Maximizing Social Learning Spaces in Sport Organizations: A Story about Creating ValueJanuary 11, 2021
The global knowledge society is one in which we can never know everything we will need to know to be successful – something the pandemic has brought into sharp focus. Sport leaders need an agile method capable of gathering knowledge from many sources and that encourages reformulations and innovations to address ever new challenges. With increasing frequency, sport leaders are engaging in social learning spaces (SLSs) without knowing it, and without explicit knowledge of how best to make these interactions most effective. In response, this article aims to help build literacy around SLSs – an innovative tool to help sport leaders more effectively tackle the key issues today and in the future.
What is a social learning space?
The term SLS is less familiar to many than its cousin “community of practice” (Wenger, 1998). Both concepts are rooted in social learning theory and underpinned by three basic assumptions:
- Humans are fundamentally social beings;
- Learning is at the core of our existence; and
- As we learn, we become.
Understanding learning in this way means that as we learn through interacting with others and the world we are developing our identity; the person we are at any time being the sum of all our previous experiences (Jarvis, 2006).
An effective community of practice is one form of SLS. Other forms include one-on-one conversations or mentorships, conferences or workshops, and online networks of hundreds of people. SLSs are a mechanism for learning and change that enable participants to create knowledge and formulate new ways of doing the things they care about. This “doing” is our practice and can refer to anything from coaching a specific group of athletes, to developing sport leaders, to promoting social justice in an organization. SLSs are not defined by physical area, but by the social relationships of the participants along with a mutual understanding that they can learn together (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2020). The three important characteristics of a SLS, which make it different than participation in other places of interaction, are that participants:
- Care to make a difference about something;
- Engage uncertainty; and
- Pay attention to data.
Caring to make a difference (i.e., having a passion to learn and effect change) is necessary but not sufficient to make a social learning space. What makes a social learning space distinct from other groups where people gather around a passion, for example a reading group, is that the other participants appreciate, and indeed welcome, the uncertainty resulting from the “tension between caring to make a difference and having a clear path to get there” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2020, p. 21); and are committed to working together to muddle through key issues, while paying attention to the effects of any changes made to practice.
This article draws on our work with SLSs since 2000 through our lab, the University of Ottawa Research Group for Coach Development. This work includes at least seven projects with ten host organizations (e.g., local clubs, and provincial and national organizations) that brought together coaches and sport administrators to engage in cycles of collective and individual reflection interspersed with the application of new ways of doing things in their practice, all in the service of learning to make a difference.
Table 1: Examples of social learning space outcomes
|Women coaches came to understand that they could continue to coach and become a mother||Major shifts in perspective, such as coaches sharing rather than guarding their knowledge||Increased numbers of women coaches, coach developers, and referees recruited and trained|
|Professional development credits for coach development||Shared understanding of technical terms and novel technologies||Better alignment between high performance standards and developmental programs|
Social learning spaces and value creation
Value creation in SLSs is a process rather than an end goal. When the participants in a SLS feel their participation is helping them move toward the difference they care to make, they see value (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2020). In the SLSs with which we are involved, we use the Value Creation Framework proposed by these authors to guide how we generate value, how we translate this value by doing something with it, how we set our hopes and expectations for a SLS, and how we evaluate whether the value is making a difference. The framework proposes eight value cycles – immediate, potential, applied, realized, enabling, strategic, orienting, and transformative – described in Table 2.
Table 2: Value creation framework descriptors and examples of dimensions
|Value Cycle||Descriptor||Example of dimensions|
|Orienting||Interactions with the broader landscape||Exploring connections across the landscape|
|Immediate||Your experience of the SLS||Fun being around like-minded people|
|Potential||What do you get out of the SLS||Social capital, tools, tips|
|Applied||What you do with what you gained||Confidence; implementing an idea|
|Realized||The outcome of applied value||Personal, group, and organizational level changes|
|Transformative||Deeper or broader effects||New identities and reframing perspectives|
|Strategic||Conversations with stakeholders||Alignment and deliberate planning|
|Enabling||What should be in place to make it possible||Logistics, back-channel|
Adapted from: Duarte, Culver, & Paquette (in press).
