Caring for a Community of Practice

written by Anisha Poobalan

All IPP Community of Practice Moderators (January 2020-June 2021)

Communities of Practice come in all shapes and sizes. But no matter how large, how diverse, how global, as the name suggests the key word here is community. The Implementing Public Policy Community of Practice (IPP CoP) was formed in December 2019. It surprises me every time I think about this; it does not feel like it has just been a little over a year. In fact, I feel like I have known this community forever. 

We have become a global family over the past year sharing exciting news like promotions, marriage, births, but we have also grieved together over lost family members, neighborhood attacks, job loss, and so much more. So why do we share these big moments with people we spent one week with (class of 2019) or have never even met in real life (class of 2020)?

A family member recently said something that stuck with me: “It is not about the carrot or the stick, but rather about the heart”. This describes the IPP Community of Practice in a nutshell. We have repeatedly brainstormed and discussed ways to engage members or incentivize them to join sessions, but ultimately, those who genuinely care for others in this community show up.

Now that you have a sense of what type of Community of Practice we are creating, here are a few of my reflections after managing this group for the past year.

  • Adapt through every season

From the moderators to current affairs to the age of the CoP, there are many factors that affect the season of a CoP’s life. The IPP CoP was founded in December 2019. Four moderators from four different regions were appointed to lead and care for this budding community. It was an exciting time of experimenting, learning, and adapting. We were all relatively new to this and were determined to build a strong foundation. In July 2020, it was time to transition over to the next group of moderators. By this time COVID had taken the world by storm and life seemed to be this uncomfortable combination of change, anxiety, isolation, and impending loss. I felt it, the moderators felt it, the community at large felt it. Zoom fatigue was a concept we became familiar with very quickly, so engaging a Community of Practice that operates purely online was challenging to say the least. However, amidst their own personal and professional struggles, our set of moderators took on the challenge and were determined to serve their community by creating a space of positivity, comfort, and encouragement for everyone else.

Last December, we had a group of 140 alumni from the Implementing Public Policy program join the community. It has been a learning process for our moderators as they work together to merge the two groups while also maintaining the tight-knit relationships that exist within each cohort. We have had to rely more on supportive members to take the lead on community events and initiatives. This is a work in progress and will continue to be so with each new phase the CoP enters. The ability to adapt, be flexible, and support each other through every stage is so important for our moderators and community members alike.

  • One size does not fit all

We have hosted social hours, guest speakers, member presentations, topic specific pop-ups and more. Different members show up to different events and there is no way to cater to every preference, schedule and time zone. Some are in this community for the friendships, others for resources and content, and many simply because the weekly announcements are just what they need to get through a difficult day. Whatever the reason, catering to a variety of needs can be challenging, but the effort put in to plan and coordinate a range of events is worth it when members share how inspiring a presentation was or how wonderful it was to reconnect with classmates around the world. This learning does not just apply to the preferences of a community, I have also found that there is no set formula for appointing moderators. Like any successful team you have the realists, the visionaries, the motivators and the detail-oriented. Having these different personality types working together can lead to disagreements on what sort of events should be held or what the objectives for each term should be. For example, each group of moderators faces a recurring tug-of-war between those who prefer content with those who prefer socializing with their peers. Ultimately, this leads to a healthy balance between both types of gatherings and the community benefits from both. 

  • Pushing towards practice

I have talked a lot about community but what about practice? How does a Community of Practice like this support practitioners in every time zone, culture, and political climate? I have found that this can happen through the planned sessions and discussion time, but the most impactful support and motivation happens quite organically. In the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, we emphasize the importance of engaging others. We encourage IPP participants to engage a new stakeholder every week and consistently build their snowflakes. This may seem like added work that does not really guarantee tangible results, but our Community of Practice is yet another great example of how connections and engagement can lead to unexpected success and the emergence of great ideas! When one member updates the group on their work, another member finds that they are just about to embark on a very similar journey in their own field – who better to learn from than a fellow practitioner who is knee-deep in the process? Hearing about the challenges a peer across the world is facing pushes others in the group to persevere. The realization that ‘I am not alone’ can be so powerful. Sometimes it is a quick Whatsapp check-in or a comment on the Zoom chat that fosters a breakthrough and exciting steps forward. So, while I cannot offer an easy 1+1=2, I will encourage you, as a practitioner in your own context – engage others and learn from their journeys – this is a surefire way to ensure you stay motivated to keep up the good work.

  • PDIA-ing our way forward

Every experience is a learning experience. Every month our team, the set of moderators, meets and iterates based on their learning and reflections from the past month’s events. What did we do? How did it go? What did we learn from that? And what is next? Every idea is a good idea, and every good idea is worth trying. The Implementing Public Policy program is all about problem-solving and working with others and that is how we approach this Community of Practice as well. We go through the PDIA methodology of trying something out, learning from that initiative, adapting accordingly, and trying again. We also engage the community and ask for their thoughts on what is working, what could enhance the community and what ideas they have to improve engagement. This is done through a survey every six months and discussion sessions over Zoom. As we often say in this line of work, this is not a sprint, it is a marathon and I am so thankful to have fellow PDIA-ers who are willing to keep the pace with enthusiasm and determination till it is time to pass the baton on.

So, what has this community meant to me?

IPP Community Meeting (February 2021)

This year has been an exceptionally tough year for the world. All you need to do is switch on the news or scroll through articles on your phone and you leave feeling like things just keep getting worse. And that can be paralyzing – what is the point of even trying? Being part of a community of practitioners who work hard every single day to make tiny pockets of change in their communities has been motivating and empowering. When I first started working with the IPP CoP, I was under the impression that this would be just another group I would have to manage. I was so wrong! Yes, there are the regular check-ins and reminders but more than that there are the big life moments shared, the successes celebrated, and the learning embraced. I have been motivated by this community in ways I never imagined. Their determination to make a difference is contagious and I consider myself privileged to be part of the group.

Finally, if you are thinking of starting a Community of Practice, consider this:

  1. Each person brings something unique to the table – look for those that genuinely care, and they will be your leaders.
  2. Meet regularly, listen to your community, cater to what they need in each season.
  3. Be available – for a quick chat, a check-in message, a ‘well done!’
  4. Encourage each other regularly. It does not cost you anything to acknowledge and appreciate those around you.
  5. Just…c a r e. 

Thank you for working hard in your own circles of influence. Thank you for persevering at a time when the world needs it most. Thank you for caring.

If you are interested in joining our IPP Community of Practice, visit the  IPP Program website to apply.

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