Welcome to the e-learning lesson on Establishing a Community of Practice to Enhance Training and Technical Assistance. A community of practice, or COP, is a group of people who share a common concern, set of problems, or passion about a topic and who meet regularly to deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area. COPs are known by many other names, including: peer networks, learning circles, action teams, councils.
This e-learning lesson provides guidance on how to incorporate a COP into your training and technical assistance program for the organizations you serve. At the end of this lesson, you will be able to: recall different methods for forming COPs, identify activities to help COPs define their work and structure, recognize methods for managing COPs, identify ways to help communities of practice outlive your training and technical assistance program.
Establish communities of practice to enhance your TTA.
One of the best ways to reinforce and expand the training and technical assistance (TTA) you provide to community-based organizations is to incorporate a community of practice (COP) into your TTA work. Through participation in a community of practice, people with common interests, concerns, and organizational issues will have an opportunity to continue learning with and from each other.
This, in turn, can lead to enhancements in their organizations’ knowledge base, problem-solving, and service delivery. This e-learning lesson focuses on approaches to get COPs underway, methods to help them clarify their goals and operating structure, strategies for managing COPs, and ways to help them continue on their own after your TTA program ends.
COPs offer opportunities for peer support and learning.
Incorporating a COP into your TTA practice amplifies the investment you’re already making. As trainers and technical assistance providers already know, adult learners absorb more when new practices are introduced and reinforced through varying teaching methods and through corroboration from respected peers.
COPs create opportunities for:
- Peer learning to complement instructor-led training
- Peer coaching around the implementation of a practice following technical assistance
- Peer support that has the potential to outlive the TTA program, stretching out the investment you are making in these organizations
- Bringing the best and most promising practices back to the organizations that you serve, for potential implementation
CHAPTER 1: Forming a COP
Being part of a community of practice requires people to invest considerable time and effort, and it is best when membership is voluntary. If you hope to form a COP, it helps to anticipate the kinds of questions and concerns that people might have. For example, what information will people want before agreeing to participate? How can you reassure them that COP work could be more valuable than what they can do on their own? What will convince them that their time and effort will be well spent? What positive experiences can they anticipate that might influence them to take part? What past experiences might people need to let go of in order to embrace this new experience? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered before people can fully engage in a new COP. Then to build buy-in and enthusiasm for participation in a COP, consider facilitating activities that help each participant recognize common organizational needs among COP members and learn about valuable experience and expertise within the COP.
There are several different approaches to forming COP groups.
In today’s TTA environment, activities occur both in person and virtually. When launching a COP, it’s highly recommended that the activities take place in person. Typically, in-person launches take place at training events. They could be held on one evening of a training series, at a conference, or at an orientation. But keep in mind that launches can work virtually as well.
When forming a COP among your TTA participants, first consider whether you will pre-assign groups or allow for self-selection. Pre-assigning works well when the COP is highly integrated into other elements of your TTA program. This may be the case in the following situations:
- Your training series includes “homework” that lends itself to a consistent group doing work together
- You are intentionally building collaborations across organizations in a specific geographic area
- You are intentionally building collaborations across specifically targeted organizations
- Your entire group will be one community of practice (rather than multiple COPs)
If pre-assigning, remember that you will need to do more work to create buy-in about who is in the group and why the group has been formed.
Self-assigning is a great way to get participants to buy into the COP from the very beginning. Time can be dedicated at a training event or conference for participants to form their own groups based on criteria that they have some part in creating.
Here are some in-person activities for self-assigning groups.
Some possible activities for self-assigning at an in-person event include:
- Holding a group discussion about the criteria for forming COPs followed by allotted time for members to find one another according to the agreed-on criteria. Possible criteria include: subject matter expertise, social service priorities, geographic area, levels of commitment, organizational mission, and preference for virtual or in-person contact.
- Identifying a list of COP subject areas and having participants choose the subject area that interests them the most. Potential subject areas include:
board development, leadership and management, staff development, and raising funds.
