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Community of Practice Lessons for Networks

Posted by Steve Waddell in Learning, Net Dev on June 22, 2010

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are particularly valuable for multi-stakeholder change networks because they present a very flexible model requiring modest financial support for the learning and its dissemination that are critical for the networks’ success. They require very light infrastructure and enhance interpersonal ties that also are key to success.

Bill Snyder has worked closely to develop the concept with Etienne Wenger, who popularized it. I have also worked with Bill Snyder to further apply the concept to global change networks.

In 2003 Bill and I worked with the Cooperative Programme on Water and Climate (CPWC). At that time the network aimed to generate learning across 18 initiatives around the world that were working on implications of climate change related to water. Our overall approach was to think of each initiative as an affiliated CoP and the CPWC as a whole as a CoP…so we wanted to explore the value and implications of thinking of the CPWC as a CoP of CoPs.

We organized a pilot initiative to explore application of the CoP model that included three initiatives: Central America (addressing flood impacts of increasing storms in small valleys), Bangladesh (addressing salination issues with rising sea levels), and West Africa (addressing increasing drought). We aimed to create interactions within and between them that could be a microcosm for CPWC as a whole.

The Figure presents the major components in a CoP system, and this is how we experimented with its application to the CPWC.

  • What: It might be an issue like “sustainable water use” or a sub-issue such as “communications strategies in water”). For CPWC the over-arching questions concerned how climate change can be mitigated.
  • How: The practice, or the activities to support development of capacity to address the "what". For the CPWC there was most obviously the practice of the 18 sites, but the CoP activity was personal interactions – via telephone, email and webinar – between (1) each of the three sites and Bill and me, and (2) between all of us and the CPWC Secretariat collectively, designed to develop learning.
  • Who: The community – the people involved in the initiatives and the Secretariat.

The CoP infrastructure comprised two key components. One was sponsors who included the CPWC secretariat itself and a funder, whose functions included:

  • Developing strategic goals for the community;
  • Providing funding for the support team and regional coordinators; and
  • Participating in ongoing reviews to assess progress and foster development.

Support for the daily activities came in the form of Bill and me in terms of CoP development. Our activities included:

  • Coaching regional coordinators;
  • Guiding case development;
  • Coordinating the global community;
  • Liaising with sponsors;
  • Developing the technology platform—including teleconference events and the website (for storing documents, posting messages, member directory, etc.); and
  • Documenting the methods, results, lessons learned, and proposals for next steps.

Support locally came in the form of the local coordinators – the lead contacts at each of the sites – who led activities at the regional level with the roles of:

  • Identifying local players to participate in a regional learning system initiative;
  • Developing regional case studies—as a baseline for identifying local improvement opportunities and for sharing insights and innovations across regions;
  • Coordinating peer-to-peer and cross-level learning at the regional level; and
  • Liaising with local institutions: government agencies, NGO’s, funders, and others.

While Bill and I considered the CPWC project a successful learning experience, we did not generate a robust or on-going CoP infrastructure. There were several reasons for this. The major one was too much divergence in the site issues (the “what”) to inspire an on-going CoP – the local impact of the concept of “water and climate” was too diverse. A second one was the limited time of the local coordinator. As well, we never did have face-to-face meetings that could have built a much stronger foundation. Also, at the time (2003), the webinar/teleconference/internet connections we were using were not sufficiently advanced.,

Nevertheless, the learning within sites and across them generated deeper understanding by everyone of the system they were trying to organize, and there was value in sharing the lessons about how to connect the parts. There were generic parts identified in the form of four general types of stakeholder communities:

  • local communities;
  • policy makers;
  • socio-techno-science experts; and
  • funders.

In a disciplined but light-structure manner, the CoP framing helps address core questions: Who is in the communities? What can they do to address the issue? How can they improve the way they are addressing it?

This approach significantly shifts the focus of many people from solely engineering-type technical solutions, to understand that their work also involves creating new types of social inter-personal ties and a robust learning system.

For a paper by Bill about the project, click here. Another paper, Communities of Practice: A New Tool for Government Managers applies the CoP model in the U.S. government explains some key concepts in more detail. Other resources are:

  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. New York, NY, Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger, E., R. McDermott, et al. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston, MA, USA, Harvard Business School Press.
  • Wenger, E. C. and W. M. Snyder (2000). "Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier." Harvard Business Review(January – February): 139-145.

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