BETREAT Early Bird Registration

Betreat Website

There are just two more days to catch the early bird registration for BEtreat. There are three alternative types of BEtreat on offer, which I blogged about here. Last year only one was offered, which I attended face-to-face in California – a unique and unforgettable experience – and one I am still learning from.

This year I have signed up for the Academic BEtreat as an online participant. The focus on key concepts and social learning theory will fit very well with a project I will be working on later in the year, and I am really looking forward to experiencing this as an online participant – from the other side so to speak.

Wenger-Trayner new website – new BEtreats

In 2011, I was very fortunate to be able to attend BEtreat, in the home of Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner in Grass Valley, California. This was a unique and unforgettable experience and one that I am still reflecting on and learning from.

What is BEtreat?  This is what was written on the website last year:

‘In a collaborative atmosphere with a small, strategically committed group, we spend four intensive days developing leadership and facilitation capabilities for cultivating communities of practice and networks.

Together we push our current practice, explore the state of the art, and produce resources to address our respective challenges.

BEtreat is a hands-on, practice-oriented gathering of network and communities of practice professionals, who work closely together in a collegial learning environment. The number is kept small so that we can address in depth the specific issues and challenges brought in by people who are there.

This intensive but collegial learning environment will provide you with a unique professional development opportunity:

You will be the first to hear about the latest developments in the field

You will interact with peers who face similar challenges in a variety of contexts

You will be able to build your own network and expand your horizon by hearing what others are doing

You will be able to bring your specific challenges to the table, engage the collective brainpower of the group, and come back with new ideas and solutions

We end these four intensive days of working and learning with a party.

BEtreat is a unique workshop. If one is in charge of leading or supporting communities of practice or networks, this is the place to be for professional development.’

This year Etienne and Bev are offering three different BEtreat workshops in 2012 and starting a one-year certificate as a professional development program.

  • State-of-the-art BEtreat – covering the fundamentals of the field: July 9 – 13
  • Cutting-edge BEtreat – exploring advanced topics and emerging issues: July 16 – 20
  • Academic BEtreat – for researchers, lecturers, and students: July 30 – August 3
  • Certificate program – intensive one-year certificate: 2012 – 2013

Participation can be face-to-face or online, but for an early-bird discount, you need to sign up before Feb 1st.

For full details see their new website:

And to get a flavour of what it all involves – a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun – here is a link to the photos I took last year –

Context and culture in communities of practice

A predominant feature of BEtreat was the impact of context and culture on the learning process. There was an expectation that we would share our experience of communities of practice with a view to learning from each other. However, whilst the sharing was easy enough, the understanding of where people were coming from was more difficult. Participants came from very different backgrounds. Large corporations such as Shell, Deloitte and Microsoft represented the ‘for profit’ sector and within the ‘not for profit’ sector there were those who were working with many communities across large geographical areas and those who were working with much smaller more localised communities. The disparity in the amounts of funding received by these different communities was huge.

These differences in contexts led to mismatches of understanding of what we mean by communities of practice and also to different uses of language. I found myself listening to conversations which were quite unlike the types of conversations I usually have about communities of practice and I’m not sure that I ever did really understand what the other participants were doing with their very different communities of practice. There was a lot of ‘talking past each other’.

On reflection it might have been helpful to go further than the descriptive sharing that we did, most of which was not relevant to other contexts, and instead focus on analysing the culture of the different communities with a view to understanding them better and being able to better make comparisons. One possible useful approach to analysing culture is the ‘Culture Web’, which Julia Balogun writes about in her article ‘Strategic Change’ in Management Quarterly Part 10 January 2001. This captures, through stories, symbols, routines, power structures, controls and organisation structure (see p.5 of the article), what the central paradigm of a culture is. If context influences how communities of practice are understood, then could we argue that an understanding of this central paradigm is needed? Maybe this would have helped us to better understand each others cultures and the different issues that each of us are facing in our work with communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger talked to us at BEtreat about learning in a landscape of practice and working on the boundaries between communities of practice, so that we can find new ways to talk across boundaries. At BEtreat the boundaries between the different practices were very evident and, I think, problematic. It was said that there is a need to manage cross boundary working. For me, sharing practice was not enough. We needed to analyse and question the different cultures and it might have helped to use an approach such as the Culture Web.

