Communities of Practice: Knowing We Are Not Alone

Do you sometimes feel alone in your work? Do you wish you could share your big achievements and your tough challenges with someone else? Do you wish you had someone who could give you the right tool for a specific problem? Do you wonder how you can have regular professional development with like-minded individuals?

If so, a community of practice may offer you answers.   

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion and are keen to learn from each other as they interact regularly. ​

Common characteristics of communities of practice include:

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Common Characteristics 

There is no one formula for a community of practice. However, there are common characteristics found in many. Below are some of these.

  1. Learning. In most communities much time is given for participants to share lessons learned, stories from the field, and helpful models and work. There is usually little need for content to be presented by individuals outside the group, as the resources are seen to be ‘in the room’. However, from time to time it can also be helpful for new content to be presented from an outside perspective.
  2. Sharing successes and challenges. Since members of a community share similar expertise, they can help each other. They “get it” and can be a resource for each other as well as a (knowing) listening ear.
  3. Building trust and relationships. These are critical for shared ownership and meaningful collective learning. They also help community members to be vulnerable with each other, ensuring open dialogue, deep sharing, and tough questions. 
  4. Co-creating opportunities. Usually, communities are made up of people who don’t work together. As such, working on a project collectively can be satisfying and enriching. Examples include creating a model for practitioners to use, developing definitions or policies, or designing something that can be replicated by all. 
  5. Networking. The members of a community of practice are connected somehow: common interest, similar work, or similar organizations. As such, they may be interested to learn about more than just what brings them together. Offering some less “programmed time” can be welcome.  
  6. Resource sharing. The potential resource sharing represented by a group of individuals who gather from a variety of places can be immense and exciting. Find ways to tap into this often. As well, find ways to collect and share the resources easily.
  7. Fun! This is important when adults come together. Communities shouldn’t feel overly serious. Having fun while learning and sharing can help deepen the trust and connection with individuals and the group.

Tips for Success

Although communities of practice shouldn’t be overly burdensome or time-consuming, they will not run themselves. The following tips can help.

  1. Share leadership. It is advisable to create a small team to be responsible, to share the work, and to maximize creativity. To help share ownership, it is also wise to rotate leadership and other responsibilities.
  2. Clarify the purpose and value of your community. Different members may understand or want different things from the community, so explicit and regular dialogue about this are helpful.
  3. Create a cross-section of a larger, diverse community. In this way, the community can be a space to test out and grow ideas before bringing them to the fuller community.
  4. Schedule regular gatherings. These can be in-person or online; they can be multi-day or just an hour long; they can be in the same location or varied. Setting a regular cadence and expected rhythm for your gatherings helps everyone remember and look forward to them. 
  5. Invite the same individuals. Although you can invite multiple small communities to join each other from time to time, in general it is wise to keep the group the same. This will build trust and allow deeper sharing. 
  6. Encourage affirmation and appreciation. To help build honesty and vulnerability with each other, start by sharing stories of success and achievement. This will make it so that challenges and struggles can be easily shared.
  7. Create e-spaces for easy resource collection and sharing. Whether you use a Google folder, OneDrive, a Wiki, or another e-space, members often want to know where things are and how to easily access them. We recommend having a dedicated “Knowledge Broker” who ensures this space remains organized and helpful.
  8. Develop a simple and spacious design. Create structured time while still allowing plenty of time for important sharing and dialogue. 
  9. Keep it small. This can help keep it sustainable and doable. If you have a large group, consider affinity groups within the larger community of practice. You can always convene the entire group from time to time. 
  10. Work thematically. To maximize participation and engagement, topics need to be relevant. When these themes come from the group, even better.

Communities of practice can EXPAND our thinking on a topic, can CHALLENGE us to look at our work differently, and can STRETCH us in ways that working alone will not. They are intentional communities. Individuals are committed to each other and believe in the value of coming together. As long as people feel the benefits, they will continue coming back.

What have you found important for the success of communities of practice?

This blog was written with input from the GLP Community of Practice, we call the Certified Network. We gather quarterly for 60 minutes to share ideas, questions, resources, and experience around a specific theme. These themes come from the members, presentations are usually offered by its members, and there is a rotating leadership. The selected theme for the 2022 4th quarter was Communities of Practice. All members of the Network are Certified Dialogue Education Practitioners (CDEPs) or Certified Dialogue Education Teachers (CDETs), and passionate about helping adults learn in a way that creates real growth and lasting change.

The Network members present at the November Network Gathering who contributed to this blog are: Andrea Van Liew, Brendan Halloran, Christian Mackinnon, Claire Schouten, Elena Mondo, Fadi Sharaiha, Huda Amarin, Jay Elkeberry, Krista Belcher, Linda Gershuny, Gillian Ferwerda, Marion Subah, Mary Hoddy, Mary Jane Oliveri, Michael Elfant, Rebecca Miller, Rebecca Olechowski, Sam Moore, Sylvia Saenger, Tonjala Eaton, Tom Post, Tyler Phillips, and Valerie Uccellani. Kathy Hickman and Jesica Radaelli-Nida presented lessons learned and tips about Communities of Practices. Jeanette Romkema hosted the event and pulled all that was offered by the group into this blog.  

Learn more about becoming part of the Certified Network.

Here are some additional resources: