Centre for Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Enterprise

Learning Communities

Learning Communities


Learning Communities are groups of people who want to improve their practice by reflecting on the complex judgements that they make, day in day out.

Research has demonstrated that learning and improvement for any worker is significantly enhanced when organisations have “positive error cultures” – that is, when organisations use the uncertainties, complexities and mistakes in decision-making that occur within practice as opportunities for learning and improvement (Gigerenzer, 2014; Lowe, 2013).

Target-based performance management systems, which use ‘compliance with agreed standards’ as mechanisms to ensure quality and improve practice, can be ineffective in situations of complexity and uncertainty (Brown & Calnan, 2011; Lowe, forthcoming). Learning Communities use complexity, uncertainty and doubt as starting points for reflection and practice improvement.

Benefits of Learning Communities work

Learning Communities work because people are open and transparent about their practice – most importantly, their uncertainties, their difficult cases, and the mistakes that they have made.

Learning Communities are:

  • a place of trust – where people trust their peers to give helpful, critical feedback on the questions they raise, and the doubts and uncertainties they have
  • a way to build a positive error culture – a work culture in which uncertainty and mistakes are viewed by everyone as an opportunity for learning and development
  • mechanisms to understand what quality and excellence means in areas of complex practice, and ways to support practitioners to improve their judgements in order to achieve quality
  • mechanisms to discuss practice across organisational boundaries

Development of Learning Communities

Learning Communities are designed by the people who take part. This is because each set of people need to find the way in which they can generate the environment in which they feel safe to talk about the difficult areas of their practice.

Co-design process for creating a Learning Community

To design a Learning Community you will need to:

  • identify the participants
  • support them to co-design the Learning Community format which will enable them to develop a culture of trust and transparency
  • facilitate an initial session – and then subsequent ones as necessary

You should think about the following questions:

  • Who is in the room?
  • When and where will they meet?
  • How will the sessions be facilitated?
  • What ground rules will apply for each session?
  • What questions/issues do they want to address?
  • How will they present their practice?
  • What data/information do they need?
  • How will they record and capture their learning?
  • Who will they report their findings to?

Find out more information about starting a Learning Community

Starting a Learning Community

Check our six steps for starting a learning community.

1. Who to involve in your community

A great Learning Community is a group of peers who come together in a safe space to share their judgements and uncertainties about their practise and share ideas or experiences to collectively improve. This peer – or horizontal – accountability, where a shared understanding of what excellence looks like, is core to the Learning Community purpose: the approach has its roots in complexity theory and the benefits arising from adopting a ‘positive error culture’.

2. Champion for your Learning Community

The Learning Community membership may be champions or leaders in their own right but often negotiating with team, organisation or sector leaders will be needed to get a Learning Community of peers established. Starting a conversation with the people who can release participants from their day-to-day commitments will be crucial. Some of the design work will be done in these conversations and inform the later design work with group members. Consider, too, at this stage if additional resources will be needed and what help is needed from the leadership people.

3. Resources for planning and organising

Like all meetings or workshops, there are some logistics to consider. Is a free meeting room available or is funding needed to secure one? Is extra admin support required to arrange a design session or future community meetings? Would an external facilitator add value at any stage and what costs will this accrue? There may be more resource implications that emerge from the design session for members or leaders to consider.

4. Hold a design workshop

Bring prospective Learning Community members together to co-design the shape and rules for the group. The design workshop facilitator will work with one of the prospective members to model a case scenario, presenting a significant moment or aspect of their practise of their choice for group discussion and reflection. By the end of the session, the group will have agreed the arrangements, reporting methods, ground-rules and shape for future Learning Communities.

5. Run the Learning Community

How often, who, what, where, when and why will have been defined in earlier negotiations and design work, so now the task is to just do it! Remember to revisit the purpose and ground rules, and seek the views of the Learning Community on their experiences especially if a refresh might be needed.

The Learning Communities Handbook (PDF: 1.97MB)