Establishing a Community of Practice to Enhance Training & Technical Assistance



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:

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:

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:

Here are some virtual activities for self-assigning groups.

Some possible virtual activities for self-assigning include:

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.