Sunday, 18 February 2018
A community of practice or a working psychological group? Group dynamics in core and peripheral community participation
In this article, just accepted for publication in Management Learning, we describe the Silver Academy, a project involving over 100 unemployed and self-employed managers over the age of 50, who came together with the purpose of sharing knowledge and experience in starting up their own businesses. The starting point for the study was whether this group of demoralized managers who had recently experienced traumatic redundancies from highly paid and prestigious jobs could function as a community of practice – whether, in other words, they could function as a community not only supporting each other emotionally but sharing knowledge, skills and networks in radically restarting their lives outside the corporate world. During the project we noted that the Academy successfully matched the notion of a community of practice, in that participants built mutual relationships, shared engagement in activities and came to regard themselves as a ‘forum’, ‘support network’ and a ‘community of interest’. However, applying Bion’s (1961) theory of groups, our study challenges the homogenous and consensual notion of a community of practice, illustrating how, through unconscious group processes, some group members exhibited work-group mentality and the capacity for realistic hard work (and leadership), while others were caught in a basic-assumption mentality, prone to feelings of anxiety, guilt and depression, or in the words of one participant becoming ‘a group of lost souls’. As a longitudinal, three year study, in contrast to the more commonly undertaken cross-sectional studies, ours reveals many of the intricate dynamics, fissures, splits and conflicts in a community of practice that tend to go unreported.
We believe that our research has considerable value at a time of great dislocations in employment patterns, when automation and artificial intelligence will draw increasing numbers of people (including professionals and managers) to situations similar to those facing the members of the Silver Academy. Forming communities of practice aimed at sharing knowledge may be a first step towards discovering new meaningful work opportunities and restoring their careers. The success of such communities of practice, however, will depend on the extent to which they will manage to channel their energy and creativity to productive ends while managing collective and individual anxieties.