How do you create a community of practice?
By Paul Gentle
Communication and narrative are two essential parts of creating a community of practice. The third? A team of people who are up for the challenge and have the desire to do something bold – something different.
‘We can all remember days when we’ve gone out of the university to have something facilitated,’ the Director quipped.
It sounded like going to the dentist. ‘And my goodness, we’ve had some dire facilitators!’
To my immense relief, I turned out to be at the other end of the scale. It also felt like a good thing to be hearing this at four in the afternoon, rather than the start of the day.
I’d been invited to an eclectic restaurant in a city in the Midlands. The task which I’d accepted was to help a team of around twenty colleagues, recently restructured from two separate parts of their institution, to learn to work together. It was a hot day. The mood of expectation crackled across the tables.
So what roles do communication and narrative, between and beyond a team, have in making them a stronger, more resilient, community?”
So what roles do communication and narrative, between and beyond a team, have in making them a stronger, more resilient, community? For one, they are fundamental to creating a shared vision of the future: one week, three months, five years down the line.
For this team, who came from corporate intelligence and marketing and communications backgrounds, they needed not just to work together to find the key messages, but to build such enthusiasm and commitment to the narrative – and to one another – that they would want to champion it across their university.
There were crux moments where a single cynical comment, even a mere throwaway line, could have derailed the process.
It didn’t happen.
This was the most engaged team I’ve had the privilege to work with in a professional services setting. They opened up to one another, told stories about their lives and values, wrote poems and stories – and they connected: smart people in an emotionally-intelligent setting.
The room was filled with laughter and enjoyment. What’s more, at every critical point there was someone prepared to roll up their sleeves and take responsibility for writing up key actions, or for following through on implementing them.
As for me, I felt as exposed and vulnerable in facilitating all this activity as I ever do. It can be a high-risk environment when people choose to disclose what matters to them. As so often happens, I was carried along by the trust and respect shown by this admirable team.
The fundamentals behind this work – setting up a climate in which there’s time and space for people to share and reflect – should be part of every leader’s capability set.”
Ultimately, this was about enabling the group to develop a supportive team-working culture, and begin to become a community of practice. Using a sequence of creative group tasks and individual activities, we homed in on the purpose and impact of the team, and how they could leverage these key messages to enable people in their institution to understand their role in making its strategy happen.
The fundamentals behind this work – setting up a climate in which there’s time and space for people to share and reflect – should be part of every leader’s capability set.
It will be a joy to visit the team again in a few months’ time and to discover where they’ve got to on their journey – and where they’ve taken the rest of the university. And it won’t feel at all like going to the dentist.