Lessons Learned About How to Facilitate a Community of Practice

A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern, set of problems, or passion about a topic and a desire to leverage individual and collective talents to deepen their applied knowledge in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. The Making Connections community of practice connects regularly through in-person convenings, webinars, calls, and email lists to share information, insights, and advice. The sites help each other solve problems, ponder common issues, explore ideas, and act as sounding boards for each other. Over time, they have developed a unique perspective as well as a body of common knowledge, practices, and approaches.

The following is a collection of lessons and recommendations from Prevention Institute staff that have supported Making Connections and other communities of practice.

Success is defined by several audiences. What success looks like for the funder may be different from what success looks like for the collaborative partners or the community. For those managing a community of practice, it’s important to hold these differences in balance and collectively agree in advance on what success might look like, and how you will measure it. What are feasible goals for your partnership in the time frame you have? What are aspirational goals? Does success mean something different to the funder vs. the coalition vs. the community being served? For some groups, success means having community members engaged and building a coalition that lasts for the long term. For others it means changing organizational practices or achieving local policy victories.

If you clarify early and often the role of each entity involved in the community of practice and which decisions they can make, this can reduce potential tension and pave the way for productive relationships. It is particularly important for members and funders to understand how the facilitating organization will operate in certain spaces: are they speaking on behalf of the funder, the members, or a third party? This may look different in different settings, but it is important to communicate to all parties, particularly to build trust between members and the facilitating organization if the facilitating organization is also providing coaching/technical assistance. 

Different people and groups respond best to different types of interactions, so providing a variety of opportunities of engagement increases the possibility of best supporting a diverse community of practice. These might include one-on-one phone calls, in-person or Zoom gatherings, “office hours” when any group can call in if they have questions or need support, and online communications platforms like Basecamp. Outlining the way you will interact and their purpose in advance (when possible) helps sites know what to expect in terms of time management and opportunities, and best strategize about how to interface

Building a rapport to engage in challenging community change initiatives helps coaches and technical assistance providers to approach the work with cultural humility and trust in the wisdom of community members. Facilitators should take time to introduce themselves and spend time with the members individually before holding a launch gathering for everyone who’s part of the initiative. Initial face-to-face or Zoom meetings can plant the seeds for strong relationships prior to coaching and technical assistance, and can lead to opportunities to be innovative and do things differently.

Coaching involves building the natural talents and abilities of leaders and communities.  As challenges arise, brainstorming solutions among partners strengthens their capacity to problem-solve as a team. Rather than simply answering questions or giving solutions, coaching is about providing guidance and sharing experiences and lessons from other communities, and above all, listening for opportunities to highlight sites’ wisdom and insights. Technical assistance is specific, time-bound support to reach a predetermined deliverable or outcome (e.g., developing a site profile, podcast or op-ed, hosting a convening or workshop). Since coaching is a continuation of relationship- and trust-building, it helps to begin an initiative with coaching and later introduce technical assistance. It can take up to a year to develop a strong coaching relationship and then see it come to fruition.

While the specific goals and objectives of your initiative may change, it’s important to have a strong vision to lend a sense of clarity, purpose, and direction and to balance that with the flexibility to learn and discover as time goes by. Even though you may be “building as you go,” it is helpful to map out at least a year of the initiative with the funder, coaches, technical assistance providers, and evaluators. Initiatives will often provide a work plan template or guiding principles that may be revisited and revised throughout; the facilitating organization can help adjust or restrategize as needed, particularly in response to transitions or other larger, potentially unseen events.  As a learning community, it is essential to facilitate ongoing learning to support continuous quality improvement in programming, partnerships and evaluation.

Different kinds of transitions, both internal and external can and will happen: individuals leave their roles for one reason or another (maternity leave, a new opportunity, poor health); a funder might change their focus, personnel, or how they want to measure success; or the local or national social and political environment could change. It’s important to build systems to manage this such as work plans that have been thought out, having multiple points of contact, and developing handoff documentation for new members or staff

Even if the internal workings of an initiative run smoothly, external factors like elections, pandemics or unrest in a community can and will impact the work. This is why it’s important to remain flexible, not get too locked into a work plan, and keep an open mind when challenges arise. 

You can tell a community of practice is working when relationships and peer-to-peer support are so strong that you can step back and learn. When you’re working with a collaborative, it’s important to remember that the relationship is time-bound, and meant to evolve into something new. It's one thing to form a bond with a leader or group, but another thing to do so knowing that the goal is to eventually remove yourself from the equation. It’s best to foster peer-to-peer connections early so that groups build relationships with each other and can rely on those relationships once a coach or TA provider is no longer involved.

Read more about Communities of Practice

A Brief Introduction to Communities of Practice: This brief report examines what communities of practice are and why researchers and practitioners in so many different contexts find them useful as an approach to knowing and learning.

Book Review: Cultivating Communities of Practice: This summary and review provides seven principles for successful communities of practice.

Active Implementation: Frameworks for Program Success: This brief shares suggestions on using implementation science to enhance program success.


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