That said, it was very stimulating to be able to work alongside people I would never normally come in contact with and the experience has caused me to further reflect on Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice.

Process versus content in the learning experience

The tensions between process and content were very interesting to observe in the BEtreat workshop that I recently attended California.

The workshop was run over 5 days by Etienne Wenger and Beverley Trayner in their home in Grass Valley. Both during and following the workshop I have reflected on which aspects of it were successful and think that a lot of this hinged on the degree of balance that was achieved between process and content.

The workshop design was ambitious and complex.  There were various parallel themes. This was the agenda for the 5 days. (Click on it to see it more clearly although the font is still small).

Key components of the workshop design were:

–       to integrate, as fully as possible, face to face and online workshop participants and activities (see blog post July 9th 2011). The focus here was on technology – but participants also had to learn new ways of working and communicating.

–       to present our own case clinics in the form of ‘booths’ – we would call these ‘stands’ in the UK. Through these we shared information about the CoPs we work in with other participants, the challenges we face and the questions we are asking. I was only just beginning to feel I knew what other people were working on by the end of the workshop.

–       to daily reflect on the success of the workshop design through the Leadership group activities. These were Agenda Activists (they reported on issues and insights, pushed the agenda forward, and made sure that learning was captured into a collective resource), Critical Friends (who recorded and reflected on what happened), Social Reporters and External Messengers (who kept public and private records of everything that happened in the workshop) and Community Keepers (whose role was to ensure that all voices in the workshop were heard). I was in the community keepers group and these were useful discussions but although each group reported back daily, there was so much going on that I never did get my head round exactly what the other groups achieved. However, each group was expected to keep notes on the workshop wiki, so there is some record of these discussions.

–       Hot topic groups. These arose from an initial World Café activity in which we identified the issues we were bringing to the workshop. These were around evaluation, vision, community readiness, cultural change, online/f2f integration, sponsors, strategy, boundaries, encouraging participation, facilitation, changing leadership and what a thriving community looks like. We then voted for the hot topics we collectively most wanted to discuss during the 5 days and ended up with 3 groups – focussing on online/f2f integration, strategy and evaluation. My group hot topic was online/f2f integration. Again, I never did get my head round what the other groups achieved, and although this activity gave us the participants some ownership of the learning agenda for the workshop, we just did not have enough time to really get to grips with these issues.

–       Tool Share Fare. Four tools were shared, but the only one that I could relate to or felt would be useful to my own work was an open source polling tool –

–       Two presentations by Etienne and Bev. One on Social Learning Strategies and the other on the Value Creation Framework (see blog post July 12th 2011). These were short inputs. I would have liked more.

–       Socialising around shared meals (lunches and dinners), a visit to the Grass Valley Thursday night street market and an end of workshop birthday party. These activities were critical to the success of the workshop and contributed to what made the workshop a unique and unforgettable experience.

Just listing these activities shows a heavy emphasis on process. It also shows how busy the workshop was. We were pretty much flat out all the time and occasional failures in technology meant that we were often ‘playing catch up’. For me it was, on the whole, all too fast and there was little opportunity to explore anything in depth. Four days later I am still trying to catch up when I can stop to think about it (I am currently travelling round California – and am now in Monterey) – but now realise that my notes are not full enough and neither are those of the various groups, who were asked to record their group outcomes on the workshop wiki.

