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Risk and Safety Communities of Practice and the Practice of Community

Originally posted on August 18, 2013 @ 7:47 PM

Risk and Safety Communities of Practice and the Practice of Community

Dr Rob Long’s third book entitled “Real Risk, Human Discerning and Risk” will be launched in early October.  For those of you who have read and enjoyed For The Love of Zero and Risk Makes Sense I am sure you will be looking forward to it’s release. Watch this is space for more details.

Here is a sneak preview from the last chapter:

In my second book For the Love of Zero, the foreword was written by Graham Long and he said:

There is no such thing as a single human being. The minimum number in the fundamental human unit is two. At the core of what it means to be human is connection. So the word ‘I’ is the shortest and yet the most misleading word in the English language. This word more than all others is in need of review. The word ‘I’ could at best, only ever refer to half of something.

In a culture that has privatized everything, most especially the self, we nod to the idea of community. We think that familiarity with a word is the same thing or similar to understanding the word. Alas the word mostly denotes a gathering of individuals, half units.

… Imagine the joy that could come if our goal was to ‘meet’ people rather than to fix them. Imagine the burden that would be lifted from consumers as well as dispensers of ‘helping services’. In order for the ‘client’ to cease to become a thing, the expert must also be willing to cease to become a thing. Imagine if we could admit that human frailty was shared on both sides of the professional table. We so need to discover that no matter how good the heart is that seeks to fix its fellow human being, there is a push away in the act of helping.

Several scholars have been helpful in sharpening the meaning of community. In the 1920’s Ferdinand Tonnies (1925) used the German words Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) to help discern the difference between community and society. Gemeinschaft is a German word, translated as ‘community’, used to define an ‘ideal type’, or model, society where social bonds are personal and direct and there are strong shared values and beliefs. Gemeinschaft is characteristic of small scale, localized societies in contrast to Gesellschaft which refers to complex, impersonal societies. Gesellschaft is a form of social integration based on impersonal ties; more an association than a community as in Gemeinschaft. Gemeinschaft describes binding, primary interactional relationships based on a personal sense of attachment and belonging; while Gesellschaft describes an interactional system characterized by self-interest, competition, and negotiated accommodation. In Gesellschaft relationships are contracted on the basis of rationality and social contract. In Gesellschaft one is not subject to the scrutiny of the group, individuals are subordinated to abstract authorities and impersonal institutions, where regulations control relationships. In Germeinschaft there is no need for regulation, people are drawn together in belonging, trust and mutual interdependence.

The community dynamic (germeinschaft) offers people the promise of belonging and brings people together in acknowledgement of interdependence. In our increasingly individualistic world people are yearning for more community. Despite all the activity on social media and increased modes of communication, our society continues to be hopelessly individualistic with record levels of mental health issues, anxiety, depression and suicide ( cited 26 July 2013). Suicide is now one of the three leading causes of deaths among males and females aged 15-44 years (Western Australian Suicide Prevention Strategy 2009 – 2013). The two main causes of suicide are relationship breakdown and psychiatric disorder.

The idea of community (germeinschaft) becomes tangible when we grasp the importance of discourse, language, communication and conversation. A real community tends to be characterised by restorative conversation (possibilities, imagination, creativity and learning) whereas associations and societies tend to be characterised by retributive communications (problems to be solved). Block (2009) comments that restorative conversations should be where:

• An intimate and authentic relatedness is experienced.

• The world is shifted through invitation rather than mandate.

• The focus is on communal possibility.

• There is a shift in ownership of this place, even though others are in charge.

• Diversity of thinking and dissent are given space.

• Commitments are made without barter and,

• The gifts of each person and our community are acknowleged and valued.

Setting goals and achieving goals requires a social context, humans are fundamentally social beings. Martin Buber (1925) argued that the primary word ‘I-thou’ points to a relation of person to person, of subject to subject, a relationship of reciprocity involving meeting and encounter, while the primary word ‘I-It’ points to a relation of person to thing, of subject to object, involving utilization, domination and control. Goal setting that fixates on objects fails to engage or motivate subjects, people want to have meaning and purpose on what they do and are not machines, neither are they motivated by mechanistic approaches to goal setting. Buber argues that it is only through the ‘Thou’ that a human becomes an ‘I’. What this means is that human identity is only meaningful when in dialogue with others. Authentic human community is a ‘dialogic life’, it exists in the meeting between persons, as Buber says ‘ All real living is meeting’ (Buber, 1958, p.34). Buber shows how the need to control and fix ‘things’ or ‘thingification’ tends to ‘use’ others rather than ‘meet’ others. When one sets targets that focus on calculative things, then depersonalising and dehumanising dynamics flow. In the I-It relationship others must be subordinate. The I-It relationship is about using others and prioritising ‘things’ so it looks like relationship but is really ‘usership’. Usership is anti-learning, dehumanising and risk averse., this kind of mindset finds joy in calculation where it hides from human engagement.

In Buber’s sense of community he rejects atomistic individualism and totalitarian collectivism. One can be in a crowd and still not ‘meet’ anyone. One can have a thousan friends on Facebook and still not engage with anyone or be truly ‘known’ by anyone. Community (germeinschaft) knowing is ‘To Know as we are Known’ (Parker J. Palmer). There can be no real community when the principle focus is on ‘things’, fixing ‘things’ and calculating ‘things’. This is the problem with zero, it ‘primes’ a population to be calculative. As Buber comments: ‘when a primary word is spoken the speaker enters the word and takes his stand in it’ (p. 20). The primary word ‘I-Thou’ is the meaning of community, the primary word ‘I-It’ is the meaning for society. Community is defined by the special quality of relationships which are formed in it. The ingredients for growth in community are discovered in the dynamic of mutual acceptance, responsibility for each other implied by that acceptance, interdependence, participation and identity through involvement.

