Making Communities of Practice work

Last month I attended the Canadian online Knowledge Mobilization Forum and particularly enjoyed a discussion on the topic of Communities of Practice (if you’d like a little primer on what a CoP is, click here).

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to persuade the presenters to do some short interviews to share their experiences with us, which I hope you’ll find useful.


Travis Sztainert PhD

Firstly, then, I’m delighted to introduce you all to Travis Sztainert, Knowledge Mobilization specialist.

Hi Travis, welcome to Knowledge4Lawyers!

Tell me a bit about the Communities of Practice (CoPs) that you are involved in. What is your role in those communities and how does this fit with your “day job”.

I have been involved with a number of CoPs over the years. I started with simply attending a local CoP focused on Knowledge Mobilization (similar to Knowledge Management, but concerned more with sharing knowledge to external stakeholders). When I moved to a new city for work, I joined another local CoP focused on Knowledge Transfer (similar to Knowledge Mobilization) and was part of the leadership committee. As part of this committee, we were responsible for revitalizing the CoP (it was dormant at the time), planning meet-ups, determining the focus of the meetups and helping to host the meetings. I also attempted to lead and revitalize an international CoP called the Knowledge Into Practice Learning Network.

There are two main reasons that I’ve chosen to join and lead these CoPs:

  1. To help me improve my ‘day job’ and improve the day jobs of others. Given that the focus of the CoPs I’ve joined was Knowledge Mobilization/Transfer, I am eager to learn from others  and I am happy to share my own knowledge about how to do our work better – a  rising tide lifts all boats.
  2. To help contribute to, and gain experience with, the ins-and-outs of CoPs. CoPs can be a valuable tool in change-makers toolkits, but only if used effectively. I am interested in the factors that lead to a successful and prosperous CoP.

What is it about CoPs that that particularly interests you? What prompted you to want to share your experiences with the Canadian Knowledge Mobilisation Forum this year?

CoPs are one of the few methods that allow for deep, meaningful and ongoing engagement in specific and (often) complex topics. For this reason, they have always been appealing to me as a tool for change, and I’m fascinated by the (often) organic nature by which some CoPs develop.

It has also been extremely interesting to see the shift to virtual CoPs given the current context of a global pandemic. At a previous CoP, I gave a talk with colleagues about virtual communities, and I specifically questioned whether virtual CoPs allow for a safe space where members could discuss failures and lessons learned (as opposed to focusing on successes). This idea led me to share my experiences failing at revitalizing a CoP (the Knowledge Into Practice Learning Network) at the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum – I want everyone to know that failure is common, and is often just a First Attempt In Learning (FAIL). 

What top tips do you have for people who participate in a CoP so that they can get the most from their involvement?

The first thing I would encourage people to do is to try to make connections in your CoP (especially if it is big). Talk to different people at every meeting – resist the temptation to sit beside your colleagues or those you know well. Related to this idea of actively participating, is to try to overcome imposter syndrome. This is the feeling that everyone else in the CoP knows more then you, which results in an irrational fear that you have little to contribute (or will be found out as an imposter in the CoP). Know that most other people in the CoP are feeling the same thing, and work to overcome this fear so that you can step out of your comfort zone and more actively engage with other members. Often, the best ideas and knowledge shared in a CoP is done informally, through the connections you make and the people you talk to while grabbing a coffee. Given the current pandemic, this may be a little more difficult, but using the private messaging feature during Zooms and chatting offline (through LinkedIn or even Facebook messenger) are great methods to starting informal conversations.   

What top tips do you have for those who are responsible for supporting and organising CoPs, rather than participants? Do you have any advice for those trying to manage the knowledge that gets shared within the group and trying to support improved accessibility and action on the knowledge that is shared there?

Based on my past failures and experience, I have 4 tips for those organizing CoPs:

  1. Use tools that allow members to communicate and share knowledge easily. This is especially important for virtual CoPs, you’ll want to think about how members may keep in touch outside of formalized meetings/activities. There is now a plethora of free tools to help you do this, and it may include Slack, Discord or even using Google Drive or Microsoft Teams – a platform by which people can chat and share files/information and that is easy to use.
  2. Create opportunities to socialize. This may include using fun/interesting ice-breakers, implementing Randomized Coffee Trials (see this example), using a fireside chats method of engaging, or even using informal locations for in-person meetups. You want to create and allow for a space for serendipity to emerge.
  3. Ensure consistent interaction, regular meetings, and engagement.  Leading a CoP is very time-intensive work, and requires real commitment (it is not something to be done off the side of your desk). Running a CoP is like a dance – it takes a while to find your rhythm, and once you have it you need to work to keep it.
  4. Encourage participation in meetings/activities. This is best done though example. Be a champion and identify/grow champions that you see naturally emerge in the CoPs.

Some argue that CoPs need to be allowed to develop organically by the members/participants and too much organisation and control can kill them off. What are your views on this? How much support and/or control do you advise organisations to offer, to get the most benefit from CoPs?

In my experience, you can’t rely exclusively on the organic nature of CoPs. The need for a CoP can (and often does) develop organically, and same for the content/focus of the CoP as it evolves. However, without purposeful leadership (e.g., a few champions willing to take on the administrative tasks of running the CoP) they can easily lose momentum and fizzle out. To get the most out of a CoP, I would encourage organizations to offer hosting support, and where possible administrative-type responsibilities (e.g., send out e-mails, doodle polls, booking rooms, acquiring catering, etc). With solid back-end support, CoPs can flourish.

Do you have any other practical tips for those working in knowledge and learning, to improve the flow of knowledge around their organisations through communities and conversation?

My main tip would be to walk-the-walk. If you’re looking for people to share knowledge openly, you must lead by example. Make yourself vulnerable – humans have a need for reciprocity, so you’ll see that same vulnerability mimicked and passed back to the group. Also, it helps to be a network leader or matchmaker. Knowing the members in the CoP, their issues, and who they might be able to work with (or learn from) is a valuable task that is often overlooked (i.e., be a connector).

What’s next for you and where can we find out more about your other interests?

I’ve been very interested in un-learning and de-implementation as of late. It seems that it’s relatively easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but virtually impossible to un-teach it a trick it already knows. So I may start learning more about this emerging field.

If you want to keep up with me, add me on LinkedIn and/or Twitter (@DrSzt), or visit my infrequently updated website www.drszt.ca. I’m also continually teaching the Certificate in Knowledge Mobilization, and would love to see more diverse audiences learn about Knowledge Mobilization! 

Thanks very much for sharing your experiences, Travis, much appreciated!


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About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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1 Response to Making Communities of Practice work

  1. Pingback: Making Communities of Practice work – Part 2 | Knowledge for Lawyers

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