By: Ferdinant Sonyuy
According to Etienne Wenger, who developed the concept of communities of practice, a community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or an interest in a topic and who come together to fulfill both individual and group goals. You know that a CoP is successful when new ideas or projects emerge. This is because when CoP members share, you don’t only learn about a topic, but you also discover the needs of the community. So learning is not just the objective, but good discussions can reveal the underlying community challenges and issues that need problem-solving, which can translate into new ideas or new projects for the community.
As a leader, I got invited in 2016 to be part of the Groups for Rehabilitation and Inclusive Development (GRID) Network, an initiative of the Cameroon Baptist Convention (CBC) Health Services program called Services for Persons with Disabilities, which had many CoPs. The focus of the Network was building CoPs for Rehabilitation and Inclusive Development in the North West Region of Cameroon. Our specific CoP was the Leadership and Management Group, where we looked at the role of leadership and management in supporting rehabilitation and inclusive development. After this encounter, I later on applied the concept to establish a Circles program run by the Reconciliation and Development Association (RADA), depicting people working together to find solutions to community challenges in their domains of interest.
I won’t say that our CoP ran perfectly, but through coordination, the CoP leadership identified the challenges and devised solutions for a group like the CoP on Leadership and Management in disability. This in particular was a difficult group for most of us who were leaders, but not in disability work per se. This means that as much as the members of a CoP matter, their shared domain needs to be seriously emphasized so as to generate appropriate levels of intrinsic motivation towards sharing. The other groups such as those for eye care, mental health, gender issues, etc., seemed to have naturally conducted their learning so well that they even wrote papers that were published.
We held a physical CoP meeting in Nkwen, Bamenda. The sessions were well coordinated, but it was not easy. Even though those who were coordinating had some experience, most of the others who were new to the idea of CoP were still learning. It was quite stressful at times because it was difficult to establish direction as pioneers with no existing examples to follow. Challenges at times included the fact that some meetings were not held because some members would not show up. I felt like actions and initiatives were slow because there were no immediate financial opportunities or incentives, like grants for the participating organizations to use for their existing organizational programs. This was another paradigm shift challenge for the CoP whose focus is usually not on funding first, but on a domain, the community, and their learning or work. However, when there is no funding, many see no benefits of having a CoP.
In this case, there was a very understanding and strong leadership that was aware of some of these contextual challenges and committed to success with patience and encouragement. They also provided different forms of motivation for members, such as a token of transportation, feeding during the meeting, visits to each member organization, and organization of collaboration for joint projects. Until some of this strong proactivity emerged, member organizations were sometimes confused about what constituted the activities of a CoP. But through the guidance of the leadership, there eventually was learning by sharing, and learning by practice through a few activities, projects or visits to the site of other organizations in the network. In the end, a situational analysis on persons with disabilities in Northwest of Cameroon was produced with funding from Canadian Institutes for Health Research, bringing the members together and working with them for about two years. This was a wonderful product as it helped all stakeholders, including the government, to better understand the issues around disability in the region and laid the foundation for additional and meaningful collaborative projects. I was appreciative of the leadership—it was a very successful CoP project in the end.
Because of my experience and eventual understanding of the value of CoPs, I later on started a Circles Volunteer Program in my organization, The Reconciliation and Development Association, which co-opts lessons from the very principles of CoPs of bringing people together based on their domains of interest, to learn, share and grow. Currently, we are working on solving community problems based on domains of interest of young graduates. We bring in 15 of the graduates every 6 months and they work in their chosen departments, to practice their skills and knowledge, and grow in their individual impact.
So, a CoP succeeds when new ideas and projects emerge from key sharing and learning from each other through questions, answers, visits, and other light activities that demonstrate what those in the same domain are doing, that works.
What role does membership play in a CoP?
In creating a CoP, it is important to ensure that members are really people who are working on the same issues.
- They should be in small groups, between 5-12 members, just like a focus group discussion.
- Secondly, the ability to explain what a CoP is, especially to new members, is critical to its success. If they understand what a CoP is without ambiguities, then commitment will be secured.
- If relevant tools and methods are engaged to ensure they work in the spirit of a CoP, then the CoP will succeed.
- Finally, there must be a way of tracking the working together, the generated ideas, learnings, experiences shared, and documenting them such that in the end, the group or the individual members can draw from it as well to grow in their activities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ferdinant Sonyuy is the CEO of the Reconciliation and Development Association (RADA), a nonprofit that supports community development by building bridges to sustainable solutions in the domains of health, education, agriculture, technology and sustainable peace. From RADA, he serves as the Secretary-General of the Cameroon Civil Society NCD Alliance (CACSNA), Central Africa Representative and Chair of the Secretariat of the Africa NCDs Network (ANN).
Since 2013, he has been working on building coalitions to support NCD work in Cameroon and Africa. Before 2020, he was the Program Manager for NCDs with the CBC Health Services, one of Cameroon’s leading health care providers.
Ferdinant is a One Young World Ambassador in AstraZeneca’s Young Health Scholar Program and the first Cameroonian Fellow of the US Department of State Community Solutions Exchange program. His passion is to create a meaningful impact on NCDs to promote community development and inspire young people to create impact through productivity and hard work in their domains of interest. He is also a 2019 /2021 Union for International Cancer Control Technical (UICC) Fellow.