The key to discerning risk is the management of risk communication and collaboration (Standards Australia HB 327:2010 Communicating and Consulting About Risk). The place where community is best played out in organisations in the engagement with risk is the committee and in supervision. For organisations that humanise employees and seek community I-Thou meeting, risk makes sense and the discernment of risk is relational. For organisations that dehumanise employees and seek the I-It of usership, there is no real meeting nor relation, only problem solving, counting things and regulation.

The human person is in a broad sense a reflective and a valuing being, this reflection occurs within a social context. The old notion of a person as just a ‘rational being’ is too narrow. The idea of the ‘rational being’ tends to connote the Greek or Enlightenment role of reason with its incessant demand for logically certain and controllable knowledge. But ‘reflection’ includes various sorts of mental activity with reference to myself, my relationships amid my responsibilities. It may include belief and values as well as knowledge, passionate involvement as well as detached inquiry, practical concerns as well as theoretical concerns. Creativity and imagination are also present in the things we sense but do not yet ‘know’. The curious assumption that things non-rational must be irrational is not justified in community, where we connect and ‘meet’ others. Community is person-centric whereas usership is about ‘things’, products and regulation. Personhood thrives in community where as usership dehumanised the other.

Andersen notes six major characteristics that help define personhood:

1. Rationality

2. Self-awareness; being able to meaningfully entertain the notion of ‘I’

3. Feelings

4. Agency; the framing of intentions amid plans, particularly moral agency

5. Relationships; persons are personal i.e. they relate to other persons. If such relationships are not capable of being formed we would call it nonpersonal interaction but not ‘meeting’

6. Identity i.e. some consistency within the person. (This does not exclude the possibility of change or development.)

The best place to exercise community in the engagement of risk in large organisations is in small groups, committees, supervision relationships and in teams. Unfortunately, many small groups and committees designed to ‘meet’ and dialogue about risk neither really ‘meet’ not engage in dialogue. Often the pattern of getting together is about ‘telling, ‘counting’ or ‘things’. This is exacerbated by the ideology of zero and calculative systems that dominate organisations. Sometimes, one gets into committees and small groups to discern risk by default. Often committees are perceived to be a ‘waste of time’ or a low priority, in general committees are perceived as something that is regulated but their effectiveness is not believed. In some industries in particular it is often the case that committees designed to ‘meet’ and ‘dialogue’ about risk are perceived as a low priority and so the most dysfunctional people are sent as representatives rather the best people. eg. sending a worker who is on leave or injured. Unless people in the business of risk rediscover the dynamics of community-in-work and establish communities -of-practice learning in risk will be weak and risk aversion will reign supreme.

Communities-of-Practice (CoP)

The idea of communities-of-practice (CoP) is not a new idea but denotes a group of people who seek learning through the dynamic of community. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger coined the phrase in their 1991 book Situated Learning (1991). Wenger (1998) later published a specific work on the concept. A community-of-practice is a group who share a common interest consisting of three interrelated activities: ‘mutual engagement’, ‘joint enterprise’ and ‘shared repertoire’ (Wenger 1998, pp. 72–73). One of the consistent themes in each publication in this series of books has been the priority of learning. Learning is central to human identity and that identity is that of a social being, made fully human in the ‘I-Thou’ of Gemeinschaft.

Wikipedia helps clarify the distinction between a community-of-practice and project teams or communities-of-interst (, accessed 1 August, 2013):

• A project team differs from a community of practice in several significant ways (McDermott, 1999).

• A project team is driven by deliverables with shared goals, milestones and results.

• A project team meets to share and exchange information and experiences just as the community of practice does, but team membership is defined by task.

• A project team typically has designated members who remain consistent in their roles during the project.

• A project team is dissolved once its mission is accomplished.

By contrast,

• A community of practice is often organically created, with as many objectives as members of that community.

• Community membership is defined by the knowledge of the members. CoP membership changes and members may take on new roles within the community as interests and needs arise.

• A community of practice can exist as long as the members believe they have something to contribute to it, or gain from it. A Community of Interest is:

• A group of people interested in sharing information and discussing a particular topic that interests them.

• Members are not necessarily experts or practitioners of the topic around which the CoI has formed.

• The purpose of the CoI is to provide a place where people who share a common interest can go and exchange information, ask questions, and express their opinions about the topic.

• Membership in a CoI is not dependent upon expertise – one only needs to be interested in the subject. Whereas a Community of Practice is:

• A CoP, in contrast, is a group of people who are active practitioners.

• CoP participation is not appropriate for non-practitioners.

• The purpose of a CoP, as discussed above, is to provide a way for practitioners to share tips and best practices, ask questions of their colleagues, and provide support for each other.

• Membership is dependent on expertise – one should have at least some recent experience performing in the role or subject area of the CoP.

Example: Someone who is interested in photography and has some background/training in it finds an online CoP for working photojournalists, who use it to discuss various aspects of their work. Since this community is focused on working photojournalists, it would not be appropriate for an amateur photographer to contribute to the CoP discussions there. Depending on the CoPs structure non-CoP members may have access to reading the discussions and accessing other materials of the community. Borys (2005) introduces the idea that learning through a community-of-practice is ‘a social process of forming’ and identity more than a cognitive process of transferring knowledge.

Too often the risk and safety industries concentrate on knowledge content of the Act and Regulation rather than, understanding the ‘spirit’ and dynamic of the human dimensions of risk. The static transference of content about risk and safety is not learning, as is often the approach in vocational training, content training is fundamentally disconnected from the dynamic of community. A community-of-practice is focused on its own situated learning and views socially and psychological learning as synonymous with risk maturity.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Latest posts by Dr Rob Long (see all)

Dr Rob Long

PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA

Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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