Boost your engagement network and skills with a community of practice…valuable at any time but especially during COVID-19

Boost your engagement network and skills with a community of practice

Opinion piece from Nicola Mendleson, Mendleson Engagement and Communication Consultants, IAP2A Trainer

Being part of a community of practice with other engagement practitioners is a great way to meet other engagement practitioners to learn, share experiences, bounce ideas and support each other. This article outlines how the community of practice group I am a part of has been helping each other to adapt to engagement under COVID-19 restrictions and also provides key information for those wanting to set up their own group.

Our group of senior practitioners in Melbourne has been meeting for nearly four years, providing a great way to build skills and meet other practitioners. The group has been especially valuable in supporting each other to adapt our engagement approaches and working styles during COVID-19 restrictions. I have gained a lot out of being part of this group and others during my career.

So, when IAP2A announced its Pitch for the Practice in 2018, I pitched the idea of establishing three more groups and had the pleasure of setting these up for practitioners working in Emergency Services, Environment and Sustainability, and Infrastructure fields. My challenge was to get them up and running, facilitate them for 7 meetings each, and set them up with the skills and structure to operate independently. One year later, they are all still active.

How group members help each other

Our community of practice group includes senior practitioners from a range of organisations: private enterprise, councils, state government and consultancies. Here’s what some of our group members have said about the group:

“Being part of the community of practice enables me to connect with practitioners outside of my work bubble. I see a bigger picture and get advice in a trusted and knowledgeable space. Problems seem easier to solve and I bounce back to work with new ideas. I feel connected to a bigger group, familiar faces sharing the same issues, from across the sector, especially during this time of isolation.” Georgie Meyer, Community Engagement, City of Melbourne

“The network has representatives with a depth of engagement experience from a diversity of organisations. This proved invaluable when we met in the early days of COVID-19, as we were all pivoting our practice in response to the restrictions on face-to-face gatherings. The insights, concerns and ideas shared in this group has supported us to adapt to new ways of connecting with the community.” Karenina Fromhold,  Community Engagement Practice Lead,   Department of Premier and Cabinet

Pre-COVID-19 restrictions we met face to face once a month in the CBD. Now we meet by Zoom and the conversations both during and between meetings have taken on a new level of value in these challenging times. We have shared our ideas, research and experiences with how to engage appropriately and effectively during this time. We realised from the first meeting online that the group provided a valuable resource during these times when we need to do things differently. We upped meetings from monthly to fortnightly and in the past two months have shared and learned from each other on topics as diverse as:

  • What’s appropriate engagement in these times?
  • Tools and techniques to use for engagement during COVID-19 restrictions, in particular sharing best practice guides that have emerged from around the world and advice on collaboration platforms.
  • Working with your team when everyone is working from home – creating healthy teams, workplaces and looking after each other’s mental health.
  • Working from home – overcoming the challenges (everything from curating your background to, working with children at home, to answering the question – is it okay to be on a video conference in your activewear?).

It has been fascinating to learn about how different organisations have adapted their engagement practice over this period.

“The knowledge and support the group provides has been invaluable to my professional development. Most recently, I was extremely impressed by the agility and professionalism of the group in adapting to COVID-19 measures. Mid-March, the group put out a call to action and rather than meeting in the CBD, we hosted our monthly meeting online for one of the most fruitful discussions we’ve ever had. This process enabled us to share knowledge and experiences of ‘Working from Home’, well before the plethora of resources of today were at our disposal.” Deanne Bird, Program Evaluation Coordinator, Country Fire Authority

So, you want to set up your own group?

IAP2A has some great community of practice groups available (see the events calendar on the IAP2A website), but if you can’t find an existing one that suits your needs and want to set up your own, here is some information on how the groups I have been involved with operate. This also became the model for the three groups set up for IAP2A last year.

What is it? Groups of engagement practitioners meeting regularly to support each other, network, share knowledge and bounce ideas.
How many people? Ideally, about 10-20 people with only one person from each organisation, to create a confidential and safe space where people can share issues and ask questions.
How often? Meet at least monthly. We tried meeting less, but it didn’t work as well. In the past, we met for 1.5 hours face to face once a month, and this has become one hour fortnightly via Zoom over the past two months since COVID-19 restrictions. In March, we also set up a Microsoft Teams group and members are using this to share files and interact between meetings. 
Chatham house rules All conversations must be strictly confidential to create a safe space for people to share issues or ask advice. What’s said in the room, stays in the room. No exceptions.

Meeting structure

 

Each meeting starts with introductions if there are new people or special guests. The facilitator will then ask if anyone has questions or issues they would like to ask of the group (some of our best discussions have been in response to issues people have shared).

There is then a theme discussion. Twice a year we brainstorm meeting topics. Members take it in turns to facilitate the discussions. Sometimes we have guest speakers.

The last meeting of the year is usually a purely social breakfast.

In the IAP2A practice groups, each meeting a member presents for 5-10 minutes on an issues-rich project they have worked on, focusing on sharing what they have learned. (The Chatham House rule is particularly important here to ensure a highly valuable discussion in a safe environment).

Coordinator Someone needs to coordinate the group, send out the meeting invitations, confirm the venue, send out the Zoom link, instigate the process for deciding on meeting themes.
Other

You may also wish to have principles such as:

  • The group is not to be used to solicit business from other members.
  • Participants must identify if there are any conflicts of interest.
Refreshing the group The group will inevitably change as people move locations and jobs, so new members will need to be recruited from time to time.

 

If you need help in setting up a group, you are welcome to contact me at nicola@mendleson.com.au, or get in touch with IAP2A via info@iap2.org.au.