- Conducting a speed-dating type of “matching” event in which participants take part in a series of two- to five-minute conversations about their areas of expertise and experience, as well as what they are hoping to learn. Participants keep a running list of who is a good “match” based on these short, facilitated discussions. At the end of the event, participants submit their lists. You then use these lists to create the teams, ensuring that each group is made up of a good proportion of individuals who are choosing each other.
- Asking grantees to identify their organizations on a map with stickers or push pins and letting them group themselves based on geographic proximity.
Here are some virtual activities for self-assigning groups.
Some possible virtual activities for self-assigning include:
- Hosting a virtual COP kickoff meeting via webinar through GotoWebinar, Adobe Connect, Wiggio, or another online meeting platform. During this meeting you can introduce the COP and facilitate live self-assigning activities.
- Setting up sub-groups around practice areas in a virtual workspace and inviting participants to select the one that is most attractive to them. Possible practice areas include: board development, leadership and management, staff development, and raising funds. Then use online collaboration tools to create virtual workspaces for the COPs working on each pre-determined topic. Some tools to consider are Wiggio, Ning, Yugma, or Google Groups. For a comparison of different online collaboration software, visit the idealware website.
CHAPTER 2: Identifying Needs and Expertise
Even after a COP has been formed, members will need to further explore common organizational needs and the range of expertise available within the group. This information can be surfaced at an in-person event or through virtual activities, such as teleconferencing or online work. For example, during a meeting, small groups can identify and prioritize their organizations’ needs and then discuss how the COP can tackle these issues. On the other hand, a needs assessment can be conducted through online polling technology. And members can learn about their collective experience by conducting “appreciative” interviews in which pairs explore each other’s knowledge and talents. Whatever methods you chose to help members uncover their needs and expertise, this information helps people recognize the value and gains that may result from their participation in the community of practice.
These in-person activities can help a COP explore needs and expertise.
Here are some possible activities you can use at an in-person session to help members explore their organizational needs and expertise.
- Build a “web” of needs and expertise. This interactive activity is great for groups that enjoy a game. Using a ball of twine, participants describe a need within their organization that is relevant to the subject matter area of the COP. Another member with that expertise speaks up and briefly explains how their expertise might help meet that need. The person with the “need” then throws the ball of twine to the “expert.” The game continues in this manner until everyone is connected to another person within the COP. The group then draws a representation of the web on a piece of paper that documents the needs/expertise discovered through the activity.
- Create a visual display of expertise objects. Ahead of the launch, ask participants to bring with them a physical representation of what they have to offer that others might value. This could be an article, story, photo, or tool/template. Post these objects in a place that gets a lot of traffic. At some point during the event, give participants an opportunity to introduce themselves to the group by explaining their object.
- Conduct appreciative interviews. On a rotating basis, COP members pair off with each member of their COP, asking appreciative questions to find out what every person has to offer the group. The facilitator can draft appreciative questions, such as:
- What motivates you to do your work?
- What talents and skills make you effective at your work?
- What have been the most fulfilling moments in your career?
Typically in an appreciative interview process, the interviewer repeats the answers back to the speaker. At the end of the interview, the speaker and listener swap roles.
- Identify three common organizational needs. Give the group thirty to forty-five minutes to identify the needs in each of their organizations, discuss common needs, and then pick the top three most pressing needs across all organizations. Follow-on activities can include an exploration of the ways that COP members can work together to address these needs.
- Collect autographs. Prior to the launch, the facilitator reaches out to participants to gather information about their strengths, experiences, and accomplishments. The facilitator picks a key fact about each person in the COP and includes it on a fact sheet about COP members. Members take the sheet and try to match the person to the fact. When they find the right match, they ask the person to autograph the sheet next to the fact. The “winner” is the first one to collect all the autographs.
These virtual activities can help a COP explore needs and expertise.
Here are some virtual activities you can use to help members explore their organizational needs and expertise.
