Our latest research with Training Industry shows that associations are looking at new ways to engage their members and generate revenue through their learning programs. But among the top challenges identified by survey participants were sustaining the impact of training (40%), demonstrating training effectiveness/impact (31%) and aligning training to member goals and business objectives (31%).
One way to address these challenges is to host a community of practice (CoP) for your members. These groups are well suited to associations because they are peer-to-peer social learning groups that recognize the knowledge and expertise your members bring to the table. For your members, they offer a unique learning experience that complements your formal training and education offerings. For the association, they provide a window into the learning needs of members to inform learning and engagement strategies.
While CoPs can be a win-win for associations and their members, they can be a bit tricky to get right. In this post, we’ll briefly define the concept, then go over some steps and ideas to get one started.
What Are Communities of Practice?
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger coined the term “community of practice” in the early 1990s to describe the custom of coming together to share information and experiences with others who are passionate about the same activity. These learning communities can be informal, popping up in online forums, social media, or around breakroom tables, or they can be intentionally formed with a specific goal.
To be considered a CoP, a group must have three characteristics:
- Domain: The shared interest, competence and identity of the group that distinguishes group members from others. The commitment to the shared identity and passion for elevating the competence are what take a simple interest to a domain.
- Community: The ongoing joint learning activities, discussions and sharing that build relationships between members. All communities are networks in the sense that there is a set of connections between the members, but not all networks are communities. Communities are distinguished by their commitment to the domain—that is, the shared identity and intention to grow the competence.
- Practice: The shared resources, ideas, tools and ways of addressing problems developed by the group that members apply to their own work or practice. Members of CoPs aren’t just learning and developing shared competence for fun—they are working together to elevate the practice of their domain.
The learning can be about best practices, getting or offering help with specific questions, creating new knowledge and practices, or stewarding knowledge and resources for members to draw from.
CoPs can pop up anywhere, so intentionally hosting them can be a strategic way to position the association as the first place people think of when looking for expertise. When done well, they have the potential to be transformative for members and the profession.
But hosting a successful CoP isn’t as simple as sending out an invitation to join. It takes some planning to start a CoP that members will join and engage with. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Define the Domain(s)
General membership in your association might be too broad to work as an overall community of practice, so take some time to determine one or more domains that are relevant to the interests of specific subgroups of your members. Think about the different problems they’re passionate about, the roles they work in, the tools they use, the populations they serve, and so on. When in doubt, ask them! Survey your members to find out what kinds of communities of practice they would like to belong to.
Provide the Platform
First, communities of practice need a place for their learning activities to occur—and we’re not necessarily talking about a physical location. While you may host in-person events for members, communities of practice need an online platform where they can have discussions, store resources and information, and engage in other learning activities.
A learning management system (LMS) that has the functionality to allow members to create and share content is an easy solution for online and hybrid CoPs. Not only does an LMS provide a single point of access for all of the CoP’s activities, it gives facilitators the opportunity to collect qualitative and quantitative data to help them make the group more effective for everyone. For example, facilitators can:
- use data analytics to see what proportion of the CoP’s members are actively contributing
- determine the types of activities and topics that get the most engagement
- gather member feedback and suggestions through built-in survey tools
- collect written and video member stories on how the CoP impacted their projects and practices at work
Engage and Empower the Community
Once you have the technology sorted out, you need to know how to launch the community and help it thrive. While CoPs are member-driven, there is a lot of variation in how this works from group to group. Some CoPs are completely self-organized, but in many cases they need some cultivation and facilitation to provide the most value. Whether it’s association staff or volunteers from the CoP, it’s wise to identify at least one leader to coordinate things and be a resource for members.
Since every CoP is unique, there’s no simple formula for successfully engaging and sustaining them. But here are some ideas to consider as a starting point:
- Begin with a discussion to define and document group goals, terms of reference and a code of conduct.
- Establish a schedule. The frequency and nature of the activities will depend on the group, but it could be anything: biweekly lunch meetings, monthly speakers, quarterly working sessions—again, survey your members for more ideas.
- Encourage respectful debate in synchronous and asynchronous discussions through your online platform.
- Arrange some formal communication, such as an email newsletter that highlights the content created and shared by members.
- Share articles and resources to spark discussions.
- Set up a member directory area where members can post a profile and search for each other.
Remember that shared identity is important to CoP members, so beyond the regular activities of the group, you can add an air of exclusivity to distinguish members. For example, you could offer breakout sessions specific to the members of each CoP at your annual conference and consider offering incentives like a registration discount or exclusive swag items.
Wherever you start, be prepared to experiment and adjust your strategy according to each group’s needs. Unlike courses and certifications where the learning material is designed around the learning objectives, the learning in CoPs comes from the members themselves.
Diversify Your Association’s Learning Strategy
Communities of practice are not a replacement for your association’s learning programs, but rather a unique and complementary learning experience for your members. Positioning your association as the host of valuable peer-to-peer learning opportunities boosts your reputation as the leading source of innovative professionals in the industry.
Karen Karnis has a BA in sociology from the University of Guelph. She has worked in social services, higher education, communications and journalism. Karen is currently working toward a Master of Education in Sustainability, Creativity and Innovation through Cape Breton University.
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