Tool

Communities of Practice

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of individuals who share an interest in a common field and join forces to actively exchange practical knowledge and experience over a long period of time and to generate new knowledge together. Participation is voluntary and cannot be delegated. CoPs trigger collective learning processes that generate knowledge and experience that is continuously developing. They are extremely effective, help develop an institutional memory and generate new knowledge and skills that are channelled into cooperation systems and organisations. CoPs link up practitioners in a manner that transcends the boundaries of organisations (and of organisational units or countries), irrespective of the hierarchical position that these practitioners hold. 

In the context of a municipality, CoPs can contribute to better collaboration across units and sectors and allow for more efficient working and learning structures. 

Goal

Present and develop ideas to use a practical form of learning for sharing knowledge and experience. Individuals with shared interests exchange information on a defined area of specialisation and generate new knowledge together.

Tasks

Step 1: Define the community’s objectives. In this first step, you agree on the objectives together with the other individuals whose idea it is to set up a CoP. These could include:  

  • exchanging information on a specific issue;  
  • developing potential solutions;  
  • testing practical applications;
  • introducing a change process to mainstream the solutions.  

Depending on the issue, decide which other participants you may need to approach because they play a key role in addressing the particular issue.  

The Template “Initiating a Community of Practice” will assist you in the initial planning of a CoP.  

Step 2: Define the roles in the CoP. After a certain amount of time, the dynamic between the different groups of individuals involved in the CoP stabilises as they form ties of varying strength within the community. We normally distinguish between the following groups:  

Core group: This is the main hub of the CoP and normally comprises the community’s organisers and moderators. The core group makes sure that there is a healthy balance between freedom, observation, support and requests for contributions within the group. Experience shows that a CoP needs a moderator to sustain momentum. Otherwise, activities will come to a standstill.  

Inner circle: This is an informally structured group of individuals that meet regularly (online or face-to-face) to exchange information.  

Outer circle: The members of this group rarely make active contributions of their own. They are included in the email distribution list and although they have written access to the online platform, they may choose to just read others’ contributions. The boundaries between the inner and outer circles are fluid. New members often start off in the outer circle, keeping a close eye on the activities of the inner circle before joining it by making their own contributions. Participation in the inner and outer circles may also depend on the particular sub-issue that is currently being dealt with.  

Cooperation system or organisation: CoPs that are mainstreamed in an organisation or cooperation system develop new, relevant knowledge, thereby supporting the cooperation system or the organisation as a whole. This means that the cooperation system or organisation can benefit directly from the CoP’s products if all members of the cooperation system or organisation have read access to the CoP’s online platform. Experience shows, however, that CoPs often need protected spaces for discussions to ensure close cooperation and build trust. 

Step 3: Support the development of a CoP 

The checklist for CoPs will help you support the development of CoPs. It will also help you to routinely assess the current situation and agree on the CoP’s future development or disband it where necessary. 

Note

A sufficient number of individuals who are working on the same issue and are interested in exchanging relevant ideas and experiences is a prerequisite. It is crucial that you define clear objectives, identify the relevant roles and appoint individuals to carry them out, and where required secure the backing of management. You can use the tool at the organisational level as well as in cooperation systems. Communities of practice can be used to exchange specialised information at the local and regional right up to the global levels. Establishing a community of practice is time-consuming, and the effort required should not be underestimated. 

Timeframe

2 hours

Output

Initiation of a Community of Practice

References

GIZ (2015): Cooperation Management for Practitioners. Managing Social Change with Capacity WORKS P. 249-252.