Making Communities of Practice work – Part 2

Following on from their workshop at the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum and my interview a couple of weeks ago with Travis Sztainert, I am delighted to introduce you to Kate Wetherow, Organisational Learning Specialist, and bring you her experiences with Communities of Practice.

Kate has over 15 years not-for-profit experience in education and operations at the community, national and international levels, and has a unique blend of skills in organizational learning, knowledge management, project management, and business process improvement. Kate is the Organizational Learning Specialist at the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA), a part time instructor at the University of Ottawa Professional Development Institute in the Knowledge Management certificate program and co-coordinates the Ottawa Knowledge Mobilization Community of Practice.

Hi Kate, welcome to Knowledge4Lawyers!

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

I volunteer to co-coordinate the Ottawa Knowledge Mobilization Community of Practice. It’s the gathering place of knowledge workers in the National Capital Region in Canada. Usually, we meet up at a pub and talk about our work or have a peer-lead discussion (tools, trends, or hot topics). We welcome everyone in the broadest spectrum of knowledge work, including students, from every sector. The benefit for me is being able to connect with others in my community with a shared practice and bring back valuable insight to my day job.

At my full time job, I also help nurture “internal” CoPs with our 450 employees. Currently, we have CoPs for project management, evaluation, planning and performance, as well as a “Lean Coffee” for our process improvement and agile work. As the Organizational Learning Specialist, I don’t coordinate all of the CoPs, but I participate and connect them with new participants. Our CoPs are very much an internal gathering of subject matter experts or specialists, but also employees who want to learn more about the field of practice. It has encouraged more cross-departmental collaboration and learning in the past two years. This certainly falls into the “supporting a learning culture” part of my job description.

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

I know what it’s like to be the only knowledge worker at the office. It’s lonely! Initially, I started attending the Ottawa KMb CoP out of a need to connect with others with a shared purpose and practice. To this day, that’s still what I get out it.

Finding your community is an important way to connect to “New Talent, Skills, and Perspectives,” which was the theme of this year’s Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum. I thought it would be a neat idea to reach out to our sister CoPs in Guelph and Toronto to talk about the power of connection, what works and how you can continuously evolve to meet the needs of the group. We wanted to share the broad experiences of working with CoPs as people networks for leveraging professional development in knowledge mobilization.

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

Like anything else, you get out of a CoP what you put into it. Be an active participant. Connect with others. Ask questions. Share your perspectives. And volunteer to host, present or take part in the activities being offered. For example, if you want to hear about tools, then volunteer to facilitate an upcoming discussion on highly recommended tools.

Remember, CoPs are organic. You can’t control what happens with them, but you can be open to the experience! Just because you have low attendance at an event, you may end up having deeper, more meaningful, conversations and get more out of it.

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?

Basically, coordinating a CoP means three things: managing a distribution list, scheduling an event/newsletter, and curating content. While all three take effort (especially as a volunteer), the latter is the hardest. To curate good content, ask your members. Check in when you see them. Send out surveys once a year. See what matters to them and how you can serve the common interest. For example, it wasn’t until we sent out a survey that asked about venue preference, that we found out that several of our members felt that our current venue was a barrier to their participation – both in terms of mobility (multiple floors and poor seating) and hearing impairment (it was a noisy pub).

Co-ordinating by yourself is hard. Currently, I ‘co-coordinate’ the Ottawa KMb CoP and it’s wonderful to share that experience and the volunteer effort. We can balance workload and bounce ideas off of one another. It also means continuity on a practical level.

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?

I agree that CoPs are organic. Here’s a Canadian hockey analogy: your role as a coordinator of a CoP is to put some boards up around the rink to make a space. You invite the participants and schedule the time, but ultimately, the participants bring the game. Whether you hit the goal or not is less important than getting something out of participating.

We shared the CoP life cycle in our presentation about CoPs at the Forum. It was important to remind people that organic entities have a life of their own and follow various stages of life.

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?

Yes, I also presented at the Forum on my work in change and learning. My recommendations included the following:

  • Build a strong team to deliver the learning and knowledge sharing work.
  • Conduct impact and learning assessments to gather information from the people who are doing the work and what’s important to them.
  • Engage in a peer-to-peer model of knowledge sharing and learning. It’s the most powerful!
  • Leverage people networks, like CoPs, to share knowledge and mobilize efforts.
  • Use people platforms to stay connected, i.e. digital dashboards, shared online spaces, etc. In this virtual work world, shared spaces are more important than ever!
  • Never underestimate the power of people updates – whether it’s in-person or a good old fashioned email or staff bulletin. If you put care into the connection, it will resonate!

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

I also teach at the University of Ottawa Professional Development Institute. Last year I developed three new courses: Sharing Knowledge inside Your Organization, Visual Management for Working Teams and Creative Workplaces. Teaching is another great way to connect with your community and find out what is happening in the field of practice. I encourage others to share their knowledge and expertise at schools, volunteering, but most especially at your own workplace through lunch and learns and other gatherings. Everyone has knowledge to share!

Thanks very much for sharing your experiences with us, Kate!

If you’d like to connect with Kate or keep up with her research, you can find her on LinkedIn and twitter (@KateWetherow).

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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