- Conduct a live virtual needs assessment using webinar and polling technology. You may choose to ask a series of poll questions that will help you, as the organizer, understand the hopes, concerns, and needs of COP members in terms of percentages (e.g., 45 percent of your group might be wrestling with board development). Show the results as you go. By conducting the needs assessment this way, you can immediately address “pain points” and shape the COP accordingly. Virtual needs assessments may also be done ahead of time with an online survey (free tools include SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, and Zoomerang). You can then use the webinar time to address concerns and potential benefits of COP participation, encouraging discussion among members. Read the article, A Few Good Online Survey Tools, to learn more about online assessments.
- Conduct a webinar displaying the results of an asynchronous (not live) needs assessment. One member of the COP administers the needs assessment and puts together the presentation. This facilitator then poses some questions based on the needs assessment findings. Members can answer questions by live conference call or by interactive features on virtual meetings (raising hands, chatting, white boarding, etc.)
- Identify three common needs of the organizations. Via conference call, have each member prepare and present the most pressing needs of their organization. Use free desktop sharing technology (e.g., ScreenStream, TeamViewer, Yuuguu) to keep a running list of these needs. Based on the list, work together to group and prioritize the needs. Then identify the top three needs that the group is committed to addressing together.
- Identify major areas of expertise in the group. Via conference call, have each member prepare and present the top three areas of expertise they bring to the group. Rely on free desktop sharing technology (e.g., ScreenStream, TeamViewer, Yuuguu) to keep a running list of the expertise that is mentioned. Using the list, work together to group and classify the kinds of talent within the COP. Then identify how this expertise might be used to address the priority needs that have been identified.
CHAPTER 3: Defining a COP’s Work and Structure
After COP members complete activities that help them discover common needs, expertise in the group, and potential benefits from COP participation, they need to develop goals for their work and methods for accomplishing their objectives. Now is the time to facilitate discussions that help the group focus its efforts and define its structure. You can help COPs answer questions such as: What are our priority needs? In what order should we tackle them? What are our goals? How will we know when we’ve achieved them? How will we structure our meetings? What roles do we need? These conversations will also lead to a deeper exploration of the value of maintaining this learning community.
These questions can help a COP prioritize needs and define goals.
Make sure that COP members have the time and space to explore and prioritize their needs and goals. You can use the questions below to generate a healthy discussion.
- Can the COP take action that will have a greater impact than any individual organization acting alone, to address a specific need?
- What existing assets or resources within the community can be leveraged to help address the need?
- What outcome, produced by the COP, would satisfactorily address the need?
- What type of work is most useful to the COP? Possible options include:
- Distilling best practices
- Collective problem solving
- Group learning
TTA providers can support a new COP by setting up its basic infrastructure.
As a TTA provider, you can help the COP get off to a strong start by offering some basic infrastructure. For instance, you might set up a free conference call number, recommend the frequency of calls (such as suggesting that the group meet monthly) and provide a set of suggested dates. You could also set up a regular meeting of COP leaders facilitated by you, the TTA provider. This type of regular support can serve to reenergize COPs.
Another way to provide infrastructure is to set up a community website to reduce COP start-up obstacles. You might rely on online services like Google Groups, Wiggio, Ning, or Jive. Another option is for you to work with the COP leaders to help them establish their own COP website.
Ensure that every COP develops an action plan, structure, and roles.
To define a focus and stay on course, a COP needs to develop an action plan, determine a meeting structure, and define group roles. You can provide a template for the COP to fill out. For greatest impact, you may want to break the template into a series of smaller components to be completed over the course of a conference or over a series of conference calls. A robust action/structure plan would answer the following questions:
- What potential do you see in your team?
- What are three of your team’s goals?
- How will you know when these goals have been accomplished?
- What general format and structure have you determined for your team? Possible options might include:
- Regular informal check-ins during which members with something to discuss can bring the topic up during a group call
- Peer-led trainings in which each member trains on a topic or leads a discussion of interest to all members. You may want to determine topics in advance and include them within the action plan
- Presentations on existing practices, followed by discussions on how to improve them
- Identification of problems for the group to discuss and solve together
- How frequently will meetings occur? How long will they be? What format will we use for meetings (Conference call, virtual meeting, in-person meeting)?
- What is your meeting schedule with times and dates?
