As one year ended and another began, I took time to reflect on what I’ve been up to over the past twelve months. As is the life of a consultant, it’s been a hotch-potch. A bit of M+E, a spot of scoping and a soupçon of training. But the biggest chunk of my time throughout the year has been working with Greenpeace International to nurture internal learning communities for senior campaign leaders. What began as a broad scoping project has evolved into a pilot community of practice with Greenpeace’s Programme Directors which will (hopefully) blossom in 2017.
Building learning communities within big international organisations should be a no-brainer. Cross-organisational groups help break people out of functional and geographic silos, encouraging organisational improvement and innovation. Peer support helps people tackle challenges, learn from each others’ successes and mistakes and provides emotional support in tough jobs. But it’s surprising how little it’s done.
I was shocked recently when talking to a senior manager at a major international NGO that its campaign directors have virtually no sharing space, either face-to-face or virtual. And that’s because, like with many other reflective activities (such as monitoring and evaluation) creating spaces for sharing, learning and connecting is often disregarded. It’s seen as desirable but non-essential and gets lost under the burden of busy leaders’ heavy workloads.
But increasingly savvy organisations, like Greenpeace, are recognising that reflection, learning and sharing are not add-ons but essential to their mission. By collaborating we can innovate and create good practices. And by building relationships we are better equipped to work in a more agile way.
Community of practice essentials
The idea of creating space for social learning and, in particular, communities of practice is not new. Lots has been written about it. And some organisations are much more experienced in it, especially those where people with functional specialisms benefit from sharing with each other. MSF, for example, has a huge ecosystem of communities of practice to support its specialist practitioners. The advice from the literature and more experienced community-builders pushed me towards some essential components in community building:
- Everything written on communities of practice emphasises the need for some face-to-face contact amongst participants at least annually, even if subsequent meetings are virtual. Yes, video conferencing and message forums are incredible nowadays but they still fall short when trying to build relationships.
- Don’t try to introduce new channels and platforms. Use the apps and software your participants already use. Slack might be cool for eager millennials but will fall flat for a bunch of 40-somethings still struggling with GoogleDocs.
- Facilitation is key – especially with busy, loosely connected groups of people. Communities will go nowhere without someone pulling them together and moving them along.
- I shouldn’t have to say it but do your M+E as a rolling process. This will help you to revise what you’re doing and tailor the work of the group to participants’ needs. It will also allow you to call time on a community that isn’t working rather than having it limp sadly onwards.
Drop me a line if you’d like to hear more about my work building internal communities. And I’d love to hear from others on what’s worked or hasn’t in your organisational community-building. Leave me a comment or get in touch directly if you have any thoughts.