How to Build Your Community of Practice

More than a meetup, a content strategy community of practice gathers regularly to exchange ideas, ask questions, and build out their shared body of knowledge.

A few weeks ago, I caught a Twitter exchange between content designer Laura Hadley and a few other folks about Laura’s organization’s “UX and Content Design Community of Practice.”

Reframing our existing #UX and #ContentDesign Community of Practice tomorrow. Any thoughts of what you've found good to include and how to get across the benefits of a great COP? TIA.

I love this term, “community of practice” … but I rarely hear it used in the United States. (Laura is based in the U.K. and works for a government council there.) What is it? What are they for? How do you become part of one?

The concept of a community of practice (CoP) was codified in Etienne Wegner-Traynor’s 1998 book, Communities of Practice. From the Wegner-Traynors' website:

A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. In all cases, the key elements are:
The domain: members are brought together by a learning need they share (whether this shared learning need is explicit or not, and whether learning is the motivation for their coming together or a by-product of it)
The community: their collective learning becomes a bond among them over time (experienced in various ways and thus not a source of homogeneity)
The practice: their interactions produce resources that affect their practice (whether they engage in actual practice together or separately)

OK, you say. We have those! We have Meetups, Slack workspaces, social media groups. We get together either in person or online and exchange ideas, ask questions, share content strategy joys and sorrows. Good job, us!

Networks vs. communities

And yet … there’s a difference between a community brought together by common interests, and a community within which intentional, routine interactions produce resources that affect their practice. Again, from the Wegner-Traynors’ site:

  • The network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants, viewed as a set of nodes and links, with its affordances for information flows and helpful linkages.
  • The community aspect refers to the development of a shared identity around a topic that represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.

“Steward a domain of knowledge” … I’m giddy. Amazing. Who wouldn’t want this??

What does a Content Strategy CoP look like?

Here are some examples I was able to track down:

  • Stanford University’s content strategy CoP meets the second Thursday of every month at noon. They also have a Slack workspace and email mailing list employees can sign up for. (In fact, Stanford has an entire website explaining CoPs and how to create one. I love this: “You are already authorized to create a new community.” I don’t even work there and I feel empowered by proxy.)
  • Across the UK government, there are more than 2,000 content designers working on GOV.UK, digital services, and products. From the Government Digital Service (GDS) website: “At the Government Digital Service (GDS) we use a community model of learning and support. We create opportunities for UCD practitioners across government to build and share knowledge together as peers. For example, our large scale learning festival ConCon, regular cross-government design critiques, mentoring networks or online conversation spaces like Slack.”
  • At Shopify, content strategists run weekly content clinics—45-minute sessions for designers, researchers, or developers to chat with a content strategist. There’s a whole post about what they are and how to run them: “The purpose of these sessions are for attendees to get help with anything content related that they might be working through, like content hierarchy, voice and tone questions, or terminology alignment.”
  • At Atlassian, there are quarterly town halls; biweekly “sparring sessions,” where content designers share recent work, ask questions, and bounce ideas around; and biweekly asynchronous team meetings. (You can hear Karen Cross talk about how she’s using CoP routines to build and grow a centralized content design team in Episode 19 of The Content Strategy Podcast.)

You can make it happen

So, you’re sold on the idea of CoPs. What’s next?

1. Find your people. You can:

  • Track down content people who sit in different business areas
  • Identify people whose job titles might not match yours, but who recognize the value of content strategy
  • Approach leadership and ask them to put out the call for folks interested in participating

This works best when a core group of people from different parts of the organization are leading the charge.

2. Schedule routine gatherings with the specific purpose of sharing practice methods and lessons learned. Steal any of the above-mentioned ideas!

3. Create workspaces to share artifacts and conversation. Use Slack workgroups, microsites, cloud-based sharing, even email newsletters.

4. Stay on it. All communities must evolve. Get regular input from members on what you can do to make gatherings and shared resources even more rewarding over time.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am so insanely excited about the potential for the CoP model to help our discipline continually improve and evolve. Thanks to the folks at GDS, Shopify, and Stanford for making their CoP resources available publicly. (If you have something to share, please post in the comments!) As always, I can’t wait to see what’s next for content strategy.

Kristina Halvorson is CEO of Brain Traffic, founder of Confab Events, coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, and host of The Content Strategy Podcast.

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