OL-ECB TIG Week: Build Community to Build Capacity by Jan Fields

Hi! I’m Jan Fields, program evaluator for the Michigan Overdose Data to Action (MODA) Program in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). My work focuses on evaluating prevention and harm reduction activities funded by the CDC’s Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) cooperative agreement. In addition to evaluating MODA activities, I am also the coordinator of a peer-to-peer (P2P) learning group consisting of OD2A-funded evaluators located in 66 jurisdictions throughout the country.

Together with Chris Lysy, information designer and online platform specialist, we organized the P2P learning group into the OD2A Evaluation Community of Practice (CoP). The concept of P2P learning originated in the field of education to promote learning from peers who were working in similar situations and who may be easier to relate to and trust. 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. Because P2P learning groups and CoPs share similar purposes, it was an easy transition to make.

The CDC evaluation officers (EOs) provide much needed expertise and technical assistance to the OD2A-funded evaluators, but they do not have the bandwidth to meet all our support needs. Our CoP provides access to evaluation resources and expertise that may otherwise be scarce or inaccessible in certain contexts. Our platform for sharing has primarily been online monthly webinars. We have also encouraged blogging and resource sharing. As we operate in environments with limited resources and competing demands, opportunities to learn from and reflect with peers can be helpful. And, because we have always been an online community, the COVID pandemic had little, if any, adverse effect on our community and capacity building efforts.

Hot Tips

  • Build community to build capacity. Our first impulse was to conduct a needs assessment within our community followed by the creation of content to meet those needs. Instead, following the advice of Richard Millington of Buzzing Communities, we focused on creating a safe space to share our experiences with one another, either to celebrate our successes or to commiserate about our troubles. In so doing, relevant information has been, and continues to be, shared in our community, thus building our capacity as well.
  • Build capacity through storytelling. At the end of each contract year, the CDC asks its OD2A-funded recipients to share success stories in their annual progress reports. The OD2A Evaluation CoP has become a place to share our unique stories about evaluation, in our own words, in ways that build community and capacity. According to Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, the process of storytelling in community results in five cycles of value creation: inherent value of interactions, changes in knowledge capital, changes in practice, performance improvement, and ultimately a change in our understanding of what matters. The stories that emerge from dialogue within our community promote sharing of innovative evaluation approaches, resources, and skills, thereby allowing us to better solve programmatic challenges and to foster a greater understanding of evaluation practice.

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The American Evaluation Association is hosting Organizational Learning and Evaluation Capacity Building (OL-ECB) Topical Interest Group Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our OL-ECB TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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