Establish a Working Group

6 Informal or Formal?

Informal or formal working groups

There will be different working-group models for different institutions. When deciding what would work best for your institutional context, you may want to consider the following things:

  • Should this be a grassroots movement?
  • Will this be top-down supported?
  • Is open a strategically recognized path at your institution?
  • Are there already people working on open education initiatives or with open practices who would be logical parts of an informal working group?
  • Are there administrative requirements or rules that you will have to comply with in formulating your working group?

As open working groups emerge in various institutional contexts, questions about their structure and formality invariably arise. Should the group have a formal structure? Should the group function in an ad-hoc manner, similar to a community of practice (CoP)? Obviously, one model does not fit all institutions. Let’s explore both models.

Informal working groups

Characteristics: CoP model, builds grassroots support across campus units, membership is flexible and inclusive.

Informal groups tend to grow organically through grassroots movements based on shared beliefs and practices. These types of groups tend to continuously evolve and show high levels of dynamism and are responsive to the needs of the group. Similar to the evolution of CoPs, these types of groups tend to easily build trust among their membership. Group leadership emerges through the work of the group and may not necessarily be identified with a core group of representatives. The membership works collaboratively and cooperatively on tasks to further the interests of the group. Typically, high levels of motivation are the norm in these types of groups.

Due to the informality of the group, there are some disadvantages. A grassroots movement requires dedicated individuals to ensure the work of the group succeeds. It requires the commitment of individuals to set up meetings and events.

Formal working groups

Characteristics: Task and goal oriented, membership includes core representatives with defined roles and responsibilities.

Formal working groups tend to self organise around a clear structure and well-defined goals. For example, at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), the Library and the Learning and Teaching Centre established the need for an open working group as the institution began to explore the use of open educational resources (OER) and open educational practices (OEP). Following a brief assessment of who was engaged in open practices at BCIT, a formal working group was created. Group membership included anyone who was interested and involved in varying levels of open education, which meant the group was fairly large at approximately twenty members. Due to the size and composition of the group, it was decided that the group should have a formal structure to ensure regular meetings and a clear definition of purpose. Based on this example, a formal open working group may include the following elements:

  • A chair who calls the meetings and sets the meeting agenda. The role of the chair is mostly to work with the group to set direction and work with the leadership team at the institution.
  • A vice-chair and/or co-chair who fills in for the chair when needed and supports the work of the group.
  • A secretary who keeps minutes and assists with the administration details of the work of the group.
  • Terms of reference to guide the work of the group.
  • A strategic action plan.

Formal groups tend to be task and goal oriented. The group sets their own goals and defines the tasks to accomplish over a determined period of time. Typically, formal groups develop Terms of Reference (ToR) to guide their work. The ToR can be developed collaboratively by the membership or by the core representatives to be sanctioned by the membership. In the case of BCIT, the core representatives developed ToR that were later discussed with the membership and approved.

Formal group structures have a number of advantages:

  • They facilitate consistency and continuity in the work of the group.
  • There is leadership accountability.
  • There is financial accountability, which is important when working groups are responsible for institutionally granted budgets.
  • They tend to be more stable.
  • The establish roles provide a framework for succession. (Typically, the vice-chair or co-chair will assume the chair position as the chair retires from their duties.)

Formal group structures also pose challenges:

  • The formal structure may get in the way of the creativity and flexibility needed to get things done.
  • Formal structures make it difficult to be responsive to the needs of the group.
  • An individual (or a small group of individuals) may dominate the agenda for the group.
  • If volunteers do not step up to serve in the core representative group, it may jeopardize its sustainability.

In Practice

KPU: A changing role for the working group

In the case of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), what started as an informal open working group shifted to a more formalized one. Initially, a group of interested people gathered regularly to discuss open initiatives in general and to coordinate on-campus events. Over time, the purpose of the group and positions within that group began to shift in nature. BCcampus OER grants were distributed from that body, a formal position emerged within the university structure, and “open” became recognized at an institutional level within the academic plan. Soon, an “Open KPU” office also formed, and it became clear that the group had moved beyond casual conversation! Now the group is working on its own strategic plan, is continuing to administer grants, and acts as a sounding board and support for the Open KPU office.

BCIT: Formal at the top

In the case of BCIT, the open working group has a formal structure “at the top”: a chair, a co-chair, and a secretary. While the structure is formal, the group membership remains fairly informal, and anyone who is involved in open can join in. In fact, anybody who is working on an OER grant is added to the group as a member by default. Monthly meeting invitations are sent to the entire membership, and on average the meetings are attended by approximately ten people consistently. The steady presence of the chair, co-chair, and secretary keeps the group acting within its defined scope. The influx of new people at meetings brings about new perspectives and new ideas. So far, this model has worked for BCIT.

UBC: Informal by design

At UBC, the open working group initially started as a way to support individual open projects. In particular, the group came together to develop and instruct an online course on “Teaching in WordPress.” As this process continued, the participants began to develop more and more trust and collaborate more effectively, and the group began to work on more projects, including the website. This has branched into working together to support and advocate for open education in general. Although there are regular attendees in the group, the group has decided to focus less on formalizing itself and more on working together to complete projects. This means that the group does not use a terms of reference nor does it create sub-committees. This is instead done ad-hoc with different people joining and leaving depending on their goals and involvement in open education.

SFU: Start up

At Simon Fraser University (SFU), a new open working group has recently been formed by representatives of the Library, Teaching & Learning Centre, and Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) to develop awareness and build capacity for OER adoptions by sharing information and coordinating efforts among key campus stakeholders who lead and support open education initiatives on campus. Although this group is currently fairly informal, they opted to draft a brief Terms of Reference document to articulate their general purpose and goals, as well as to establish shared expectations around meeting schedules and group communications.


Capilano University’s (CapU) open working group spun out from their Senate Instructional Technologies Advisory Committee and reports to it. It started fairly informally—without a terms of reference or an agreed-on strategy—with the primary goal of bringing together people interested in advocating for OER at the university. It includes members from the Library, the Centre for Teaching Excellence, faculty, the student union, and the administration.


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Working Group Guide Copyright © 2019 by BCcampus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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