What is a Community of Practice?

by: Kate Garman Burns

I did debate in high school. And when I say “did” debate, I mean I was really into it. This included debate summer camp.

See what I mean.

I mention this because when I think of my experience during those summers, it was actually a walking, talking, and breathing community of practice. It was an experience with my peers to work together to have a better understanding of our debate topic. We had coaches and programming, and those of us that took the time to do this camp were better off because of it.

Now, we see the term “Community of Practice” with much greater frequency. I think this is a very good thing as these communities of practice accelerate learning and progress, moving things forward in the right direction. Indeed, MetroLab itself is a seven-year-old community of practice. As this concept receives investment and rightful attention, calling out best practices is critical.

What is a Community of Practice?

At MetroLab, we believe a community of practice is a group of peers that share a desire to exchange best practices around a similar issue, empowering the group with actionable learnings and changed outcomes that wouldn’t have occurred but for the community.

In short, a community of practice means a sum is greater than its parts.

A very good community of practice produces outcomes and creates change because of shared learnings.

What makes for a successful Community of Practice

There are important elements to consider when building a community of practice. The following components contribute to improved outcomes:

1. A common thread and an articulated mission

In some communities, what brings groups together with different priorities is a shared or similar role. For example a group of Chief Innovation Officers can come together and share their experiences with their role, while working on a variety of projects (broadband, improvement of services, infrastructure, etc). There is value in being in a trusted environment to share experiences, even with individuals that have different priorities.

In others, the mission itself serves as the shared experience. At MetroLab, we have points of contact in local government and university organizations that come from an incredibly diverse array of departments and expertise. We work with architects, information schools, engineers, public policy experts, and urban planners, etc. Our community thrives because of a shared desire to make our communities better, and to do so by collaborating with other institutions.

Both of these examples serve as a community of practice. To truly thrive and create impact, a professional or personal background can create a common thread. So can the mission itself. A common thread and an articulated mission are critical.

2. Motivation to engage

A community of practice succeeds when the individuals who comprise the community are motivated to take part and engage with each other. I often say that a community of practice is a group of friends. Friends reach out to each other, they are interested in one another’s work, and they want to see the other one succeed. All of this begins with individual participants who either want to be there or are incentivized to do so.

We are starting to see communities of practice in competitive environments (e.g. for grant opportunities, etc.). I think this is a great evolution because it opens the door to a new network. And while a percentage of the group may not be successful in winning a particular award, the experience itself leaves participants in a better position. No one person alone can solve the complex challenges our communities are facing. At a societal level, we should care about developing these networks because it will produce outcomes and create impact.

“Science by itself cannot provide a solution to the grand challenges that lay ahead. Centering people at the core of everything we do is the best investment a nation can make in its future.” -Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, Director of the National Science Foundation

3. A community of practice is resourced

Going back to my debate camp example, the experience would not have been possible without the programming, leadership, and funding required. All three of these elements are necessary.

Programming: this can be formal or informal, but an organized approach is required to ensure knowledge can be shared. The programming must give everyone a chance to speak at some level. A community of practice is a grassroots learning effort. It is not a classroom with one professor. Note, certain communities are created with the mission to learn more about a particular topic or expertise. In this case, a balanced approach of teaching and shared discussions is key.

Leadership: a community of practice (especially at scale) takes organizing to provide convening opportunities (like organizing an annual MetroLab summit). Leading a community of practice also means an individual or organization is ensuring its success.

Funding: to do all of the above, a community must have funding resources. And to take a moment of personal privilege with MetroLab: our paying membership structure does exactly this, it supports bringing together an incredible group of researchers and doers to learn from each other in a way that creates more impact than the status quo. Thank you to our members for supporting us, we sincerely appreciate your trust and investment.

Moving Forward

Are we making “communities of practice” too much of a buzzword? Maybe. They have existed for some time (like my debate camp). But calling it out and naming these efforts, I think, is a great thing. As I see the proliferation of the term, it shows me that ecosystem building is now recognized specifically as an important thing to develop. MetroLab agrees! After years of creating a trusted network, we’ve seen connections and new ideas flourish.

Finally, how do we define metrics and truly know if a particular community of practice is making an impact and achieving its mission? This is an important question. Metrics of success should be identified, and it should be directly tied to the articulated mission. However, human ecosystem building takes time. After all, it’s driving cultivated relationships and trust. So when we are thinking of metrics for communities of practice, I hope those metrics include quantitative and qualitative elements. And patience.

Now having served as its Executive Director for almost a year, I look back at the community MetroLab has built. Nearly 107 cities or counties, and 99 universities have participated with MetroLab as a member, summit attendee, or task force participant. In 2023, MetroLab is going to be even more intentional in understanding partnership best practices and ecosystem building. We’ll be sure to provide updates as we dive in.

Meanwhile, I hope these communities of practice continue to receive attention, leadership, and investment. Our society, and the complex challenges we face, will be better off because of them.

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