Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
Working in the United Nations, we often encounter fads and buzz words. We had this in mind when we began to consider how to develop a community of practice for statistical capacity strengthening. We approached the initiative with enthusiasm, especially with travel and physical meetings restricted due to the pandemic, but also a healthy dose of skepticism.
In this blog, we describe our experience and discuss whether we are now convinced of the value of communities of practice (spoiler alert: we are – with the right conditions).
What is a community of practice?
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. Originally, communities of practice emerged in the 1990s for knowledge management. They can serve a variety of purposes, including reciprocal help with everyday questions and needs, developing and sharing best practices and guidelines, organizing, managing and stewarding a body of knowledge, and generating innovative ideas and new knowledge and practices.
Technological developments facilitated the establishment of virtual communities of practice and allow remote online collaboration. But while this is true, technology is only a facilitation tool and a website alone, for example, is not a community of practice.
Looks easy but is it?
The benefits and perceived low cost of establishing these communities make them appealing. However, this can be misleading since building and operating a successful community of practice requires a clear purpose, careful planning, realistic scope and dedicated resources. Early research by Wegner et al (2002) on how to cultivate a successful community introduces seven principles, and IT giant Oracle also recommends best practices, both shown in Figure 1.
Source: Chart in orange adapted from Oracle (2012) and chart in blue from Wegner et. al (2002).
Asia and the Pacific Data Integration Community of Practice
After the UNESCAP Committee on Statistics decided in 2018 to establish communities of practice covering four dimensions of integration, we researched existing communities and developed our approach. The decision was to start small and set up one pilot, and thus was born the Asia and the Pacific Data Integration Community of Practice .
Figure 2. Evolution phases of Asia and the Pacific Data Integration Community of Practice
The objectives of the community were simple: to (a) provide a space for virtual collaboration, and a common location for sharing knowledge and experience; and (b) pilot online communities for statisticians in Asia and the Pacific. The community focused on developing regional guidelines on data integration which provided a concrete task for the newly formed group of experts.
Modalities included both an online platform and regular virtual team meetings. The online platform has features for information sharing, discussion, managing a team calendar, archiving meeting notes, recordings and presentations, as well as a wiki of the draft regional guidelines. Members agreed the online platform would be closed to outsiders. Virtual meetings allowed discussion of the guidelines and sharing of country experiences by the members.
Membership of the pilot community of practice has been open to official statisticians. So far, it has attracted more than 160 members including representatives of agencies in National Statistical Systems (from Asia and the Pacific and beyond), academic institutions, and international and regional organizations active in supporting statistical capacity building.
In July 2020, the pilot was evaluated, and the results used to inform future decisions on collaboration modalities as well as improve the community itself. Feedback from community members was overwhelmingly positive. Many saw the community as a convenient and innovative complement to expert groups. Some highlighted that it was vital for collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many reflected that the community was a useful way to share ideas and provides an active and effective learning environment. Everyone interviewed emphasized that they want the community to continue and that it provides a cost-saving and environmentally friendly alternative to physical meetings.
The road to success
The pilot showed that the approach can be applied successfully to support groups with a purpose, mandate and/or high enthusiasm. Key ingredients for success are:
- A clear purpose aligned to a particular project or output (rather than solely existing as a platform for exchanging information)
- Dedicated staff time for reaching out to members and keeping them involved, in addition to time commitments from members.
Communities of practice provide a cost-effective way to share knowledge and experience. They complement conventional ways of communication and collaboration, such as emails and physical meetings. The communities have successfully engaged more technical staff, in addition to higher-level management, by focusing on a specific area of expertise. They attract the right staff for the right purpose. They allow involvement of a broader range of minds than would be possible with more costly physical meetings and thus to progress faster. In our minds, online communities of practice are the future – albeit requiring work and resources to be successful. Online collaboration is most certainly here to stay.
Communities of practice can be applied as a cost-effective way to support task groups with a clear purpose, mandate and/or high enthusiasm which ensures engagement of members; particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic significantly limiting physical interactions.