On the other hand I’m not sure whether the workshop would have been so enjoyable and rewarding had it been slower. The intensity and pace meant that it was never possible to control what was going on, nor to predict what would emerge.  It’s not surprising that a couple of people were attending BEtreat for the second time. It would have been interesting to know whether they got more about of it the second time round – but there just wasn’t the time to have this conversation 🙂

So it’s fascinating to observe that in these types of courses, where the course design challenges traditional ways of working and has been deliberately designed as an experiment, there can be no formula or ideal balance between process and content, breadth and depth, action and reflection for a successful learning experience. Learning in these situations is an extremely messy business and it is difficult to capture exactly what it is that makes it a highly stimulating, motivating and memorable learning experience. The sum seems to be greater than the parts. Perhaps this is what makes for a really valuable learning.

Value Creation in Communities of Practice

A key focus of BEtreat was to discuss Etienne Wenger et al.’s most recent work on value creation in communities of practice.

Etienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner, Maarten de Laat (2011) – Value Creation Framework. Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework, Ruud de Moor Centrum

This was a highlight of the workshop for me. Our discussion focussed around two points:

  1. Levels at which we see value creation
  2. The genre of storytelling

So to start we discussed ‘value creation as a donut’. (The slides below are reproduced with the kind permission of Etienne Wenger, Beverley Trayner and Maarten deLaat.)

You can start anywhere in this loop which means that there is no top down, bottom up consideration. At a certain level of maturity a community takes responsibility for practice – and is forward looking to strategy, which in turn can influence the community. Communities are responsible to each other and for the domain. If you are not covering the full circle then you are not doing knowledge management, but the points of the ‘donut’ can be covered in any order.

Communities are caught between day-to-day strategy and what they want to achieve. Unlike a team where the task is defined in advance, in a CoP narrative evolves and is constantly reviewed. Communities are focussed on capability development rather than a task.

Value in a CoP can be thought of as value for time, i.e. return on investment. This value can be measured quantitatively through the collection of data such as offered by Google analytics, but also through individual and collective narratives. Individual narratives become part of the collective one. Narratives can represent both what is happening in the current life of the community (ground narratives), and also the aspirations of the community. CoPs need to develop narratives of aspiration.

Wenger et al. have suggested that the tension between ‘ground’ and ‘aspirational’ narratives can be explored through 5 cycles of value creation.  These cycles give you a notion of indicators – things that can be measured at that point. The cycles do not necessarily have to be followed through in this order, but they should all be considered. As the community matures – it is able to do more.

Cycle 1 –considers the immediate value (activities and interactions) that people get when they enter a community, e.g. having fun. A lot of communities/people stop here.

Cycle 2 – considers the potential value (knowledge capital), i.e. something you get from the CoP that has potential to change something you do, i.e. knowledge capital. Knowledge capital can take different forms (see p.20 of the paper).

Cycle 3 – considers applied value (changes in practice). In this cycle stories are collected about how people use knowledge capital to change their practice.  It was mentioned that data is most difficult to collect in this cycle.

Cycle 4 – considers realised value (performance improvement) – i.e. the effect of knowledge capital and changes in practice on people outside the CoP – value that can be quantified. This data is often already in the institution.

Cycle 5 – considers reframing value (redefining success) – at this stage a CoP may realise that what they have been thinking of as measures of success may need to change – what they are doing might need changing. It may not be enough to  realise value in the terms that have been defined. This is where is becomes evident that voices from the ‘bottom’ can change the direction of the community.

As communities mature they are able to do more with the evaluation process and the process moves from evaluation as return on investment to the value of engagement etc. As communities move through the cycles they have to touch on more qualitative data, but stories are about causality, not about whether data is quantitative or qualitative and stories are needed from all levels of the framework. In addition, stories can point to indicators just as indicators can point to stories – so, for example, if a document is known to have been downloaded 19000 times, then this calls for stories – but stories might also point to the need to know how often a document has been downloaded.

The framework (p.25) provides examples of indicators for each cycle and of questions that can be asked for collection of data. In the group I was working in at BEtreat we used these to examine the work of communities of school leaders in Singapore and identify gaps in their data collection and whether their picture of  what the communities are achieving is complete. This was a useful and interesting exercise as the gaps became evident fairly quickly and easily, but we only had time to look at cycles 1 and 2, and from what people at the workshop with experience of using the framework said, the process becomes more difficult with cycles 3, 4 and 5.

