A Review of Communities of Practice in the Ombuds Community

By Shannon Lynn Burton, Ph.D.
Associate University Ombudsperson, Michigan State University

Through the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), ombuds around the world learn their roles and connect with others in the field through the annual conference, training, and webinars, as well as through the various publications sponsored by IOA. These interactions allow us to network with individuals both in and outside our professional sector. However, for some, the large conferences might seem overwhelming and might not address the particular needs of a sector or issue. To meet these needs, sector-specific or region-specific meetings have emerged. These meetings allow for greater connection within sectors or regions and create a space for deeper conversation about specific issues. These groups, some of which are informally part of the larger IOA umbrella, can be defined as “communities of practice.”  In 1991, theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger coined the term “communities of practice” in their work examining legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimate peripheral participation describes the ways in which newcomers to a group become experienced members through low-risk activities whereby they become familiar with the organization, values and language of the group or community. Individuals form “communities of practice” when they engage in collective learning or in a shared human endeavor.

This past June, two such communities of practice met at Michigan State University. The first was the Summer Meeting of Academic Ombuds, a group that has met for the last 15 years to discuss ideas and support networking among those in the academic sector. A smaller group, the Michigan Caucus of Educational Ombuds, met for the third time to examine issues particular to their expanding group, as well as needs particular to those in the State of Michigan. MSU extended their hospitality as the kick-off to the celebration of the 50th year of their ombuds office, but more importantly, to contribute to these particular communities of practice.

Academic Conference

In the literature on communities of practice, three components distinguish them from other types of activities:

  1. There needs to be a domain. A community of practice has an identity framed by a shared domain of interest. It is not just a network of individuals working in the same field, but membership connotes a commitment to a domain. In both of these meetings, the commitment to the domain was clear – that of education.
  2. There needs to be a community. Individuals interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, and share information with each other. They build these relationships to allow them to learn from each other. While academic ombuds often practice alone within their organizations, the interactions and conversations that take place at these summer meetings (and similar ones in other regions/sectors) are central to these groups as communities of practice. These shared activities at MSU included discussions of hot topics, the evaluation of a case study, conversations about research in the field, as well as interactive workshops covering topics from ombuds practice in the current political climate, the history of academic ombuds practice, establishing value and many others.
  3. There needs to be a practice. A community of practice is not just a group of individuals who share an interest in something like ombuds theory. The final requirement is that members are practitioners. They create a shared set of resources that include tools, experiences, ways of handling typical problems, and the like. The group develops these practices over time, as demonstrated by the annual nature of these meetings.

Communities of practice involve more than knowledge or skills, they involve relationships over time (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and the issues that matter to its members (Wenger, 1998). In examining the evaluations and hearing feedback from these meetings, it is clear that these groups are meeting the standard for defining themselves as “communities of practice” and that these opportunities for networking and connection within the ombuds community help to assuage some of the isolation one may feel in creating, expanding and maintaining one’s office. Highlights from the evaluations from both events state that the most meaningful components included the historical panels, the case studies and large group discussions, opportunities to dialogue with other ombuds and hearing different perspectives, and the space to network with ombuds at educational institutions at all stages of their careers. These comments clearly reflect the relationships established and that it spoke to issues important to the group.

Next year the University of Iowa will be hosting the Summer Meeting of Academic Ombuds from June 25 – 26, 2018. The Michigan Caucus of Educational Ombuds has not yet set a date or location for 2018, but will hopefully be doing so soon. As IOA looks to promote, provide and protect the organizational ombuds role, encouraging communities of practice such as these could offer a space for greater connection in the field, as well as outreach to practicing ombuds who may not be members of IOA. From the experiences of both the Summer Meeting of Academic Ombuds, as well as the Michigan Caucus of Educational Ombuds, communities of practice do indeed strengthen relationships within the field, as well as allow deeper reflection into issues central to specific sectors and regions.

For more information on communities of practice, please visit the following resources:

  • Lave, J. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger, E. & Wenger-Trayner, W. (2015). ‘Communities of practice. A brief introduction’. Communities of practice [http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/]. Accessed July 20, 2017.
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