The power of a national community of practice
If the term community of practice is relatively recent and relatively academic, the basic idea behind it – people working together toward a common goal – certainly is not.
At its best, a community of practice is a collaborative, innovative and self-organized network of individuals who share expertise, experiences and knowledge to address a challenge. It’s a powerful, evolving model for a professional learning platform and one that we’ve successfully adopted to grow the MentorAbility Canada initiative.
MentorAbility is a national initiative that connects jobseekers who are experiencing disability with employers in short mentorship opportunities. Both the jobseeker and the employer/mentor benefit: The jobseeker learns more about a career area of interest, and the employer gains insight into workplace inclusion, accessibility and the potential of a generally untapped pool of skilled workers.
The Canadian Association for Supported Employment (CASE) is the host organization for the program. The national CASE team works with dozens of partner organizations, including designated provincial hubs and affiliated job sites across the country. Together, we’ve facilitated hundreds of mentorship matches and worked with more than 6,000 employers.
“At its best, a community of practice is a collaborative, innovative and self-organized network of individuals who share expertise, experiences and knowledge to address a challenge.”
Engaging and working with stakeholders from 10 different provinces isn’t easy, as anyone involved in a pan-Canadian program knows. Time zones can be logistically complicated. Each region and each job site has a different structure, faces different challenges and finds different opportunities. And everyone in the MentorAbility network comes with different perspectives and backgrounds.
A community of practice brings all of these threads together into a strengthened unified voice.
Setting the terms of reference
The first step in creating a community of practice – as for just about any functional working group – is to allow time to get to know each other, respecting everyone’s pace of working. Creating intentional space to meet in, inviting everyone in without expectation, tends to spark connected thinking.
It is also important when starting out to agree on basic terms of reference. Our terms of reference outline the purpose of our community of practice, our goals, our membership, our philosophy of self-organization and the tools we plan to use to advance our work.
Our purpose is to collaborate and share provincial resources, innovations and best practices on a national level to further our goals. We agreed on six goals for our community of practice:
- Increase mentorship opportunities for people experiencing a disability
- Increase employer awareness around inclusive workforces
- Build employer capacity through the mentoring experience
- Map existing knowledge and promising practices of mentoring
- Build a shared repertoire of resources and tools to be housed online
- Prevent duplication of efforts across provinces and regions to maximize resources and improve outcomes
The last three points underscore another benefit of a community of practice: breaking down silos. Too often we are so focused on organizational projects and services that we end up working independently to overcome the issues facing us. With open lines of communication and a collaborative environment, there’s much less – forgive the cliché – reinventing the wheel.
Formal, informal and self-organizing
While the national team offers support through facilitation, technology, annual events, training resources and more, the community of practice is by definition self-organized and voluntary. This setup leads to both structured, formal connections, and others that are informal and organic.
For example, the national team organizes regularly scheduled connection points, including national hub meetings. As well, CASE maintains a database of national virtual mentoring opportunities. This builds capacity, particularly in rural and remote communities that have fewer businesses and employers who can offer mentorship. It’s also been of great value in light of COVID-19 restrictions. Another formal connection: TEAM Work Cooperative in Halifax has an agreement with Supported Employment NL (St. John’s) to share resources.
Recently, CASE developed and published an online HR Inclusive Policy Toolkit, a learning resource for supported employment workers and employers wanting to create more inclusive workplaces. Representatives from all provincial hubs participated in reviewing the toolkit and offering feedback to build an extensive and valuable resource.
But it’s the informal connections where the magic happens. The in-the-moment brainstorming sessions, the virtual coffee breaks, the phone calls or messages to share ideas and work through problems.
Using MS Teams, we’ve set up a number of teams and channels to allow open and targeted conversations between members of our community. That’s where the best ideas come forth, from Atlantic Canada craft breweries working together to celebrate Disability Employment Awareness Month, to sharing ideas for monthly newsletters that inspire new resources in other provinces.
Diverse structures, single community
Each organization involved in the MentorAbility program has a different structure, but by respecting everyone’s way of doing things and a willingness to constantly grow, we have built a single, evolving community that is firmly moving toward achieving our goals.
Through lively discussions and the sharing of resources and ideas, our community of practice empowers participants, benefits all regions and provinces, and moves the needle forward toward inclusion on a national level.
This article was originally published on CERIC's CareerWise website, Your source for career development news and views, and has been reprinted with permission.