For example, our research group created and sustained SLSs for parasport coach development. Using the framework we supported the participants to map their learning landscape to better understand where and with whom they developed their practice. This allowed us to collectively create an approach to leverage the existing structures in the sport system to build learning capability, broadening the flow and nature of knowledge. The success of the project was supported through strategic thinking about how to enable learning opportunities (strategic and enabling value). For example, planning meetings in conjunction with times when participants would already be in the same place, such as national tournaments. These meetings aimed to co-create knowledge (immediate and potential value), and stimulated reflection on how to use the new ideas and knowledge created in this space (applied value). During this process we listened attentively and observed how and when participants were applying new practices, looking for evidence of the positive and negative outcomes (realized value). In this way we believe we have shifted the thinking of the sport organization in terms of how to bring about change (transformative value).
Putting social learning spaces into practice: A story about creating value
The best way to explain the process that can lead to value being created in an SLS is through a story about creating value. The fictional story below is based on our research and is designed to introduce you to the eight value cycles and some of the crucial elements of nurturing an effective SLS. Our story starts when Alex, who oversees development for a provincial sport organization, gave us a call.
Alex: Hi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call. Last week we had our AGM and many participants raised concerns about girls dropping out of sport at age 14 to 15. What’s a bit frustrating is we had the same conversation last year. At that time, we identified a gap and even attended a workshop on the subject that suggested creating a community of practice. So, when the season started, we hosted a “community of practice” during one of our competitions and we shared some ideas from across the country. I learned a few tips during that meeting, but no one took the leadership and we have not met since.
Diane: Hi Alex, unfortunately that’s not only happening to your sport. By the way, I’m referring to both the drop out of girls and to organizations misinterpreting what a community of practice is and its limitations. Your comments are on point on many levels. First, being excited when meeting people who share the same passion and who want to learn is an example of what social learning theory calls immediate value. Second, the ideas, tips, and gaining access to the network of people are dimensions of potential value.
Alex: I really want to understand more about the other types of value.
Diane: Sure, what your organization did was a great start! For instance, looking for gaps in your own sport and giving me a call to search for new ways of doing things are two examples of orienting value. Moreover, your organization established “girls’ drop out” as a priority, which is an example of strategic value. Once a priority is identified and accurately communicated to the other members of the organization, it becomes easier to justify the investment of resources to tackle that priority.
Alex: Resources! I cringe just of thinking about money and how to handle all the priorities that our mainly volunteer organization has.
Diane: Fear not Alex. What enabling value refers to is not just financial resources, but also human, knowledge, structure, media, etc. Let me give you an example. Our research with Curling Canada identified that developmental wheelchair curling coaches wanted to have more access to the National Team Program coaches and chat about their training tools and strategies. So, Curling Canada provided enabling value in a several ways, such as supplying the software for online meetings, and asking the high-performance coaches to join the developmental coaches in our meetings and the virtual discussion forums.
Alex: If I’m following your rationale, what we incorrectly called a community of practice lacked the ongoing aspect of the example you just gave.
Diane: You’re right again, but let’s focus on what ongoing engagement allows us to produce. Just hosting online meetings, courses, or webinars does not allow people to benefit from what a SLS has to offer.
Alex: How so?
Diane: Let me share another example from our research: SLSs for women leaders. Some of the meetings were educational and experts would share their knowledge and experience, just like a webinar or a workshop; other meetings were smaller groups where leaders reflected on and shared how they applied what they had learned and the outcomes they achieved. Which brings us our next two values: applied and realized. But as you might expect, some changes are more easily applied than others; some will need enabling value from an organizational level. Of course, negotiating the strategies that are worthy of investment and implementation takes time, and is not likely to get done with only one meeting. The applied and realized values for change require ongoing strategic conversations between people from various levels within an organization or system (e.g., coach developers, sport administrators, funders, athletes, volunteers).
