If ever there were an area
where organizations feel they must go it alone, that area would be 'capacity
building.' Suggest to a group that they spend time with the leaders of
competing organizations to learn how to do their job better, and
the discussion will eventually turn to the groups fears about sharing
proprietary information and the like.
every-organization-for-itself approach to capacity building has not built
noticeably stronger organizations. It has also not built strong communities. On
the contrary, what it seems to have strengthened is the sense that each of us
is alone, struggling to survive on our own, while the quality of life in our
communities is not significantly improved.
Together and Supporting Each Other
Consider for a moment a
different kind of capacity building - the capacity building that is
at the core of the worlds religions. When we practice a faith, we are
seeking our higher selves. We are looking to gain strength, stability. Just
like "capacity building!"
Being a good practitioner
of every major faith around the world requires regular practice - perhaps daily
prayer or meditation, perhaps a weekly sermon, perhaps a teaching / learning
session mid-week. And every faith gives us the opportunity to share our
practice with others. If we are to learn how to be a better person, we need the
support of others who are walking that same path.
That is precisely what a
Learning Community provides for your mission.
Simply put, a Learning
Community (also called a Learning Circle or a Community of Practice) is a group
of individuals who learn from each other and with each other on an ongoing
basis, with the goal of improving their work.
This is not just a study
group or reading group. The goal of a practice-based Learning Community is the
practice - what you will DO differently in your day to day work, and how the
group can help each other DO that.
In a Learning Community,
group members will learn new approaches to doing their work. They will stretch
to incorporate that new learning into their own work, and then share with
others in the group what they learn from putting that learning into practice.
Then the cycle continues.
Learning Communities /
Communities of Practice are asset-builders. They build learning upon learning,
trust upon trust. They build wisdom upon the wisdom of those in the group, and
then leverage that to create not only more and more wisdom, but to share that
wisdom with those outside the immediate group.
And when the focus of a
Learning Community is a shared vision for making the community an extraordinary
place to live, well you can imagine the possibilities!
Learning Communities are
therefore wisdom-building systems that inspire participants to learn more, to
bring new knowledge into the group, and to bring their questions in a spirit of
trust and cooperation. In a Learning Community, everyone is in it together -
learning together, teaching together, building higher together. The approach is
inspiring, connected, energizing and engaging.
As you consider the
limited capacity-building dollars available in your community in both good
times and bad times, building a Learning Community can accomplish something no
organization can accomplish on its own: You will be building collective
community-wide capacity. And that cannot help but increase the results your
community will see.
Learning Community: A Simple Format
Once you have gathered a group together, there are some
simple steps you can take to make your Learning Community a success.
At your very first Learning Community meeting, the
group will obviously want everyone to introduce themselves. Dont skimp on
time for this function. If you are all going to build trust together, you
dont have to rush through the introductions to get to the good
stuff. Those introductions are part of the good stuff!
In addition to name and
organization, you might ask participants to answer questions like these as
- Given your mission, what would the community look
like if you were successful? (This question moves away from my
organizations health / mission and moves towards the thing everyone
in the group cares about - making the community a better place.)
- What is your vision for what this group might
accomplish for each other?
From those introductions,
that first meeting can then focus on determining the groups purpose.
Starter questions for that discussion might include:
What do we want to be different because of our learning together?
Different about our results in the community?
Different about our ability to work together?
Different about the work each of us is doing individually?
Different about the way we engage others in that work?
Establish Ground Rules
Based on the groups shared values and shared purpose, ground
rules help move things forward. Here are a few we use in our own groups. They
may work for your group as well, or you may want additional parameters.
- Our conversations will always center around our
ability to create better results in the community. If we are discussing an
internal means-related issue (fundraising, board issues, etc.) we
will always work to put that issue into the context of why it is important -
the end results we want to create for our communities.
- We will support each others efforts. Our
group will only be successful if all our members are successful.
- Dont tell us why you cant. Tell
us how you can. We will support each other to build on our strengths and
possibilities, not our weaknesses and reasons why not.
To determine ground rules
for your own group, the following questions may be helpful:
- What does great discussion look like? What
conditions lead to such great discussion? What ground rules would help guide us
to create those conditions?
- What core values do we want to model to each other
and to newcomers? What talk do we want to walk?
- What does it take to build trust? What ground
rules would help us encourage each other and build that trust?
- What values do we want the culture of this group
to be based on? What ground rules might help us put those values into
Establish a Meeting
Develop a consistent
meeting format that builds upon last time while aiming towards next time. This
will help the group get beyond a lament heard often in community groups:
We met for a year or two, but it really wasnt going anywhere, so we
eventually just stopped meeting.
Having a consistent format
will create traditions, so that new members can sense the rhythm of the group
and know what to expect. Those traditions will help the group evolve and grow
together, to continue focusing on the groups reason for being.
One easy tradition to
instate is to include introductions at the beginning of every meeting,
especially if you are encouraging new people to join the group. You might have
name tags every time (first name only, big and bold). You might have food every
The following is a simple
format we have used, that helps bring everyone to the same page quickly while
always moving the group forward. This format splits the meeting time into three
distinct sections and assumes the group has committed sufficient time to the
meetings to make each section effective (an hour simply is not enough time to
learn AND build trust AND reflect / absorb!).
1) Time to Reflect
During the first portion
of the meeting, group members share what they have experienced as they have put
their new ways of thinking and being into practice. These observations may
focus around questions such as:
- As you put into practice what we learned / shared
last time (or have been learning all along in this group), what surprised you?
What excited you?
- What stood out for you? What changed? What was
- What was disappointing, that you learned from or
were frustrated by?
- What new issues arose, that you did not anticipate
and could use help with?
2) Learning Together
The second portion of
the meeting is where the new learning happens. This time can be spent with a
speaker imparting new knowledge - perhaps a skill you have all decided you want
to learn, or more information about a specific issue that arose as part of the
groups reflections during a prior meeting. This could also be time spent
in facilitated dialogue about a topic that has been pre-arranged by the group.
Make sure to leave time for lots of Q&A and/or group discussion, to keep
moving the groups learning forward.
It is important to note
that this learning portion of the meeting is not determined by an outsider but
by the groups own discussions. As you share your reflections in the first
part of the meeting, it is the perfect time to say, We should have a
speaker on that next time!
3) Whats Next?
In the final portion of
the meeting, the group shares two things:
- What stood out for you in this meeting? What was
new / inspired new thinking for you/ brought up new questions? What will you be
putting into practice?
- What do you want to spend time learning next
From this format, each
meeting builds upon the others, and the group is always moving forward,
generating new approaches to put into practice. The key is that everything that
is discussed, shared and learned is centered around the groups core
purpose - its reason for being.
As you participate
regularly in a supportive Learning Community / Community of Practice, you will
find these are meetings you wouldnt miss for anything. By learning
together, supporting and inspiring each other in your work, you will be gaining
the kind of capacity building you could not possibly have gained
Your work will be
stronger, and your community results will be stronger. And the reason for that
is simple: By participating in a Learning Community, you are modeling what it
looks like to build community. You are showing what is possible by your very
actions. You are proving what is possible.
Being part of a Learning
Community is one step towards being the vision-based, values-based,
interconnected, strength-based change you want to see in your community.