Communities of Practice: Tool #5 in our “Tools for Implementation” Series

Communities of Practice are not just your average work meeting

In our last edition, we explored the value of Decision Support Databases to gather performance assessment data and watch for big over-arching goals such as achieving competency and long-term skill sustainability. In this edition, we take the next step into Communities of Practice – the first “tool for implementation” that engages the power of group learning rather than simple individual feedback.

A Community of Practice, or CoP, is an informal, peer-facilitated gathering that convenes regularly to continue learning and practicing skills that were acquired during training and follow-up coaching sessions. Another way to define CoP’s is with the following three critieria: 1) The meetings involve an informal group who are relatively committed to the joint enterprise of learning a skill, and 2) Mutual engagement (i.e. no hierarchy, and 3) A shared repertoire of techniques, terms, skills, tools and resources. A CoP can focus on any kind of skill development, Motivational Interviewing being just one example.

CoP’s are often the difference between average and accelerated skill learning. They bring individual skill development to a group context, resulting in a multiplier effect for skill development. Once you’ve seen the powerful effect that CoP’s can have in the implementation process, like we have here at J-SAT, you’ll never go back to implementation without CoP’s in the mix.

At first glance, Communities of Practice can look like just another training or work meeting, but they are actually an entirely different animal. In fact, the success of a CoP depends on management and participants understanding the key differences between a CoP and a typical training or work meeting!

The key phrase to remember is “peer-facilitated”

The descriptor phrase “peer-facilitated” is always used in definitions for CoP’s. The irony is that this key phrase is often lost on most implementation teams. Because of our culture’s norms about how to “run a group”, the usual approach to a CoP is to designate a group leader who then makes sure that the CoP happens. This person more often than not becomes the person in charge of everyone else’s learning – facilitating the skill practices for each meeting and perhaps even giving mini training sessions as part of each CoP get-together. This misses the whole point of having a CoP! It is very easy to fall into this trap because we are so used to gathering as groups with some sort of leadership in place while everyone else sits back and consumes the training, guidance or direction that the leader provides. But that is passive learning and it gets old pretty quickly. So let’s take a look at what a CoP can be instead…

 No one person in charge of everyone else’s learning

This is the big shift to make when forming and norming a CoP. At J-SAT, we just created a whole manual on implementing and thriving CoP’s, and the biggest “aha” in the manual describes this very concept – to make sure that no one person is in charge of everyone else’s learning. The key to making your Community of Practice a thriving, engaging, generative and (dare we say) fun learning experience is to continually give each participant the opportunity to bring his/her ideas, input, creativity and expertise to the group. This means that topic facilitation regularly switches from one participant to the next and rather than a group leader, there is a group coordinator who simply makes sure the group meets but is not in charge of everyone’s learning.

If you make sure to always orient CoP decision-making from the perspective of “no one person in charge of everyone else’s learning”, the group will not be in danger of slipping into mind-numbing teacher and listener mentality, and each participant will instead feel ownership of the group and that they play a key role.

 The reason this leads to true engagement

Because the key to CoP’s is this “from the bottom-up” rather than “from the top-down” approach, participants have a sense of their own power to influence their development, as well as the development of others. Participants also experience that their presence and participation in the group truly matters and therefore are more likely to show up and to actively engage. The more informal nature of a CoP allows for more spontaneity compared to typical office meetings, and there is the opportunity for creative, “out of the box” thinking to stimulate learning, growth and genuine interest.

Our director, Brad Bogue, wrote an article in which he described how the size and flattened authority in CoP’s in some ways conforms to ancient network patterns that are easily understood by everyone. Akin to hunter-gatherer times, CoP’s band together groups of 7 – 15 people, the size of which capitalizes on small group dynamics. The individuals members who support the group to exist, in turn simultaneously draw strength from them. At the same time, CoP’s (i.e. a small group of people banding together), can and do support not only one another, but the larger tribe or agency. What people learn individually, through practice, feedback reports and coaching is readily transmitted and shared within CoP’s, and the result is significant multiplier effects in learning.

At J-SAT we’ve been experimenting with Communities of Practice for quite some time, and have created a comprehensive manual on what we’ve learned from experience works best. We love to talk about it, so if interested, please let us know at 303-544-9876 or lisah@j-sat.com for more information.

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