Identifying, building and sustaining leadership capacity for communities of practice in higher education

McDonald, Jacquelin and Star, Cassandra and Burch, Tony and Cox, Milton and Nagy, Judy and Margetts, Fiona and Collins, Emily (2012) Identifying, building and sustaining leadership capacity for communities of practice in higher education. Project Report. Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching , Sydney. [Report]

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Executive summary
The Leadership project LE10-1734, ‘Identifying, building and sustaining leadership capacity for communities of practice in higher education’, used an iterative, reflective, action learning approach to identify and address the leadership needs and challenges for those facilitating learning and teaching communities of practice (CoPs).

CoPs are increasingly established in higher education to provide opportunities for staff to form a peer learning community and to allocate dedicated time to build knowledge of learning and teaching and to share their practice, ultimately leading to improvement and innovation. An analysis of the academic literature identified confusion around the understanding of CoPs, a dearth of literature specifically on higher education, and a gap regarding the leadership role within CoPs.

The leadership role within CoPs can be challenging as the CoP may have an uneasy fit within the context of higher education institutions. Often CoPs are not aligned with formal structures, and the leadership role/s within CoPs can differ significantly from those of the familiar ‘corporate’ roles of committee chair, department head or unit/course leader. Often CoP members will be from different disciplines and may include both professional and academic staff. The dynamics of collaboration within such diversity will require significant leadership skill to manage personalities and power dynamics, cultivate a supportive receptive context and provide outcomes useful for both members and institutions. Thus, for this project, the ‘leadership’ role in the CoP is designated the ‘facilitator.’

The project team’s action research methodology is detailed in Chapter 2 of this report. Data to inform a leadership needs analysis were obtained through a literature review, a broad quantitative survey of the higher education sector, as well as from in-depth qualitative investigation with key informants. The triangulation of these sources, plus input from the reference group and evaluator, provided a deep understanding of the leadership needs and challenges for those facilitating learning and teaching CoPs in higher education. Data identified most CoPs are situated within university faculties among practitioners and are, therefore, close to where student learning takes place.

In evaluating how best to support and develop capability for facilitators of CoPs in the Australian context, the project team concluded that “[r]esearch … indicates that there is no one definitive set of ‘traits’ or ‘behaviours’ that characterises leaders” and there are many diverse types of successful leader with a range of qualities, skills and attributes (Jameson 2008, p. 9). Therefore, the project’s methodology highlighted a need to engage strongly with the target end users to identify their needs; this featured throughout the project. To facilitate this approach, early, continuous engagement with a stakeholder network of individuals in Australia and overseas known to facilitate or be interested in facilitating CoPs, ensured strong involvement in the project by stakeholders. Additionally, the project team developed linkages with a number of groups working in the same area overseas and with other OLT projects in Australia. Through the stakeholder network, and other interested groups, a targeted survey and in-depth interviews informed a needs analysis for CoP facilitators in the sector, which led into development of resources from the project. These resources were derived after a comprehensive literature review, survey and interviews, as depicted in Figure 2 below, as well as engagement with the stakeholder network.

A rich set of Australian, higher education-specific resources designed explicitly for those who facilitate higher education communities of practice is the key outcome of the project. Based on feedback from the project survey, interviews and the stakeholder network, the resources were developed as a ’just in time, just for me‘ integrated online package aimed at disciplinary academics who were found to be the key facilitators of CoPs in the Australian setting. The resources are framed and constructed around the development phases through which CoPs typically move, as shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 2: Identifying CoP leadership needs for development and capacity building: A triangulated/iterative approach

Figure 3: Phases of Communities of Practice

The introductory explanations to the resources note that the need for particular skills may be more pronounced in some phases of the CoP than others and, also, that each facilitator has a separate development journey, and, thus, completes a self-audit to assess their development needs. For each phase of CoP development, there are key leadership skills, capabilities or competencies that are needed to contribute to successful leadership by the facilitator. The resources, therefore, cover a range of skills, capabilities and competencies, in each phase of CoP development. Each individual resource is constructed to be short and sharp and to stand alone, but sits within the overall framework outlined above. These resources have been tested and reviewed with target academics at Australian-based conferences and workshops and are available for free distribution via the project website <>.

The independent evaluation of the project highlighted that the project team displayed significant strengths including a tight project design, joint leadership, a strong approach to working together that worked with the team’s strengths and the continuous engagement model through the stakeholder network. The evaluator concludes that these strengths ensured the project stayed on time and on budget to produce excellent outcomes. In particular, the project demonstrated clear value through the identification of and engagement with end users, its articulation of the strengths and use of the CoP approach in higher education, and ultimately, through its contribution to the development of CoP facilitators.

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Item Type: Report (Project Report)
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Additional Information: With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and where otherwise noted, all material presented in this document is provided under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia License The details of the relevant licence conditions are available on the Creative Commons website (accessible using the links provided) as is the full legal code for the CC BY 3.0 Australia License
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Learning and Teaching Support Unit
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Learning and Teaching Support Unit
Date Deposited: 04 Oct 2014 23:13
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2017 06:16
Fields of Research (2008): 13 Education > 1301 Education Systems > 130103 Higher Education
Fields of Research (2020): 39 EDUCATION > 3903 Education systems > 390303 Higher education
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): C Society > 93 Education and Training > 9399 Other Education and Training > 939999 Education and Training not elsewhere classified

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