- How will each meeting be structured?
- What is each individual member’s commitment to the COP?
- What roles are needed in the COP and who will fill them?
- How will the COP share and store resources?
CHAPTER 4: Managing a COP
COPs require ongoing management and attention to keep the momentum going—even while groups are regularly meeting, have found their groove, and are on track to accomplishing their goals. As the TTA provider, you play a crucial role in supporting the leaders of each COP in their efforts to provide strong direction and management. There are various ways that TTA providers can help leaders with the management of their COPs. Providers can: check in regularly with individual COP leaders, convene leaders on a regular basis, suggest activities that help COPs deepen their work, schedule COP evaluations, and provide tools and templates to support COP work. By offering a range of ongoing support, you can help the COP stay on track. You can also set the stage for COPs being able to continue their work on their own long after the TTA program has ended.
You can support COPs by scheduling meetings with their leaders.
It’s important to stay in touch with COP leaders. Regular contact benefits the leaders as well as the TTA provider.
- Check in regularly with individual COP leaders. COP leaders have taken on additional responsibilities in the midst of an already busy schedule. Help maintain their commitment and enthusiasm by making quick outreach calls to check on how they’re doing and to offer your support. Regular check-ins also alert you to the challenges that may derail the COP and allow you to collaborate on preventive measures.
- Convene team leaders on a regular basis. The TTA provider can convene a monthly conference call to support leaders and keep the momentum of the COPs alive. A typical agenda could include a go-around about what is happening in each COP and/or any successes and challenges they may have experienced. This relatively low-effort activity also enables the TTA provider to have an ear to the ground about issues common to all the participating organizations in the COPs. TTA providers may also consider maintaining an online workspace dedicated to the COP leaders, using platforms like Yahoo, Google Groups, Wiggio, Ning, or other free services.
You can support COPs through activities and evaluations.
Well-chosen activities can deepen group work; COP evaluations allow members to share progress and discuss problem areas.
Suggest “going deeper” activities along with TTA activities. To make a direct link between your TTA activities and the COPs, provide explicit activity ideas as part of training plans. Some examples might include:
- Have COPs conduct grant reviews after a training on grant writing
- Develop a case study related to an organizational capacity building problem. Suggest that COPs work through the case study together
- Have COPs offer peer feedback on each other’s work plans
- Schedule evaluations. Take time with COP leaders to step back and evaluate the progress of their COPs. Share practices that are promising and address any challenges they are facing. This can be done via online survey or on the phone in the form of a facilitated discussion. Work with the group to brainstorm solutions to challenges. Modify the COP structure going forward (if necessary) to integrate feedback and improve the group’s functioning.
You can provide templates and tools to support a COP’s work.
By providing templates and tools, you’re able to enhance members’ knowledge and help them capture important ideas and information. Some very helpful templates include the following:
- Case study template—allows individual members to present a problem for the group to solve
- Promising practices template—captures promising practices which the group agrees are the best or most innovative approaches for an organization to use when performing a specific type of activity
- Lessons learned template—captures lessons uncovered throughout the course of the COP
Some helpful tools include the following:
- Trainings or guidebooks on conducting effective online training. A popular and effective use of COP time is to rotate trainings conducted by members of the COP. If the organizations do not have a background in conducting webinars or online meetings, the TTA provider can offer this training to the COPs.
- Training or guides on effective use of online workspaces. You may have set up an online workspace for the COPs, but do they know how to use it? Elements of a training should include:
- Basics of the technology (i.e., how to join/log in)
- Features that are available for use (discussion forum, shared calendar, file sharing, etc.)
- Best practices for using the technology. Give examples of things they can do right away that show value, like posting a request for a specific resource or posting a great tool they’ve created and would like to share with the group.
- A collective TTA request form. Send a message to the COP that, as their TTA provider, you’re committed to providing resources and training that are important to the group. Ensure that each COP has access to a form through which they can request TA or training for their entire COP.
