Uniting people across an organisation
We’ve seen a rise in organisations wanting to find new ways of working and processes that unite people across teams, rather than working vertically through hierarchies. This focus on horizontal-working is sometimes borne out of a desire to embed more agile practices, but often it’s more related to wanting to break down departmental silos and team structures.
“Communication between silos can be very difficult, causing duplication of work and frustration for those inside them. Silos can be very damaging to an organisation. Communities that span these silos can go a long way to breaking those barriers down and creating a better appreciation for how others work, improving communication and workflow.” – Emily Webber
Not another working group
Critically, a community of practice (CoP) should not be seen as a project working group or a tickbox way to consult a range of stakeholders on a project. Instead, a community of practice is a practical, evolving safe space for individuals to come together and share their practice.
Communities of practice do not typically have targets or deliverables – their sole purpose is to support members with a space to develop and deepen their practice. They should also not replace project teams/squads or other hierarchical structures; they work with/ around these and focus on improving practice.
“Communities of Practice are non-hierarchical and long-term, and focus on how to accomplish something rather than what it delivers. They can define best practice, create learning opportunities, reduce duplication, or be used as support networks.” – Shelter
Our working definition of community of practice
A community of practice is a group of people from across an organisation, united by sharing the same practice.
This ‘practice’ could be a skill, responsibility, area of work or an interest.
What can communities of practice do?
CoPs can accelerate learning and development as they are a unique place where people who do the same thing are sharing and learning from and with each other.
CoPs are safe environments for learning, trying out new things and sharing experiences.
CoP members start taking ownership for knowledge management and sharing, working together to build a better practice.
CoPs can contribute to increased morale and motivation as people feel more empowered and that their learning needs are being met.
Identify skills, processes or tools that can improve a capability.
“The secret to a resilient, happy organisation is to be one that invests in learning and development of its people and its whole.” – Emily Webber
Communities of practice in action
- CoPs underpin Shelter’s digital framework of devolved content and publishing.
- Networks of practitioners meet regularly to share, develop and define their practice.
- CoPs are cross-organisational groups of practitioners that have an organisational responsibility to create and co-own the principles, guidelines and standards for all digital products.
- Any role that has an element of digital is expected to join a CoP.
- CoPs report to a digital leadership group (senior leaders from across the organisation) who steer digital planning.
“It’s a great way to be inspired, build relationships, and learn from each other. It’s also a chance to make sure all teams are involved and aligned.” – Shelter Digital Framework
CoPs support skills and knowledge development.
Each CoP has a vision, goals, skills analysis, resources, and clear ceremonies and events.
Each product team member is a part of a CoP for their area of specialism: user research, service design, content design, delivery manager etc.
Ideas and learnings from each CoP are fed back into the product team to make the overall delivery better, based on specialist areas increasing the quality of their practice.
CoP activities include coaching circles, mentoring and shadowing each other for a month, and individual accountability for work that meets CoP objectives.
Ceremonies include lunch and learns, monthly deep dives on a topic, coffee breaks and slack channel for daily comms.
Government Digital Service (GDS)
CoPs were introduced at GDS in response to growth of the organisation and the implementation of matrix management structure.
Structurally, CoPs sit across different departments and serve common goals like being part of a data science community or product and service community.
CoPs form a key part of their product management and agile delivery approach.
Mature CoPs run ‘lunch and learns’ for other teams to share and develop practice.
How charities can use communities of practice
“Trust is the basis of a successful community of practice, so it is important that the members of the community feel safe with each other. Trust may not come immediately, but with support and time it will develop.” – Emily Webber
CoPs help build integration between teams which enables organisations to run better services, campaigns and products.
CoPs have proved particularly useful in charities to bridge silos/ways of working between marketing, comms and fundraising teams.
Some charities have CoPs with specific focuses such as content or digital marketing, and others have used it to align teams that don’t sit in the same hierarchical structure like marketing and fundraising.
The process is based on the principle that to get to a trusting relationship where real collaboration can take place, it has to begin with understanding people better.
CoPs are also helpful spaces to share ideas and external inspiration.
Getting started with communities of practice
Define an area of practice which would benefit from alignment across teams such as content development, digital fundraising or performance reporting.
Ensure that operational roles only are a part of the group. The community of practice should have those responsible for delivery of the practice.
Create a community of practice charter with your goals, values, purpose and activities.
Develop a clear way to report back to senior stakeholders on how your community of practice is progressing.
Try out different meeting styles and approaches until you find one that suits your group.
Run regular retros to review the goals of the group and to identify any successes and blockers.
Communities of practice
‘Building successful communities of practice’ (Emily Webber)
Introduction to building successful communities of practice (Emily Webber)
Communities of practice: the organizational frontier (Harvard Business Review)
Learning and development
How to actually help people learn new skills (William Joseph)