Lessons Learned at #eval11 TIG as CoP


Ok, I’m now back home after a nice conference. Instead of giving full recaps, I’m going to write a string of posts on lessons learned from Evaluation 2011. I’m going to start with my first session: Topical Interest Groups as Communities of Practice: Strategies for building a community of practice.

Is it a network or a community? In other words, what level of involvement, or potential involvement, exists? This question was essential to the think tank discussion. The consensus answer seemed to be, a little from column A and a little from column B. Some people rally around a topic while others just check the box of a shared interest.


I think it’s ok to have a kind of hybrid community/network. It’s hard to expect total active participation in every group. But, as was expressed, if you want an active group, find some common goals, communicate these goals, and provide leadership.

There was further discussion around the idea of linking the TIGs globally. I put out the idea of an aggregate blog, kind of like what I setup for Eval Central but I’m not sure I clearly articulated my point. Other points on this topic included inviting other TIGs into discussions and shared activities.


All in all, a nice first session providing lots of food for thought.


  1. David Larwin on November 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I think most professional organizations, and TIGs, are hybrid groups; they are both CoPs (or CoSs…Communities of Scholars) AND networks, at the same time. There is often a core group of active members who provide the leadership and overall social structure of the group. I think they could be understood as a community. And then there are other members that choose to remain affiliated, but involved on the periphery if “involved” at all. Some of them function almost as “lurkers” on a listeserv or social media site. These folks on the periphery seem to be looking for networking, but don’t make themselves part of the community. And of course, some folks move back and forth between these roles over time within a given group.

    And I think the nature of a TIG evolves over time. In the formative stages where a core group of people are very energized and excited to come together professionally with a common interest and enthusiasm, the entire TIG seems more like a community. But over time, if the TIG is successful and grows more members, there will at the same time be a growing periphery of affiliated but less actively involved persons. The community will grow an associated network. And on occasion, some of those in the network will choose to become more involved and refresh and replentish the core community. If not, then over time the network and the community that sustains it will perish.

    The TIG I am most involved in just experienced an AEA conference without one of our most enthusiastic and involved longtime members in attendance. His absence was announced last minute. While such things happen, it seemed deeply troubling in some way–more so than it logically should have–and dimished the AEA conference experience for some of us. This sense of loss is clearly characteristic of interpersonal relationships that comprise a community, but less so, I would argue, of those that comprise a grouping that is merely a professional network. Those of us in the TIG community were more affected by his absence than were members of the TIG network.

  2. Chris on November 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Hello David,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and well written reply. I’m interested in how you would define a successful TIG. Is a TIG successful when it “grows more members” or is it successful when “a core group of people are very energized and excited to come together professionally with a common interest and enthusiasm?” In other words, is there a point when a large TIG loses its enthusiastic core and ceases to be successful?

    Also, there are a number of people in the AEA PK-12 Educational Evaluation TIG (http://www.eval.org/search11/session.asp?sessionid=7228&presenterid=0) who would definitely appreciate your experience and thoughtfulness.

  3. David Larwin on November 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I think what makes a TIG successful depends upon its goals. If the goal is simply networking, that close core enthusiastic community is less important. A TIG that manages to hang together despite the core leadership vacuum might still be successful if it simply provides professionals and scholars a forum for networking, and if that’s all the membership is looking for. As a social psychologist I’m always thinking about the social nature and behavior of people. A forum for networking is important and provides a service people are drawn to, and often need in their personal and professional lives. However, I also think (and I suppose this is a value judgement on my part) that a TIG is MORE successful if it also reaches the goal of providing a vibrant professional/scholarly community. As I indicated in my initial post, such a community will also provide the networking some folks are looking for, so it does double duty, and has more to offer. From an organizational perspective–like from the vantage point of the AEA organizational leadership–those TIGs doing double duty serving as both a community and network would be preferred as they strengthen the larger organization by making it more important and valuable to its membership by offering more in return.

    But as you suggest, there can be an ebb and flow of membership and enthusiasm that comprise the core of a TIG; that initial sense of community so important for the TIG’s foundation may diminish over time. How and when that happens is hard to predict. But I think it follows some basic patterns of human social behavior. TIG/Association members wishing to know more about these matters might be advised to study up a bit on the field of Group Dynamics.

