Using Online Communities of Practice to Effectively Collaborate for Social Change

In Collaboration, Community Practice, Partnership Building, Shared Vision by Jackson Smith, MA0 Comments

We’re entering a crucial time in our history. In coming decades we’ll come upon one critical junction after another in rapid succession. The choices we make and the paths we choose at each junction will be irreversibleThomas Homer-Dixon (2006)

Social justice, health equity, and environmental sustainability are such junctions and are some of the most complex problems governments, communities, organizations, and researchers are facing today. In our work we are involved with these issues on a daily basis. Our clients such as the Waterloo Region District School Board, the Mississauga Halton LHIN, the Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention, the Community Justice Initiatives Waterloo Region, and the David Suzuki Foundation work tirelessly, supporting the wellbeing of communities and the environment.

At SSCG, our mission is to help our clients to leverage their work and increase their impact in order to support the wellbeing of our society and our environment. We do this through facilitating strategic decision-making and supporting them in taking evidence-based action, through such means as conducting research and evaluations, facilitating community and intra/inter-organizational dialogues and strategic planning events, capacity building, collaboration and partnership building, and creating knowledge mobilization strategies.

Over time, we plan to continue to post about our experiences and approaches to the supporting our clients and communities. In today’s blog I will be speaking about a tool for facilitating Communities of Practice that we are excited to have just finished developing and which is now supporting regional- and national-scale collaboratives.

Before I get into that, I wanted to first briefly introduce a topic that we will be discussing in much more depth in the coming weeks: the evidence-informed collaboration model developed by SSCG co-founders Dr. Felix Munger and Dr. Manuel Riemer. While I will not be discussing the model in great detail during this post, I wanted to introduce it as it provides the foundation for how we approach facilitating collaborations, including through SSCG’s new online Community of Practice platform.

Let’s talk collaboration

Breaking down organizational and sectoral silos is necessary for addressing the problems that our clients are committed to solve. However, from our experience we know that the gap between putting this knowledge into practice is massive. In large part this is due to experiences of failed collaborations. Even successful organizational collaborations are often riddled with challenges and barriers.

A few common barriers and challenges include:
• Lack of preparedness to collaborate
• A history of communities being exploited by collaboration partners
• Ambiguous objectives
• Negative relationships among participants
• Difficult group dynamics

Some of the challenges and barriers can be prevented and/or dealt with if the collaborations are approached carefully and deliberately. Some are more difficult, often stemming from the complex social, cultural, historical, political, and economic contexts in which the collaborations and partnerships are embedded. In considering how to build and maintain strong partnerships and collaborations for solving complex social and environmental issues, Felix and Manuel explored the previous empirical and theoretical literature and produced original research to identify the pitfalls, common mistakes, and—most importantly—approaches to overcome those barriers and achieve successes.

Out of this research, they developed a model with ten key principles.

…Enter Felix:

“Manuel and I built our collaboration model on Prochaska and DiClemente’s (1984) Trans-theoretical model. Most people know this as the ‘Stages of Change’ model originally used in the field of addictions, which describes a process of change from no change to full change.

“There are five stages:

1. Pre-contemplation
2. Contemplation
3. Preparation
4. Action
5. Maintenance

“We used their model as a template for thinking about the process of building and maintaining collaborations. When applied to a collaboration framework, we modified the five stages to be:

1. Reliance on traditional, non-collaborative research/work model
2. Starting to consider collaborations
3. Getting ready and establishing collaboration
4. Managing and institutionalizing collaboration and membership
5. Ongoing upkeep of the collaboration

“Generally, these five stages provide a guiding framework for moving from organizations working independently and in silos to organizations working together in a collaborative, integrated approach supporting one another in their efforts toward a shared vision. So we modified the Stages of Change model… But the main contribution we made were the action items. In order to help the process along, we identified ten, actionable tasks that we linked to the five stages of the model.”

Ten Tasks for Effective Collaboration

1. Assess organizational and personal attitudes and readiness (T1)
2. Determine initial collaboration purpose and type (T2)
3. Identify membership needs and conduct stakeholder analysis (T3)
4. Establish the collaboration (T4)
5. Specify collaboration purpose, mission, and structure with members (T5)
6. Identify contextual characteristics of the collaboration (T6)
7. Determine structural characteristics of the collaboration (T7)
8. Manage group dynamics (T8)
9. Retain members and grow membership (T9)
10. Institutionalize the collaboration (T10)

Ten Step Collaboration model graphic

…exit Felix

We will be expanding on the details and intricacies of each of these steps in coming posts.

For now, let’s return to SSCG’s new Communities of Practice online platform.

While we take Felix and Manuel’s collaboration model as the guiding framework when we work with clients to facilitate partnerships, collaborations, and communities of practice, we have always been searching for the best strategies for facilitating engagement between members: large events, in-person meetings, video conferencing, phone conferencing, email threads, etc. While we have found positive aspects to each of these, they all present their own challenges and barriers. Some require a large financial investment, some large amounts of members’ time, other limit the ability for all members to engage in meaningful discussions. Some are best suited to large partnerships; others are best suited to small groups. A combination of all of these is often necessary, and at times coordinating and facilitating this can cumbersome.

We were looking for a way to make things easier—a way to centralize various forms of communication, scheduling, knowledge sharing, and knowledge co-production. After searching for options, and failing to find any existing platform that would be both sufficient and cost-effective for our clients and us, we decided to build something of our own.

So, I developed SSCG’s Communities of Practice platform. It is a web-based private group-based membership platform, which integrates numerous features including social network elements, forums, wikis, file repositories, calendar and scheduling, messaging, and (coming soon) a video conferencing space. This platform provides a private, centralized space for collaboratives to communicate and share and co-produce knowledge. This centralization makes the management and facilitation of the communities of practice much easier. It also provides the added benefit of enabling in-person meetings and events to be more meaningful and productive.

Before I end this post, I wanted to turn it over to you. We’d love to hear about your experiences working in partnerships/collaborations. What tools and approaches have you used that has made collaborating easier?

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About the Author

Jackson Smith, MA

Jackson brings with him a critical mind, thoughtfulness, and passion for working towards positive social change through collaboration and relationship building and technology. Jackson has experience in human rights research and evaluation—domestically (Canada) and internationally (Ghana, West Africa)—intercultural dialogue, critical engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for productive and ethical collaboration and relationships, mental health and addictions research and evaluation. Jackson holds a Master’s degree in Community Psychology and his interdisciplinary background is underpinned by a foundation of critical theory, social and environmental justice, and anti-colonialism.

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