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Strengthening our COP

Ivan Kulis

The overall objective of CTA’s Experience Capitalisation project is to facilitate the sustainable adoption of Experience Capitalization process in rural development initiatives, where it is used to improve the analysis, documentation, sharing and the adoption (or “use”) of lessons and good practices.

As part of its efforts in this direction, CTA started ten regional and global Communities of Practice (COPs), inviting all of those who were part of our training workshops to join. Other “outsiders” have also joined, and at the moment we are a group of more than 450 persons, all of whom, during the past two years, have shared ideas and information with the network. CTA is interested in helping these COPs evolve into communities that look beyond the timeline of  a specific workshop, and that become vehicles for building the necessary capitalisation skills and capacities of development practitioners.

Three webinars

To support this change, CTA organised three webinars on COP management, and all members interested in playing an active role in this transition were invited. These were led by Ivan Kulis, Knowledge Management Officer at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, and took place in June 2018. The purpose of the webinars was to introduce potential COP managers to the key aspects of community management.

The first webinar zoomed into one of the key success factors for community management: identifying the purpose of a COP. Having a strong purpose allows both members and community owners to recognise themselves in a COP and to identify a specific value that the community gives them.

The second webinar looked at the community life-cycle model and facilitation techniques. The key takeaway was that the community activities should respect life-cycle stage. For example, it is not realistic to expect lively community discussions in early COP stages, when the majority of members is in “lurking” mode.

The bulk of the third webinar was dedicated to discussing how to take the experience capitalisation COPs forward. Among other things, we presented what we believe are the key skills COP manager should have, such as: being empathic and good listener who can understand the needs of the community members and who can use the them to design pragmatic and workable community activities and having exceptional project management skills and attention to detail.

Managing transition

These webinars showed that managing such transition is not easy. The different discussions we had during the webinars surfaced diversity of views about deciding the direction in which these community should go. The biggest tension was between growing the community within the CTA’s well-defined project framework and projecting it towards more fluid and fuzzy “self-sustainability”. On one hand, participants were asking for guidance from CTA, seeing it as the project “owner”. CTA would put the ball back in the court of participants, saying that they need to decide themselves how to create such self-sustained communities.

This tension was the most prominent during the webinars, but we also saw that there are or might be other challenges. In the book Being the Boss: Three Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback make a list of “management paradoxes”: tensions that make management difficult. We take cue from the and try to make a list of CoP management paradoxes, which are the reasons why COP management is challenging.

Paradox 1: best COPs are cohesive and focused, but it requires focus on the individuals

COPs have a tension between individual needs and cohesiveness. CoP manager should stimulate collective work and elicit a shared COP purpose. At the same time rich and cohesive group activities most often mean that the COP manager is also very active in private and engages in regular one-on-one communication with the members. For example, good community discussions require identifying key participants and inviting each one of them individually participate with a private mail.

Paradox 2: COPs must have a clear focus on today and clear direction for the future

Many community managers often jump in the “activity” mode and try out many activities to see which one is the most appropriate. This is often done through replicating what worked in other communities — newsletters, updates, call for discussions. While some of these activities might be adequate, it is necessary to imbue them with the sense of future purpose. While community management is often about planning the daily work, it also needs to include activities which collectively define and negotiate the shared purpose, the “we” common to each effective CoP.

Paradox 3: COP management must be done in the context of a larger CoP ecosystem

Each COP lives in the ecosystem of other communities that deal with the similar topics and challenges. COP manager needs to pursue goals of her community, and at the same time connect the purpose of her work to a larger network. Some of these connections will be operational and will help group’s daily work. Others will be strategic and help reflect the COP members about the future challenges. Community managers should systematically map the surrounding networks and communities and pinpoint their relevance (how important is this community for my members) and quality of relations (how well we are cooperating).

Paradox 4: COPs require that you work through and influence people

COP managers are responsible for the community dynamics, but they do this by influencing community members. COP management is not so much about giving orders — such approach will rarely produce kind of engagement that manager aspires to. It is much more about connecting on the personal level, building relationships of trust and listening to member.

Paradox 5: COP management needs to react to the member needs and to proactive shape its direction

COP activities need to be rooted in the needs of the participants, and to that extent the COP manager needs to act primarily as a facilitator who elicits them. At the same time, she needs to proactively try to plan for the community future. This paradox requires she combines both reactive and proactive role.

 

Each community manager will address these tensions in a unique way, based on her judgement, experience and context. However, it is important that he or she understands these tensions are never fully resolved or settled. There are constant trade-offs and a level of messiness that is inherent in the COP management. Simply understanding this helps, in the sense that it removes the illusions of perfect, self-sustained COPs which runs like well-oiled machinery. COP manager needs to lean in these tensions and constantly negotiate them.

The three CTA webinars provided some practical tips and ideas that can help the manager to tackle these issues. Now we are interested in trying them out, and with them strengthen our community of practice. Interested in joining the COP management team? Send an email to Jorge Chavez-Tafur at CTA.

Readers can also access the video recording of the webinars here. The data requested (name, e-mail) is only for statistical records and will not be shared:
1st webinar, 31 May
2nd webinar, 6 June
3rd webinar, 13 June

© 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation

CTA is a joint institution operating under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement between the ACP Group of States (Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific) and the EU Member States (European Union). CTA is funded by the European Union.