CHAPTER 5: Setting Up a COP to Outlive Your TTA Program
One of the benefits of establishing COPs is that they may outlive a TTA program through the relationships that have been formed and the shared assets that have been developed. After the completion of the TTA program, COPs may continue to meet, but less frequently. Their meetings may be less structured if their common organizational needs are no longer pressing. However, COPs may opt to maintain a shared workspace through which to have virtual discussions and resource exchanges. If COPs and their members continue to find value in interacting with one another, it’s important for them to define for themselves the appropriate way to continue. Your role as a TTA provider is to position the COPs to continue extracting value long after the completion of your TTA activities.
There are several strategies to help COPs outlive your TTA program.
As a TTA provider, it’s important to think ahead about how COPs can outlive your TTA program. By employing intentional strategies along the way, you lay the groundwork for COPs to continue on their own. Here are some strategies you might use:
- Collect, collect, collect! During the time when you’re actively supporting the COPs, maintain good relationships with the leaders. Periodically ask them for completed case studies, promising practices, lessons learned, and other documentation of innovations and problem-solving. Then you can preserve this information and share it across all COPs and with future TTA participants.
- Create a shared work space for all members of all COPs. Toward the end of your TTA program, invite all COP members to join an online workspace where they can find the items listed above from the other COPs. Although this forum is likely to be un-moderated, this strategy creates the potential for further collaboration and learning.
- Encourage COPs to document their work and set up resource storing systems that will outlive the group. Consider Jive, SharePoint, Google Docs, Wiggio, Ning, or other free and low cost services that can be found by searching the Internet.
- Encourage COP members to get connected on social networking sites. Sites like LinkedIn and Facebook help ensure that professional connections remain intact and that obstacles to getting back in touch are reduced.
- Create groups for your COPs on social networking sites. This will facilitate making contact with all members as needs arise down the road.
You can help your COP groups prepare for transitions and endings.
Here are some ways to work with COPs as they’re winding down:
- Acknowledge the transition. As the TTA program winds down, acknowledge that although the COP may continue to meet, these meetings are likely to be very different now that TTA support is near its end. Explain that the end of the TTA program doesn’t necessarily mean the end of their COP. Express your hope that the relationships formed will continue to be valuable. Planting this seed a few weeks before the end of the TTA program will help members think about what they want from their COP beyond the course of the TTA program.
- Recommend that COPs plan for the end of the TTA Program. COPs that are connected to TTA will lose this support at the end of the program. With this in mind, TTA providers can be intentional about having the COPs consider the type of group they would like to have when this transition occurs. You might consider providing a modified action plan template to allow the COP to strategize about the best way to move forward independently.
Implementing communities of practice as part of your training and technical assistance program creates the possibility of deeper, more vibrant, and longer-lasting dialogue. By establishing communities of practice, you can expand the impact of your TTA program and provide significant benefit to participants and their organizations. Thank you for taking the time to learn about Establishing a Community of Practice to Enhance Training and Technical Assistance.
COPs can augment your TTA program and benefit everyone involved.
Communities of practice are an excellent way to augment your TTA program. Along with the expertise that you provide, the collective knowledge and experience of COP members can lead to contributions to the field, including the development of lessons learned, promising practices, and innovations.
Communities of practice can also deepen the skill and expertise of individual COP members and the organizations they work for. Adequately tracking COPs’ learning and outcomes will enhance the TTA provider’s body of expertise and knowledge as well.
Here are some additional resources on establishing COPs.
Learning Communities / Communities of Practice / Learning Circles: What are they? How do they work? Why would we want one? Communitiy Driven Institute, Hildy Gottlieb, 2009 http://www.help4nonprofits.com/NP_EDU-Cm_Learning_Communities.htm
How to Boost Community of Practice Activities with the Creation of a Critical Mass, Luis Suarez, 2006 http://it.toolbox.com/blogs/elsua/how-to-boost-community-of-practice-activities-with-the-creation-of-a-critical-mass-7467
“Communities of Practice Learning as a Social System,” Systems Thinker, Etienne Wenger, June 1998 http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml
Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Etienne Wenger, Cambridge University Press, 1998
Cultivating Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, William M. Snyder, Harvard Business School Press, 2002