Professional Learning Community: What it’s And How To Identify, Cultivate and Launch It

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Chris Hutchinson
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    Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in the context of organizations are collaborative groups of professionals who come together to enhance their knowledge, skills, and practices related to their respective roles.  

    These communities play a crucial role in fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement within an organization. But, how can organizations establish and launch a PLC’s which serve individual development goals as well as deliver organizational impact? What kinds of guidance, monitoring and involvement are necessary? Most importantly, why are they (PLC’s) a benefit to organizations?  

    In the coming series of articles, we aim to delve into these and other questions related to PLC’s and how your organization may be able to harness their power to create a more comprehensive, involved and autonomous, culture of learning.  

    If you’ve already begun establishing a PLC or are considering what you need to create one something that it likely clear to you by now, is that creating developing and supporting a PLC is no small undertaking.

    From setting clear goals, to creating adequate support and management mechanisms and processes, creating a PLC may feel like a big challenge, regardless of where your organization is in the process. However, it is also a vital one for organizations that aim to be adaptive, dynamic, and develop great teams, capable of handling new challenges. 

    So, for the sake of simplicity and clarity this article will focus exclusively on the best practices for PLC’s, further we will break down the best practices into 3 categories: identifying and/or launching a PLC, supporting and motivating PLC’s, and finally, managing and developing an PLC. 

    Unlocking the Power of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) 

    Once a decision has been made or it becomes apparent that an organization would benefit from a more formal PLC, the first step to actualizing this idea is understanding the need/role it will play, making staff aware, arranging access and, setting up the initiative for success and impact.

    The good news is that almost no professional organization is starting from scratch here. Professional Learning communities already exist (usually in an unofficial, informal manner) within all organizations – think of how individual usually ask each other for help on a task, how to carry out a particular procedure, or even where to find a particular thing – from coffee in the kitchen to important files within a system.

    These are all common examples of a learning community in action, the trick is identifying the sectors, topics or areas where this kind of support is most needed, and formalizing in a manner that makes it organized and accessible yet also manages to allow for a degree of autonomy when it comes to accessing and contributing to the collective knowledge. 

    Read: From Onboarding to Continuous Learning: Charting the Journey 

    Identifying the Need for a PLC 

    The journey toward building a successful PLC starts with recognizing the need within your organization. Identifying the need can involve several crucial steps: 

    • Assessing Organizational Goals: Begin by aligning the idea of a PLC with your organization’s overarching objectives. Consider the specific knowledge gaps or skill deficiencies that a PLC could address to contribute to achieving those goals. You could consider gathering this information via company surveys, reviewing performance data, or interviewing eg, department heads and individuals. 
    • Surveying Employee Interest: Gauge the interest and enthusiasm of your employees or team members. Conduct surveys or informal discussions to understand their appetite for collaborative learning and their willingness to participate in a PLC. This could be done during the initial data collection.

      A key consideration when communicating with employees about your PLC is to make it clear that this is not “additional” work for them, a PLC is part of their working processes, a way for them to get share and develop information and make their work easier. 
    • Identifying Subject Matter Experts: Identify potential subject matter experts within your organization who can contribute to the community’s growth. These individuals can act as leaders or mentors to guide discussions and activities. Organizations often have, within their members, vast amounts of “hidden knowledge”.

      Depending on the size and structure of your organization, the subject matter experts might be a designated role assigned to eg, the department head, or a role anyone can fill when appropriate – much like a Wikipedia page where anyone with valid, relevant and useful information on a topic may contribute to it – and of course, using the right system – such as CLANED – to host your PLC can extend the ways options and possibilities for so called “open contribution” on topics.   

    Interesting fact: even if you can’t identify it, there’s a good chance that there already exists a PLC of some kind within most organizations – it might be informal or hidden in private messages and group chats, but it’s there – the trick is learning to identify it, and creating a centralized system for people to participate and engage with it – Luckily CLANED’s got your back when it come to this.

    Read: How To Enhance Professional Learning Experiences

    Launching a Professional Learning Community (PLC)

    Once you’ve identified the need for a PLC, the next step is to successfully launch it. As with most successful launches, there are some considerations to take into account that will not only help achieve a smooth launch, but when done right, will help sustain and develop your PLC further.

    Beyond this, or perhaps in front of it, there must be a commitment to the practice, remember that PLCs are dynamic, they involve several personalities working together.