Alex: And could you share the actual outcomes of this?
Diane: Absolutely. One sport association implemented a policy (applied and enabling value) requiring a woman coach on the bench for all female teams. Thus, female athletes benefited from the presence of a female role model (realized value). Moreover, organizations had to invest in ensuring these coaches had appropriate coach training (strategic value). A women’s only course was then designed (enabling value) and was successfully run several times during the project (applied and realized value). As you can see, one strategy can result in diverse types of value, creating a domino effect.
Alex: Domino effect! So, we could see the steps to achieving our strategic goals as domino pieces.
Diane: That’s a great metaphor, and by using the value creation framework it would be easier to inform your domino pieces, or actions, and assess their impact. This assessment, or paying attention to the effects of participating in a SLS, can be formal or informal. While the following examples are more structured, simple methods such as appointing one or two participants to carry out check-ins and check-outs at all gatherings can also assess created value, especially if there is a follow-up with participants to track their value stories. Some measures of success are quantifiable, such as the number of coaches involved in a program – much of this sort of data is collected already by organizations. In our research, we have also used assessment tools such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups to assess value. Surveys are helpful for getting ratings on the usefulness of information received in a SLS. Interviews and focus groups are used to get participants to reflect on their experience participating in the SLS. For example, you can ask questions about how their participation has changed the way they practice, or the influence they might have in their organization. You can ask for specific stories about something they learned or changed, and how that came about. These stories capture activities (immediate value), outputs (potential value), applications (applied value), outcomes (realized value), and new definitions of success (transformative value).
Alex: Should projects aim for creating value in every cycle?
Diane: The Value Creation Framework does not rank the values on importance, and not all projects will support value creation in all of the cycles. What’s more, value is in the eye of the beholder – the experiences of one participant, might not be the same as another.
Alex: It is more complex than I anticipated.
Diane: Yes. Organizations are often unaware of the amount of work it takes to lead an SLS. We are calling this work “social learning leadership.” The research around communities of practice suggests that without leadership, initiatives will not continue or will drift into meetings with no specific value to the practitioners. The work of social learning leaders includes:
- Engaging participants to identify their learning priorities;
- Organizing learning opportunities;
- Holding strategic conversations when needed; and
- Paying attention to the value being created, or not, and helping participants reconfigure the space to better enable positive outcomes.
Alex: That’s sounds like an important role. What sort of skills does a social learning leader need?
Diane: Well, first off, the role of social learning leader can be shared within your group, with different individuals leading distinct aspects of the role – whether, communication, evaluation, planning/hosting, networking. A social learning leader should be someone familiar with your context but not necessarily an expert in your sport. They need to do their homework and find out who knows what in the context. Furthermore, a social learning leader needs to understand the nuts and bolts of the value creation framework.
To help you understand this role, I am going to share a deck of reflective cards (see Figure 1) that serve as a reminder of the eight values and what types of data we should pay attention to when framing and assessing a social learning space. The idea behind these cards is for social learning leaders to keep them easily accessible and check them regularly to help reflect on the state of your SLS. For example, you may have a clear idea of your aspirations – the change you would like to see. Here you would start with the realized value card. From there, working within your social learning space, you would explore what must be in place to achieve that realized value. So, you might then consider what potential and immediate value need to occur, and whether there are strategic and/or enabling values that should be considered. Or, you may have an example of realized value from another context that you decide to present to our SLS, at which point it may become potential value for your SLS. The act of using the value cards to reflect on SLS is not a one-off activity. It should be conducted throughout your project. In this way, assessing value and framing activities are intertwining processes.
Figure 1. A deck of value creation reflective cards
Alex: That’s very helpful. Where should I start?
