All Up In Your Face

Technology can help train employees and foster organizational development, but virtual experiences like webinars and online networks cannot replace the community cohesion that occurs when workers learn together in person. Communities of practice, or learning networks, gather employees in the same room to regularly learn and practice key concepts that will help them do their jobs better. These in-person models build trusting relationships, enabling participants to be part of a supportive community of continuous learning.

ARTICLE | Jul 14, 2017

nextEra Series: The Importance of In-Person Learning Networks in the Age of Facebook and Webinars

In 2017, we all scroll through vast online communities. Facebook helps us track down our long-lost childhood buddy, Twitter allows us to share interesting news articles and online ephemera and LinkedIn enables us to build and sustain our professional networks via an app. With a few taps, we are in reach of hundreds, if not thousands of people across the globe.

Local government is pursuing online networking and learning, too. Some organizations are utilizing enterprise social collaboration software to build cohesion among staff. Employees can elect to join specific web-based groups with coworkers who work in similar programmatic or policy areas or who have related interests. Beyond the confines of a single organization, one-off events such as webinars are viable training platforms, while information forums like the Alliance for Innovation’s Knowledge Network can connect disparate professionals who share common passions and professional interests.

These virtual efforts should be applauded. In many cases, they lower or eliminate the barriers–like time, expense and physical distance–to people making connections and continuing their education. In some instances, these technologies and online gathering spots link people who otherwise would not make digital acquaintance.

And yet, in our fascination and excitement over the possibilities of the online world, perhaps we sometimes overlook old-fashioned, but tried and true in-person networks that pull together people with similar interests. These groups–sometimes formal, sometimes not–are known as 'communities of practice' or learning networks.

Developing Communities of Practice

According to social learning experts Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, 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.”

The concept may sound overtly academic on first blush, but in fact it is as practical as they come. And governments are ideal candidates for testing and embracing these in-person communities.

At the hyper-local level, communities of practice provide opportunities for organizational development and peer-to-peer support. Here in Durham, the City and County co-host an every-other-month skill development session called IdeaLab. While this forum exposes employees to concepts and practices like design thinking and continuous improvement, it also serves as a network for change-minded workers to share ideas and form connections.

We operate IdeaLab from an open, invitation-minded perspective. That means that attendees must choose to come. As Peter Block writes in his 2008 book Community: The Structure of Belonging, “I must be willing to take no for an answer, without resorting to various forms of persuasion. To sell or induce is not operating by invitation.”

“Voluntold” – the perverse collision of the words volunteer and told, which is always, in truth, simply the latter – is an unfortunate edict in group formation and organizational culture. Communities of practice will not work if they are seen as mandates or directives from supervisors or bosses on high. Employees should elect to be part of a network that will help them professionally, assist their organization and provide value to the greater community. This principle helps produce a healthier community of people who see possibility in the gathering, rather than another meeting they’re compelled to attend.

In recent years, Durham County convened a semi-regular Social Media Forum, where County employees came together to share tips and emerging practices in the realm of social networking. Later this year, the County plans to kick off a Facilitation Network, in which employees receive training and then periodically come together for booster sessions and the chance to reflect and learn together on how they improve their facilitation skills. There is interest in forming a community of practice around performance data here too, as the organization continues to grow into a performance management culture.

Expanding Communities of Practice Beyond a Single Organization

Beyond a single community or organization, communities of practice can inform and inspire at a regional level. In public policy, we are faced with numerous wicked problems in our communities. We can address these challenges and learn together. Formally, much of that shared learning can take place via organizations like Councils of Governments, which convene local governments for regional governance and information sharing.

In our own region, the Triangle J Council of Governments has been convening local government strategy and innovation staffers so that they can better learn from each other. These meetings take place in person, leading to excellent bonding opportunities that are just harder to achieve online. This Triangle-based Strategy & Innovation Regional Network is in part inspired by similar communities around the country, such as the West Coast Regional Innovation Network spearheaded by the City of Los Angeles.

Embracing the PHysical space

Local governments should embrace communities of practice. These networks are a practical way to breed collaboration within and across organizations. And we have witnessed the energy and joy that employees get by learning from others in different departments or governments. They may share a cup of coffee at first, and that may turn into sharing ideas with one another. Through that in-person encounter, they now know a colleague and may be more likely to pick up the phone and seek their advice on a professional issue.

Online networks have tremendous value as efficient vehicles for organizational development, and it’s not an either/or choice between web-based and in-person forums. But as we continue to move to and increase our activity in digital communities, our local governments still should put high value and priority on physical space and in the trust and community formation that can occur through in-person interaction.

Contact Information

For more information, contact Michael Davis, Strategic Initiative Manager for Durham County, NC, at or 919-560-0062.

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