    I think that for a TIG to maintain its vibrant sense of community, there must be a leader or core leadership group that is actively engaged, committed, and motivated to work hard on behalf of the group. Sometimes just one dedicated, charismatic leader can do the social energizing work of many and keep a community active and sustained. But more often it takes several folks with those qualities–perhaps to a lesser degree–who collectively keep things going. Yet, over time the leaders can lose some of their steam and drive to keep going in such a role, perhaps get distracted by other professional and/or personal involvements, or simply withdraw as they transition toward retirement and the end of their professional careers. At such points of transition, the group perseveres, plateaus, or perishes based on whether or not there is some “new blood” (“fresh meat” as the Quant TIG was calling it at AEA 2011) to step in and take over some of these roles and duties with similar drive and conviction. I think some TIGs, or groups in general, may languish when there are no new or existing members willing to step up and make this happen. That could be a consequence of a recruiting/outreach failure where the group didn’t attend well enough to these dynamics and work to replenish itself and think towards the future. But often it can be a simple matter of chance and circumstance. A TIG might simply reap the good fortune (or not) of the right person walking in the door at the right time, and with that person’s energy and leadership the group does more than just sustain itself, instead it soars to new heights and greater accomplishments.

    I’m not sure the group growing large necessarily corresponds to a diminishing sense of community and thus success. If you look at churches by way of analogy, they perish when their membership dwindles to a small congregation, not when the congregation grows too large. Though I do think size matters. The overall group dynamics and how it carries out some of its functions will change as group size changes. But in the end, I think the group survives and achieves some measure of success if there is at least enough membership to qualify it as a “group,” and there is some modicum of leadership to maintain some pattern of social organization. What goals it has and thus what exact forms of successes it achieves will likely be influenced by group size.

    If there are others you think might be interested in my comments, please feel free to share them. Or to direct them my way. Email might be easiest. My address is dlarwin@kent.edu

  4. Chris on November 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Hi David, thanks for the reply. I’ve passed along your information to the presenters. Not sure if they will get in touch, but I wanted you to know. Also, do you blog? If not, you should 🙂

  5. Manolya Tanyu on November 9, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Chris, how nice to see that our Think Tank has sparked this insight and lead to this nice conversation.
    The challenge we are facing is how to maintain our energy as a TIG and move it beyond the TIG leadership to the members. I think the starting point is create opportunities to network so people get to know each other. But as David notes, a Community of practice moves beyond networking and supports knowledge building and skill development. But it also needs time and commitment to grow and remain active, and a body of leaders who will provide guidance.

    I think unless we figure out a way to relate our professional activities within the TIG to our worklife and apply what we learn from TIG involvement to support the work we do, the energy will be sporadic. The satisfaction I get from the interpersonal relationships within TIG is nice but not adequate to stay committed, it needs to be linked to my professional life. What activities can we engage in as a TIG, so members use the knowledge learned and apply to their work? The direct benefits they get from TIG membership, will contibute to an active membership who is willing to share experiences and ask for help. For example, if I get recognition at my work place for my TIG leadership and commitment, then I am more likely to stay involved. Or a nice discussion I have with TIG members on CoP leads to a small workgroup of TIG members that gathers to learn more about how to evaluate a CoP, which I can then use to evaluate a project I am working on– that is a benefit that I get by being directly involved with my TIG and will keep me involved.

  6. Chad Green on November 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    My advice is to follow the values. They keep life simple and real. If you have none at your primary place of work that inspires you, seek them out elsewhere. At my work we had no core values until a few months ago. Actually they look very similar to the 6 principles of humanism, but that is merely coincidence.

    What if you do have values at your primary place of work? Great! Do they inspire you to grow outside your comfort zone? More importantly, are they useful in other contexts besides your primary place of work? Even though I now have core values here at work, they do not go as far as those from our TIG. They are limited in that they do not span the boundaries of my school system. By contrast, my TIG’s values can be realized in multiple contexts. I can take them with me and apply them wherever I go. They are the most empowering.

    Follow the values that empower you most.