Research within Communities of Practice

In early November, I spent a day at the Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) in Knowle West, an estate in the south of Bristol, at the invitation of Dr Roz Stewart-Hall who is Head of Research and Evaluation there. KWMC describes itself as an arts centre and charity that supports individuals and communities to get the most out of digital technologies and the arts through providing relevant ways for people to get involved in community activism, education, employment, and local decision-making. The Centre was established in 1996 and now operates out of two sites in Knowle West – their headquarters, built using innovative straw bale construction techniques in 2007 and the Factory which is a workshop space offering design and making facilities. KWMC facilitates group activities, workshops, events and exhibitions in both sites. They host residencies and provide work experience and engage in long-term research-led programmes designed with local residents to address issues and provide solutions, for instance to the current housing crisis.

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In the hours I spent at KWMC I had the chance to see the buildings, interview staff, walk through Knowle West and see their work in action. I spent time in the office and the Factory and was taken to see the prototype house that has been built as part of the ‘We can make… homes’ project, which is led by KWMC in collaboration with designers and researchers from the University of the West of England. It was a very rich and thought-provoking day that I have been reflecting on since the visit. Here are some of my provisional thoughts.
In my conversations with staff and observations of the working practices at the Centre I was struck by the extent to which KWMC functions as a community of practice (CoP). The concept of the CoP was first introduced by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991 to explain how specific relationships between people, activities and the world determine how learning and knowledge generation take place through forms of situated practice. Within CoPs the focus on ‘community’ is essential, providing opportunities for individuals to develop sustained relationships and do things together, with a shared purpose. However, not all forms of work done jointly with others can be understood as a community of practice, since the latter requires that there is highly effective sharing of information, awareness of everyone’s roles and contributions, clearly defined identities and a store of knowledge built up over time that everyone can access and contribute to. When these are in place individuals within the community of practice can learn, communicate their knowledge and develop their practice.
What I witnessed at KWMC, which has been supported by further reading, suggests that these characteristics are to be found in the vision, working context, forms of organisation and types of social interaction at the Centre. For example, knowledge sharing is afforded through the open-plan layout of the offices, as well as through formal organisational structures, including twice-weekly ‘huddles’ where everyone in the organisation comes together to discuss current activity. Jess, the KWMC Learning Manager recognised that these meetings are ‘a chance to know what everyone else is doing’ and provide ‘the ability to respond to things as they are happening,’ in other words, they enable ideas and information to be shared and problems resolved.


The KWMC offices


Newcomers are introduced to the KWMC ethos and working practices through formal induction, but also through more informal processes of working alongside more experienced co-workers. Ongoing reflection and evaluation is built into their work in a process akin to action research to enable tacit learning to be made explicit, to be fed back into practice and disseminated to the wider community. Perhaps most significantly, throughout the organisation there is a tangible commitment to ongoing change and a sense shared by those that work there that how the organisation works is fundamental to why they exist – their commitment to shared learning and innovation are manifest in their systems and structures as well as their work with others.


An example of a project evaluation

What also emerges very clearly is that the work that KWMC do is informed comprehensively and directly by a set of values that foreground the experience and expertise of the community members who take part in their projects. This has been formalised as ‘The Bristol Approach’ which, as the KWMC website describes, is ‘a way of working that aims to understand the issues people care about. Rather than ‘pushing’ technology or pre-determined ‘solutions’ onto people, The Bristol Approach focuses on supporting people to work together to ‘pull-in’ the knowledge, technology and resources needed to tackle a problem.’ The approach is realised in practice through projects that are framed, as Roz said, as ‘a research process starting with the issues that people from the local community think are important and need to be addressed.’ These research projects involve those from the community who have expertise in relation to the issue being investigated and who will be directly affected by the findings and outcomes of the process, staff from KWMC, artists and other professionals including academics who are interested in the topic and bring their expertise to tackle a particular problem.
In reading more about CoPs I was directed by my colleague Pip Laurenson to an article by Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts that digs deeper in the concept and comes up with a typology of CoPs, differentiating between four groups that they perceive have distinct properties. One of these groups they understand to be characterised by ‘epistemic/creative knowing’. These groups, unlike other CoPs, bring together ‘experts’ on a temporary basis to generate creativity and explore issues, motivated by a strong commitment to a unifying problem.
On reading this I became interested in thinking how The Bristol Approach can be allied to this model of epistemic CoPs. With each project KWMC ‘pulls-in’ individuals from the community and beyond to tackle issues raised by the community. Crucially, everyone involved in the project, from the young person, for example, to the academic is located as an ‘expert’ and KWMC go to considerable lengths in designing projects to try and ensure that a non-hierarchical structure exists where everyone’s contribution is valued equally. The Centre staff I interviewed recognise that this is not always possible and that academic partners can sometimes struggle with this formulation, in part as it invites them to research with rather than on others and to recognise forms of knowledge different from their own. However, in seeking to establish an open space where various individuals are invited in to explore ‘uncharted territory’ together, according to Amin and Roberts, KWMC is creating the conditions for new ideas that are relevant and applicable in a community context to thrive.
I have been inspired by this visit and prompted to consider how the characteristics of effective CoPs, and specifically epistemic/creative communities of practice can be fostered in the art museum. Focusing on systems and structures that promote non-hierarchical knowledge sharing and support innovatory thinking are uppermost in my mind.


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