This blog post is written by Katie Ross, Education Director of Liberal Studies at Full Sail University.
Throughout universities, departments are hard at work trying to connect with students and ensure departments have unitized services. Those in admissions are reviewing applications, scheduling interviews, and speaking with parents. Marketing is working hard to connect with future students through the proper channels that will help the admissions teams. The Student and Academic Affairs department is creating workshops and providing support to students to help them be successful after students unpack their dorm, and the first day of campus or online classes is starting. The educators are creating curriculum and mentoring students to nourish the college ecosystem.
There is not a department within the university that is not working towards the same goal of helping students graduate from the university. However, academic silos can often hold departments back from aligning on initiatives and providing guidance related to various projects in development.
With the influx of technology, educators will need to work together to help communicate, design, and develop initiatives that will serve as the heartbeat to the predicted efficiency technology will bring to education. In many departments, each student has their own story connected to the specific needs of the department. Through a community of practice, representatives from all departments can work together to create change felt from the start of the student journey until the end.
Communities of practice are groups of people who work together formally or informally toward a common goal (Wenger & Synder, 2000). These groups can meet face-to-face, communicate via email, or coordinate their activities on Slack depending on their needs and function. Over the years, communities of practice have contributed to new lines of business, solutions, the implementation of new strategies, and the spread of best practices (Wenger & Synder, 2000).
All of us have had an informal lunch meeting with our colleges across campus and strategized how we could tweak specific components of the student journey through communication. A community of practice is the perfect opportunity to take an idea and create something that will have a positive impact. Keep in mind that a community of practice can be informal, meaning the participants share a similar mindset with the focus on creating a grassroots effort. Within these communities, a distributed leadership model will ensure consistency and foster growth in the team.
Three elements of using a distributed leadership approach within a community of practice:
- Use concertive action to bring people together from around campus regardless of their title, which highlights different areas of expertise, resulting in an outcome that is greater than individual action.
- Select individuals who are already positively contributing to the university with an interest in helping to develop an initiative from the ground up.
- Provide a role for all members of the group and staying open to those roles changing as the project develops.
Jones and Harvey (2017) highlighted the fact that a distributed leadership approach would remove management from the process and shift the focus to the actions committed rather than the positions one might hold within the committee. Through their study of 52 projects that used a distributed leadership lens, they found four dimensions to use for fostering support action among the group. The four dimensions are (1) trust, (2) culture, (3) the recognition that change needs to take place to create a new way of thinking, and (4) support for professional development. Sewerin and Holmberg (2017) acknowledged that reform, or implementing change, is an initiative that receives better results when is it conducted through distributed leadership.
We often think one must hold a leadership title to be a change agent or reach across the university to work with other departments. Communities of practice are designed to bring people together with a shared passion and desire to make an impact. When distributed leadership merges with a community of practice, job titles and responsibilities disappear, to create room for faculty and staff to work together to strengthen the college environment without needing permission. The next time you find yourself at the lunch meeting with people outside your department, take note of the ways that all of you could work together to change a process for the better. If you do not find yourself out to lunch with people from across the university, I recommend you schedule a lunch meeting with someone you might often email and learn more about them and their department. You are only a few lunches away from developing your first community of practice!
Jones, S., & Harvey, M. (2017). A distributed leadership change process model for higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 39(2), 126-139. doi: 10.1080/1360080X.2017.1276661
Sewerin, T., & Holmberg, R. (2017). Contextualizing distributed leadership in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(6), 1280-1294. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2017.130345
Wenger, E., & Snyder, M. S. (2000, January-February). Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2000/01/communities-of-practice-the-organizational-frontier
Katie Ross is a passionate educator who brings over ten years of experience to her role in higher education. From her years in education to her current doctoral work, she has a sound understanding of how to create a cohesive student experience through technology and cross-collaboration efforts.