Greetings from Ohio. I am Tania Jarosewich, President of Censeo Group, an evaluation consulting firm that conducts evaluations for nonprofit organizations, foundations, and educational organizations. Censeo Group has been collaborating with SPEC Associates to evaluate the Lumina Foundation for Education’s strategy supporting and enhancing large multi-state initiatives with communities of practice (CoP). I’m glad to share with you observations and resources related to our evaluation of these two CoPs.
Rad Resource: According to Wenger, three elements distinguish a community of practice from other groups and communities: the domain, a shared domain of interest; the community, in which members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information; and the practice in which members over time and sustained interactions develop a shared repertoire of resources. You can learn more about communities of practice on Etienne Wenger’s website (http://www.ewenger.com/theory/index.htm) and articles posted here: http://bit.ly/WengerCoP and here http://bit.ly/BiblioCoP.
Hot Tip: Because of the large scope of and inherent differences in each initiative, we used a Realist Evaluation framework to guide evaluation design. Realist evaluation considers programs, in this case the CoPs that we were studying, to be active theories embedded in open social systems and offers evaluators guidance in identifying contextual factors that can potentially influence development of and participation in these learning-focused entities (i.e., individual capacities, inter-relationships, institutional, and environmental factors).
Realistic evaluation was particularly relevant because it was less important for the foundation to answer the question of “What worked in each CoP?” but rather “What worked for whom, in what circumstances, in what context, and how?” This perspective allowed us to understand whether and how to embed CoPs in subsequent projects in ways that meet stakeholder needs; are applicable to various types of initiatives; and include systems, structures, and support to strengthen learning and impact outcomes.
Lessons Learned: The objectives and expected outcomes of the CoP should be clearly defined prior to the start of the project. This will facilitate both implementation and evaluation. Planning for CoPs should focus on the content of the meetings, opportunities for connecting people, and methods of sharing information to improve practice. CoPs should be structured to allow for sharing and in-depth, focused, action-driven discussions among participants to support peer-to-peer learning. Expectations about a CoP’s steward roles should be explicit and should offer participants the opportunity to collaborate with and engaged in managing and leading the learning community. If a CoP has an online component, the face-to-face and the online community should support one another and extend learning across both platforms.