Diane: Having appointed (and trained if necessary) your social learning leader(s), here are a few simple steps that could make your journey smoother. First, find others who want to make a difference. Our research shows that it is not that hard to find them. You could start with an issue or gap that really resonates with you, or bring people together and ask what difference they want to make. Nothing brings people together better than a reason that keeps them awake at night. For instance, the core purpose of the social learning space examples I spoke about earlier were a passion to enhance sport for people with disabilities, and the quest for gender equity in sport. Moving forward on your desire to address girls’ drop out is a great place to start!
Second, encourage people from different levels of your organization or community to join. More often than not, complex issues cannot be effectively solved by a single individual or organization, but demand a collaborative effort to overcome. For example, the Alberta Women in Sport Leadership project brought together individuals from the Coaching Association of Canada, six mentors with connections across the nation and province, sport leaders from 12 provincial sport organizations, as well as numerous individuals working at the provincial and club levels. What is important here is to encourage the participation of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Respectful and well managed divergence, not consensus, moves a SLS forward.
Alex: How are we sure we’re finding the best way to handle these complex challenges? Or is there one best way of doing things?
Diane: That’s such a great question! What countless studies have proposed is there are many ways of doing things. Creativity, emotional intelligence, and collaboration are being treated as major competences for the 21st Century. There is a lot of uncertainty with many of the complex challenges we face, and that’s okay. Recognizing our uncertainty leads us to the third step on the journey to create an SLS: paying attention to change at the individual, group and organizational levels. Let me again share some examples from our research. At the individual level, some of our participant coaches, who worked in isolated areas of the country, started to feel more confident as they engaged with other coaches through the SLS. At the group level, legitimacy was given to the social learning space when the women sport leaders presented at a provincial sport conference, discussing the benefits of participating in the initiative and helping to promote gender equity. At the level of organizational change, many policies were implemented as a result of the work in the SLS. For instance, Curling Canada now invites developmental coaches to attend training camps for NextGen athletes, increasing social learning opportunities among coaches, athletes, and integrated support teams.
Alex: I see. Is there anything else I need to consider?
Diane: Yes. Before I give you my last few words of advice, let me point out that this conversation is an example of “potential value” for you, Alex – you can take the advice from this conversation and try applying it to the issue of girls’ dropout in your organization. But back to my last tips, and this may seem obvious: keep in mind that nurturing a community of practice or other social learning space is all about people interacting in a non-judgmental, ego-free environment. This requires work! A few small but important things can help:
- Encourage one-on-one, or small group interactions, whetherin person or online;
- Hold face-to-face meetings when appropriate, based on public health restrictions – consider planning these in conjunction with scheduled events, such as competitions or AGMs; and
- Make appropriate use of break-out rooms during in-person or virtual gatherings to support engagement, time for reflection, and small group discussion. Nurture online interactions and be sure to provide technical support for each participant who needs it. This may require individual tech checks ahead of scheduled meetings.
These opportunities for people to interact with other participants in the SLS make it easier to develop relationships and therefore trust among the group. And trust is essential for an effective SLS. Alex – I can’t wait to hear more about your SLS, and the value it creates for the participants and your organization!
Appropriately framed and supported, social learning spaces can be used by any organization or group caring to make a difference in professional development, diversity and inclusion, or any initiative for growth. A social learning space is a learning tool for the 21st Century because it requires people to work collaboratively to co-create innovations; it brings them to places where they have not yet been in terms of their practices. In this way, it is agile.
Interested in learning more? Watch Diane’s presentation on Promoting and Assessing Social Learning in parasport coaches and organizations, presented at the 2020 Sport Canada Research Initiative Conference.
About the Author(s)
Dr. Diane Culver is an Associate Professor in the School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa. Her research examines coach development, women leaders in sport, and qualitative research. In her teaching, research, and consulting, Diane is particularly interested in social learning theory and building social learning capability in groups and organizations.
Dr. Tiago Duarte is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa and has worked as a social learning leader with sport organizations since 2016. His main interests include coach development, sport psychology, and parasport.
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