Reflections on Social Learning & Communities of Practice (KM4Dev Convening, Seattle 2017)

I recently attended a KM4Dev convening in Seattle Washington. KM4Dev is an international “Community of Practice”  focused on knowledge management, sharing or more generally social learning for development. The workshop was facilitated by the extraordinary Nancy White  who brings years of wisdom (and fun!) to the deep work of collaboration and learning and thought leaders Beverly and Etienne and Wenger-Trayner  who came to share insights about understanding and evaluating the value generated through Communities of Practice.

KM4Dev has an active discussion list and in person meet ups every few years. Of the various evaluation/knowledge/development related lists I’ve participated in over the years, I’ve found the KM4Dev to one of the most interesting, specifically in considering the bigger questions around collective production, learning and application of knowledge to the work of social change. While often in discussions on more specifically evaluation-focused lists (such as the American Evaluation Association list ) there tends to be far less of the blurring of the lines between evaluation, learning and participation which is essential for developmental evaluation and the essential role of knowledge in complex systems change

A few key reflections and takeaways

  • The distinction between social learning and Communities of Practice (CoP) isn’t that important. Communities of Practice can be thought of essentially as a structure for social learning to take place.
  • The term Community of Practice can be useful to use with funders, decision-makers as it is an increasingly accepted term and thus it provides a container for the work, and something specific that can be funded (social learning is a lot more vague!). As an evaluation consultant, I can see how we might use this term as we advocate for the integration of a strategy for learning and “evaluative thinking” within an organization (which interestingly was a question that just came up today on the Pelican list –– “How do we integrative evaluative thinking throughout the program?”
  • Where does the concept of power fit in? “Strategic conversations with Stakeholders” was highlighted as an important value in the CoP value creation framework presented the 2nd day of the workshop (see following blog post). I was thinking about the importance of relating social learning activities to an initiative’s Theory of Change. For the clients we work with, focused on issues or rights, justice and community change, I might look specifically at the degree to which the CoP engages those actors most affected by the issues, as well as those actors who are have the knowledge, influence and connections to contribute to change, and shift existing power structures. An understanding of which actors to involve and how requires the initiative has a well thought out Theory of Change; ultimately, CoP/Social learning activities need to answer the question, “To what end?”

While some of these approaches can used as technical rather than necessarily transformational tools, there is a community of users for which the thread through these approaches is the connection between the personal and the structural in transformation – with emphasis on the need for recognition of complexity, of power, and the role of human relationships, perceptions, paradigms, and social organization in long-term social change, looking at transformation both from a personal and systems perspective.

“In other words, transformation of personal relationships facilitates the transformation of social systems and systemic changes facilitate personal transformation. Key to both kinds of transformation are truth, justice, and mercy, as well as empowerment and interdependence. These concepts are frequently seen to be in opposition to each other; however, they must come together for reconciliation or “peace” to occur.”

This interplay of internal and external transformation, of the individual and surrounding social structures is becoming fertile ground for the work of sustainable community and systems change.





  1. […] one of the days of the KM4Dev Seattle convening [the] CoP Value Creation Framework [was […]

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