and insight and enhanced staff morale:  so all in all they are a great opportunity for policing!

What is a community of practice?

In a nutshell, it’s about people thinking and learning together. The concept has been around for quite a long time (Wenger, 2002, 2010) and many point to the influence of Michael Polanyi (1962), with an emphasis on real-world problem solving interfacing formal and tacit knowledge.

The need to enable and cultivate such an approach culturally and organically in the workplace is re-inforced in the literature that points to failed attempts to over-structure and ‘industrialise’ the concept (Tolson, 2008); Corradi, 2010; Waring, 2013). The evidence tells us that by creating the culture that engenders thinking together you are are more likely to establish a community of practice than simply ‘setting one up’ in a transactional fashion and expecting everything to drop into place.

There are several similar concepts out there, some with variations of nuance, such as Kaizen (meaning ‘continuous change for the better’) driven by whole team ownership. American Professor W. Edwards Deming was a major influence behind kaizen, in post WWII Japan, with his philosophy of quality – such as having a clear vision for the team that everyone owns; removing silos and department boundaries; empowering the initiative of the whole workforce by removing excessive management inspection, workplace targets and fear:- there are many similarities with the principles of enabling communities of practice to work together.

Thinking first; structure follows

The interface of theory and practice is sometimes discussed as ‘knowledge and knowing’ in a workplace setting – the point being it’s about applied knowledge – the verb rather than the noun.

Communities of Practice healthily challenge the notion that the outside ‘expert’ knows everything, and seeks to celebrate the agency of the internal thinker, who is much closer to real-world problems. It’s all about improving professional practice. so why shouldn’t the professional practitioner be at the forefront of that? It’s just like the surgeon who has theoretical medical knowledge but also the applied skill of working in the operating theatre –  where theory and practice come together.

What does belonging look like?

Iverson (2011) points to involvement as the coming together of thinkers facing common problems and with a common language and desire to improve practice. Handley (2006) explains that this can mean full participation, perhaps through a core group, out maybe also dipping in and out. As the structure should not be the foremost priority, people may be involved and not formally recognise it as a label – that doesn’t matter.

It’s about the verb (the action) not the noun (the structure)

The emphasis is all about the everyday real-world, not a form of artificial or purely theoretical, so it merges experience with reflection with insight, offering new possibilities. All of this has been well articulated by Schon (1983) and Kolb (1984) as key to the reflective practitioner – this is the same but at a group level. This allows all sorts of opportunities, including unleashing cognitive diversity and explicit practice (Atkinson, Coxhead & O’Connell, 2019).

What does good look like?

McDermott (2000) talks about the benefit of knowledge sharing and creation through thinking together. What that means in practice is unleashing the power of conversations, and making sure those are conversations without walls, to cut across silos vertically and horizontally; to tackle the challenges out there.

Just ‘sharing knowledge’ is simply more of the same (Kuhn & Jackson, 2008), in an environment where many are already overwhelmed by incoming information. Lots of information sent to people does not mean – at all – that things automatically improve as people can be too busy and unable to find the time to make sense of it – never mind apply it!

So Communities of Practice are about practice first and foremost and don’t need to be disguised as ‘training’ or a ‘knowledge’ hub because it is about  applied practice (which in turn draws upon knowledge). It’s important that the whole concept is not confused with seeing a Community of Practice as an empty vessel simply to be topped up with external knowledge. That misses the point entirely – it’s about the agency within the existing personnel who are valued as being able to be more self-autonomous (as a group), and not simply passive or simply compliant that makes it real and sustainable.

What good does not look like is an approach that is vertically structured and hierarchical, as Roberts (2006) and Harvey (2013) point out such environments undermine the necessary conditions for success. Conversely, allowing the concept to breathe organically offers a better chance of sustainability.

The Community of Practice should not become a specialist inner sanctum (creating a further silo) but should be about what we do, not the label: it’s a way, not a place.

How could we do it?

So, we’ve looked at what Communities of Practice are, but this is a concept that has not really landed, as yet, in policing. Let’s now explore, learning from previous applications in environments such as health, how it might work in policing.

Bearing in mind policing is busy and operates very much in ‘real-time’, creating additional things to do is perhaps unrealistic. It could make more sense to align the approach to where the action already is.

To carve up communities of practice into ‘discipline’ areas may miss the joined-up nature of problems (don’t get confused with problems and single symptoms), so, for example, a single crime type focus may miss interpendencies and inhibit lateral thinking.

To keep Communities of Practice focussed,  there are existing forums that consider identified and emergent problems, such as ‘Tasking’. Tasking could be reviewed and reformed as a concept – at worst it can be ritualistic and without time to actually discuss anything. Creating a space to discuss why a problem is happening and what can we done about it sounds proper and justifiable from a workplace point of view – hence is it more likely to be sustainable and ‘real’ rather than trying to create an artificial, extra thing to do.

Of course, a policing manager might say ‘there is no time’. Yet, if  we are really saying is no time to think, discuss and learn about the core challenges policing face then we should be seriously reflecting about that. The public and the inspection regime would rightly be most concerned if that were the case.

Finding time to add to the quality of what we already do rather than creating a ‘bolt on’ would make more sense. Case in point though, by encouraging discussion over how to do this, this is indeed the first stage of a community of practice in action – it simply means we need to discuss and listen to each other more – rather than just keep ‘telling people what to do’. If people are to think for themselves, get out of their way and let them!

In short, we could think about ‘communities of practice’ about simply teams. Hamel and Zanini (2020) present extensive research evidence on how top functioning teams (such as within Toyota) are co-operative, non-hierarchical, with minimal red tape and management and, in many ways, are communities of practice. So if the label doesn’t do it for you just use ‘team’ as this is all ‘communities of practice’ as a principled application boils down to.

Teams and communities of Practice – indeed all professional practice at its best – are about people thinking and learning by doing together.  If this feature has made you think then great – we’ve made a start!


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