    This means that they will take time – time for individuals to adjust and get comfortable, time for them to see and experience the benefits of the PLC and time to observe, track and make changes.

    Unlike implementing a new software that everyone must use, for particular operations, a PLC should be something people want to use. It helps them find answers to their questions, allows them to develop their skills further, and can provide them the agency, and means to make their voice heard, and share their knowledge.  

    • Define the Purpose: Clearly articulate the purpose and goals of the PLC. What knowledge or skills do you aim to develop collectively? Having a precise mission statement will help guide the community’s activities. In addition to these specific learning goals of a PLC, the communal, “horizontal” structures, such as autonomy, individual contribution, and “organic development” should be mentioned here as these are often the drivers of effective PLCs. This will help to make clear to employees that the PLC is as much “by them” as it is “for them”.  
    • Select the Right Platform: Choose a platform or space where your PLC can convene, interact, and share knowledge. This could be a physical meeting space or a digital platform, depending on your organization’s structure and preferences. With the ever-increasing digitalization and connected nature of businesses and organization however, it’s a good idea to use some digital tools for the ease of documentation.

      Because developing and growing both individual, and organizational knowledge is one of the goals of a PLC, digital documentation, resources and discussions are an ideal way to set up your PLC. Other considerations when selecting a platform should be the ease of use, inclusion of social features than enable input such as commenting on, and discussing content and ideas, ease of updating, organization options and the ability to view and analyse the actions and activity that takes place within it.

      Sometimes an organization might be tempted to use something such as Slack or Teams, channels for a PLC, while this does offer some ease and convivence in terms of being already familiar formats, the drawbacks when it comes to clarity and organizational ability can quickly become a drawback, resulting in key knowledge being buried, or individuals becoming “pigeonholed” and diminished transparency.   
    • Invite Participants: Invite employees or team members who have expressed interest or demonstrated expertise in the subject matter. Ensure that the community is inclusive and accessible to all who wish to join.

      This could also involve generating some “hype” around the concept – remember your goal in initiating and launching a PLC should be to improve the working-life of employees. It’s a place for them to apply and voice their experience and expertise in a way that hightens the visibility and impact of their contributions.  
    • Establish Meeting Protocols: Define the frequency and format of meetings or interactions. Whether it’s weekly virtual meetings, monthly workshops, asynchronous engagement online, or a combination of these (recommended! Check our Teach 1 Thing article for more information). Regardless of how you implement it according to your needs, establishing a consistent schedule helps to maintain engagement. 
    • Set Expectations: Communicate the expectations for participation, contributions, and confidentiality within the PLC. Encourage open dialogue and active involvement from all members. We can take an example from the educational premise of a Community of Practice (COP) – when we visualize a a COP of PLC think of the members as positioned within rings surrounding a topic – towards the centre there are the individuals with the most knowledge on a given topic and moving outward others with progressively less knowledge and experience on the topic.

      Notice that in this model there is no “teacher”, “leader” or “person in charge” only levels of insight. By gaining insight individuals move progressively towards the centre of the community. It should go without saying that someone who is at the centre in one topic may at the same time just beginning to develop their knowledge in other topics, and there is a good chance there is overlap between topics.

      As an example think of a CRM system – within and organization and the PLC set up around this (CRM) topic you will likely have a number of individuals with different roles – one person might be from the IT department and understand deeply the functions and capabilities of the system, another, from the sales team however, deeply understands how the functions applied affect and support the sales process. With these two groups sharing their process, insights and knowledge on the topic you are much more likely to achieve a result that both makes the best use of the CRM’s capabilities, while also targeting and supporting the methods and needs of the sales team’s use of it.     

    Fostering a culture of continuous learning can be paramount for organizations striving to stay competitive and innovative. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) serve as a potent vehicle to cultivate this culture and empower employees.

    While launching and nurturing PLCs may pose challenges, the rewards are substantial. As we’ve explored in this article, identifying the need, setting clear goals, and creating an inclusive and engaging environment are the initial steps toward PLC success.

    By implementing these best practices, organizations can tap into their teams’ potential, foster collaboration, and boost overall productivity. As we continue our journey through the world of PLCs, our next stop will uncover effective strategies to support and motivate these dynamic learning communities. Stay engaged, stay committed, and stay tuned for more insights on PLC management. Your organization’s learning journey is just beginning. 

    READ: Fostering and Energizing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) 

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