When you’re building big movements for social impact, it helps to provide a safe space for the leaders in the network to come together positively (think appreciative inquiry, rather than ‘stitch and bitch’).  And one of the most exciting things we’re doing right now is convening the #peoplesCOP – a Community of Practice (CoP) of 13 experts who run peer networks supporting community businesses across the land.  The CoP is supporting them to support each other, deepen their practice as membership or network managers and work out how to successfully grow their networks for more social impact (you can read our previous post about it here).

So what are CoPs, why do they work and how do you create one? Well, since you ask – we’ve put together a handy how-to guide.

What are they?

Communities of Practice are groups of active practitioners in a specific field who share ideas, experiences and best practice and support each other.  They can emerge naturally or be deliberately created by an organisation or institution to pool and acquire knowledge.

Why do they work?

They work well in large scale, dispersed social movements because they bring influential practitioners with diverse experiences together around a common purpose to share best practice. Valuable learning gets pooled.  New knowledge gets created, which the members take back out again into their domain.  And the experience of being in the CoP strengthens the sense of shared purpose and values between key movement members.

How do I create one?

Chances are, you’re probably already in a CoP without knowing it.  The E-campaigners forum, or the Crowdfundlist  are excellent example of CoPs.  They work because members decide what’s important, and get and take what they need from it.  Even CoPs that are created by organisations and institutions still have to be organic and driven by the interests and needs of their members to work.  So if you’re thinking of starting one, remember that laying down the law around subject matter or prescribing outcomes each time the members meet will kill it dead.  But there are four things you can do  that will increase the effectiveness of the CoP and its impact on the movement at large.

#1 Curate the group

There do need to be some rules about who’s in and who’s out.  CoP members have to be active practitioners so they can contribute current, lived experiences that are relevant and valuable to others.  They need to be peers and possess the qualities that make CoPs work – openness, honesty, lack of judgment and confidentiality   You can curate who’s in by:

  • profiling the typical CoP member – the experience they have, the level they are at in their practice, their commitment to the wider movement, and their objectives for taking part
  • running a transparent selection or approval process
  • selecting on the dynamic of the group as a whole, not just the strengths of the individual members

#2 Create space

CoPs rely on one to one interactions between a trusted group of practitioners.  These can take place in a physical or virtual space and your role is to create a safe, welcoming and productive environment that helps people focus, relax and trust each other.  You could think about:

  • providing a neutral, welcoming physical space; or the tech for virtual meet-ups (we like Join.Me)
  • appointing a convenor who understands the movement at large and can help select the CoP members, then get to know them, help them find fruitful areas of focus and facilitate where needed
  • training members on some techniques to get the best out of each other, like action learning sets or appreciative inquiry

#3 Manage knowledge

CoPs share knowledge through personal storytelling, based on real life experience.  The members share mistakes, successes and learnings, contemplate new ideas and solve problems together.   They become walking, talking repositories of knowledge and best practice which they share and apply in their extended networks or workplaces. That might be enough.  But if you want to make their stories more widely available and codify that knowledge, here’s one way of doing it:    

  • giving CoP members a platform to share their stories, ideally unfiltered and straight from the horse’s mouth, by audio, video or written blog
  • using your own comms channels to get them heard
  • creating a feedback loop by making direct calls out to the wider movement to add their experiences, identify the new knowledge that emerges and curate the content into follow-up blogs or quick fire tips

#4 Make Tea

Finally, and above all, look after everyone. A CoP can get a bit heavy when people start opening their hearts and minds to each other.  So listen to what’s going on, bring biscuits, make tea and facilitate this thing you’ve created well.

Esther Foreman is the lead convenor for the Power to Change Peer Network Community of Practice and the Campaign Network.

If you are interested in finding out more about these, or need help with your CoP, please get in touch! esther@thesocialchangeagency.org