A community of practice is a “group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” They’re valuable educational, community-building, and professional development tools for almost any role or function in your agency: product managers, security specialists, developers, designers, user researchers, procurement specialists, data folks — you name it.
They can have broader or narrower scopes, but the important part is the practice. The people coming together should be practitioners of the same skill, area, or problem/solution set. The next important part is interact: communities of practice should foster interaction, whether that’s through asynchronous discussion, monthly meetings, brown bags, annual conferences, or all of the above. Investing in communities of practice properly takes work, but it pays off in more connected and better equipped teams.
1. Go listen to people
For product folks, this is akin to doing user research. Go talk to people and listen to what they have to say. What is already working at the agency? How do they learn new things now? What do people lack, and what do they long for? What problems are they trying to solve and what constraints do they work under? Use what you learn in the design of your community of practice. If people wish they had more chance to hear what’s happening in other parts of the agency, for example, ask a different team to share what they’re working on at each monthly meeting — with plenty of time for Q&A and discussion, of course.
2. Help people become resources for each other
First, help people find each other. Be a catalyst for connection. Know the people in your community, and proactively make introductions or start conversations between them. If you hear that one person is having trouble with a new tool, for example, and you’ve talked to someone who is using the tool successfully, introduce them! No need to wait for a monthly meeting. Learn what experiences and expertise people have and help them find ways to share, through media like internal agency blog posts, community presentations, or recorded video clips or webinars.
3. Co-create inclusive spaces
Inclusivity isn’t just the domain of your agency’s DEI&A team. It’s something we should all be thinking about and striving for. You can foster an inclusive space by prioritizing listening, actively facilitating conversations, and making sure everyone feels like they are supposed to be there. Even small one-on-one interactions such as a direct message or a coffee date to check in with community members can go a long way to helping people feel included.
Provide different ways to interact (asynchronously through chat or forums, and synchronously with meetings or events), use accessible color palettes for presentations, and have a live transcript in zoom calls. Set community norms for behavior that answer the question, How will we interact in this space together? I have three go-to norms I ask folks to practice in shared spaces:
- Be present: Why be here if you’re not going to be here?
- Make space, take space: Help make space for others to share thoughts, and feel empowered yourself to bring your voice to the conversation, too.
- Embrace a culture of learning: We’re all coming into this with different backgrounds, lived experiences, and skill sets, so help educate each other and be open to being educated.
It’s also critical that people feel some ownership over the community themselves. Provide opportunities to modify community norms or values. Help people take initiative when they have ideas for the community. If someone has an idea for a brown-bag or wants to ask a question in your community forum but feels shy, help them get it going and give them the tools to do it inclusively.
4. Curate and market content intentionally
Don’t fall into the “if we build it, they will come” mentality. You have to proactively seek out and curate content for your community of practice events. Provide tips or templates for how to make a good presentation, and make sure that people who speak are speaking from experience, not hypotheticals. Make it clear that sales pitches from vendors are not welcome. Go out and find stories that people don’t know they have to tell, and help them craft those stories into good presentations. Get voices from all parts of your agency (including from contractor teams!), not just the most well-known ones, and coach folks who are newer to public speaking on their presentation skills.
Likewise, make it clear why a certain story or presentation is valuable for the community audience. People need to know how it is relevant for them so they can justify taking time out of their busy day to join a community of practice event.
5. Secure institutional support
Finally, secure institutional support for your community of practice. Talk to managers and directors about the value of this initiative and ask them to explicitly endorse it to their teams, so that people know they are supported in blocking off time on their calendar to participate. To ensure the community of practice doesn’t rely on one single person volunteering their time to organize it, put in place a structure to maintain the group, such as an organizing committee that rotates the community manager role quarterly, or better yet, make it someone’s job. As you can see from this post, doing communities of practice well takes time and energy, and it can’t be an afterthought or a passion project. You have to invest in it.
Shelby Switzer is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, helping governments build/buy software collaboratively through Beeck’s Intergovernmental Software Collaborative. Their career in civic technology spans a decade and includes volunteering with Code for America brigades across the country, contributing to open source and open standards projects, working at tech companies serving governments and community organizations, and leading various technology projects at the US Digital Service. They write regularly on civic technology and digital public infrastructure on their blog, Civic Unrest.