Expanding communities of practice at Oxford

Alice chilver

With hundreds of different buildings spread across the city, and now with many of us working remotely some of the time too, finding people who are working on the same problems and towards the same goals can feel like a challenge. 

As somebody who joined the University during the pandemic, I’ve found it especially slow to find colleagues who are working in the same practice area as me. I know there are plenty of them out there as I see the results of their great work, mostly stumbling by accident across it. 

I am motivated by the prospect of meeting colleagues who share a passion for the same field as me, can bring different perspectives to familiar challenges, and may share similar hopes for what the University can achieve in our practice area (in my case: learning, leadership and organisational development). Now that we are amplifying our use of communities of practice (CoP) at Oxford, as part of Professional Services Together, I am looking forward to being able to collaborate with these colleagues, to make things easier and better and to support others in navigating their careers, especially within the University. 

The term 'community of practice' was first used in 1991 by theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who explored the idea of a community acting as a living curriculum. At their best, communities of practice offer the opportunity to bring practitioners together to connect, collaborate, solve problems and support career fulfilment and development. 

We’re already ‘doing’ communities of practice here at Oxford. For example, RISN (Research & Innovation Support Network) brings together staff who support research and the Change Community Forum brings together staff who support and deliver on change across the University. Communities like these are already making a difference by uniting practitioners. 

Dr George Regkoukos, FHEA, RISN Support Coordinator, Research Services, said: 'Being part of a community of practice is a transformative experience. You gain a sense of perspective, how your work fits into a large organisation – and how valuable it is. The network offers professional support, paths to professional development and opportunities to shape new ways of working.' 

One of the new communities being formed is the CoP for Exec Assistants/Personal Assistants (EAs/PAs). Gemma Jennings, an EA in the Centre for Medical Discovery, told us: 'I wish we had one of these communities when I first started my role. It would have made things so much easier! I’m looking forward to using this community to connect with colleagues across the University, and to share resources, best practice and support. POD have been amazing in supporting us and we look forward to launching in the autumn.' 

In the People and Organisational Development (POD) team, we’ve come across plenty more groups of staff who share a common area of practice and want to strengthen their work by uniting as a community. Professional Services Together is enabling us to work with colleagues across the University to support the development and establishment of existing and new communities of practice. This is an opportunity to draw together practitioners from all corners of the University to connect, share their expertise and together strengthen the practice area at Oxford. 

How does a community of practice work? 

Communities of practice bring together people within key professional areas and provide support to maximise their impact. Members are connected by their shared interest and specialist areas of expertise and typically play an active role to collaborate, share experiences and proven practices, and seek to improve/learn. They normally innovate sharing new developments and resources and creating joint outputs (projects and activities). Communities will help to tackle silos and duplication, and help reduce confusion and frustration. 

What is the difference between a CoP and a network? 

Successful networks already exist at Oxford and communities of practice can enhance these leading to more systematic change and higher visibility. They are typically supported by a senior sponsor who provides top-level recognition for the community by ensuring exposure, support and strategic visibility. A mature/self-sustaining CoP can provide additional benefits in areas such as knowledge, practice and skills development, and can result in higher visibility such that the wider organisation looks to the community for advice and best practice and people outside of the community advocate for it. 

What happens next? 

Over the next several months, we will be working with existing groups, helping them to take advantage of all of the benefits of the community of practice model and approach, as well as working with staff to create communities in areas where there is great interest but currently little opportunity for staff to come together. 

Please get involved 

If this sounds interesting to you, here are five ways that professional services staff can get involved with this work: 

  1. Discover and join existing networks and communities: connecting with people 
  2. Tell us about other communities and networks that could benefit your colleagues
  3. Learn more about communities of practice by attending the insights session on 9 September. Email sarah.lewis@admin.ox.ac.uk to register your interest. 
  4. Look out for more information about communities of practice at the Professional Services Conference on 26 September
  5. Email sarah.lewis@admin.ox.ac.uk to become a founding member of the first new set of communities of practice emerging for: 
    • Executive and personal assistants
    • Equality, diversity and inclusion practitioners
    • Human resources administrators 
    • Technicians
    • Academic administrators