My first impressions are that this will be a very useful framework for evaluating the work of CoPs and maybe for thinking about evaluation in general. My big question would be around how to use the data once it has been collected. What I have written here is a description of what I heard (in brief) at the workshop and how we briefly had a go at using the framework – but I wonder whether we can assume that people have the skills to accurately interpret the stories that have been collected. Does accuracy matter – or is the process the key ingredient?

Integrating online and face-to-face participation in a community of practice

Here at BEtreat in California – this is one of the key purposes of this five day course for leaders of communities of practice, where Etienne Wenger and Beverley Trayner are ‘shaking the mix’ as they like to express it – of our understanding of what is possible.

There are 15 face-to-face participants here in Grass Valley and four online participants (from Canada, Mexico, the UK and Germany). We work from 7.00 am to 4.00 pm – the early start is deliberate to ensure that our German and UK online colleagues can get some sleep. 4.00 pm here is 12.00 and 1.00 am for them. Our online colleagues are with us all the time. For whole group activities and presentations we are connected through Adobe Connect where we see them on video (projected on to a large screen), and can use the chat room and their sound comes to us through Skype. When we break out to small groups we connect via one of our lap tops through Skype and Skype video. Every effort has been made to ensure that they are fully included in all activities – so when we are on the move they are carried around  (i.e. on the laptops with video on) so that they can see where we are physically – and we turn the laptop round to ensure that they know who they are speaking to. In this sense the online and face-to-face participation is integrated and it has been noted that it has taken us all less than four days to get used to this way of working.

But what is the reality?

The technical challenges have been considerable. Bandwidth has been an issue so that the original idea that we would all be able to be connected via Adobe Connect all the time in small and whole group sessions didn’t work. The sound system has been enormously complex to set up and needs a knowledgeable and experienced sound engineer. When the technology fails – as it has done from time to time – then time is wasted as we wait for it to be fixed, and sometimes the online participants have been left out in the cold not knowing what is going on behind the failed system. It took us a while to realise that we could overcome this by maintaining contact by email.  But despite the difficulties, this week has shown that in these locations at least the technical challenges can be overcome. It might be a while before we can integrate online and face-to-face participation with colleagues in Africa, for example, where bandwidth and download times make synchronous online interaction very difficult.

With time the technology will become easier – but a much more interesting question for me is what effect does this way of working have on the learning of both the face-to-face participants and the online participants? Is it possible to integrate the learning?

My feeling is that to some extent the learning of both groups is compromised. The online group have to work hard to make their voice heard – they have to be pro-active in saying what they want, assertive and even forceful. My sense is that in doing this their voice is not the same voice they would have in the face-to-face group. Sometimes their voice is too dominant as we the face-to-face participants try to ensure inclusivity and bend over backwards to accommodate them, often by deferring to them and allowing them more voice than they might have in a face-to-face situation. At other times they have to shout to be heard – particularly when there is a lot of background noise from the f2f group. And at yet other times they have no voice at all – for example in the lunch break or when we meet socially – and much learning occurs at these times. They may need to take breaks themselves at these times or sleep!

The f2f group have also had to adjust/find their voice in this attempt to fully integrate online and f2f learning. We have had to be careful to speak one at a time and only into a microphone. We have had to learn to try and treat our online colleagues as if they are in the room – making sure we look at them when speaking, and include them in our questions and discussions. This has slowed up the natural flow of discussion across the f2f group and again it has been the more assertive (and possibly less sensitive to the complexities of balancing voices) who have ensured that their voice has been heard.

Finally – my perspective is that the concentration on the technology and including the online group has for me meant that I have not heard as much as I would have liked from the one voice that I have come all this way to listen to, i.e. Etienne’s. Ironic really!

More to come. This has been an absolutely fascinating learning experience.