#31: Do we really need another community of practice?

On the proliferation of networks in an already noisy landscape.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.


Hello, dear reader,

I have had lots of conversations lately about what a community of practice (“CoP”) or learning community might look like for the Australian systems practice community. I’ll be the first to admit that I get a lot of joy and value from well-run communities of practice. But these recent conversations, often occurring in isolation from each other, have me concerned that multiple players are pushing these concepts as a solution without a clearly-identified problem or an appreciation for the wider system of existing activity that shares a similar intent.

They have also caused me to reflect on a potential tension or trade-off between the two different types of CoPs that are commonly proposed:

  • Those focused on connecting within particular domains or specialisations in the systems practice community, for example groups for systems thinkers in government or for the use of systems dynamics modelling.

  • Those focused on connecting across these different domains or specialisations to encourage lateral connections and opportunities for the wider diffusion of innovations that occur in specific domains.

Obviously both of these foci are incredibly valuable, but it is hard to achieve both, coherently, in a single community of practice. To continue to grow and flourish, the Australian systems practice community will ultimately need a range of different CoPs that meet different objectives. But a noisy and crowded landscape of communities of practice competing for limited airtime and attention does no one any favours. The trick is how we design and articulate what different communities are needed, their respective boundaries, and the connections between them. This is never going to happen organically, at least not in the first instance. I suspect there is a need to convene the convenors to have a conversation about:

  • The existing landscape of the systems practice community in Australia, including the different individuals and organisations involved, their different interests and specialisations, their wants, hopes, needs and dreams, and how these are met—or not—by existing communities of practice.

  • What kind of futures we want to bring into being through our collective efforts and collaboration, including the ones that might seem preposterous or out of reach.

  • How we might direct our limited energy and effort, as well as our respective strengths and resources, to the leverage points that have the most potential to bring about those different futures, including those related to building networks and communities of practice.

  • As part of an ongoing collaboration, how might we work together to balance our individual interests (these include, if we are being honest: power, ego, money, career progression, etc.) against the needs of the larger group?

I fully intend to continue to agitate for this kind of convenor convention (😝) each time someone raises the prospect of a new community of practice with me. Of course whatever kind of shared network architecture we land on will need to be structured in a way that it can be iterated through ongoing experimentation and learning. If the responses to my call out below are anything to go by, there are some exciting frameworks out there to help make that a reality.


By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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