by Grant Thoms, Head of Strategy & Policy at Ingeus.
Ever since QMU (Jacquie L’Etang, Mandy Powell and Magda Pieczka in particular) were commissioned by CIPR to undertake research investigating the professional development needs of senior practitioners, the concept of a community of practice within public relations, and more specifically public affairs, has been rumbling around in the tiny recesses of my mind over the past two years. In failing to submit my CIPR CPD for last year, I set about establishing my CPD goals (check out Stuart Bruce’s approach) for this year with immediate effect. One of the three areas I decided to focus on was to set up a community of practice. I had no idea what it would involve, how to go about establishing it and, perhaps, what its value is going to be to my professional development. Suffice to say, it sounded like a good thing and as with many things in my life, I would give it a go and make up my own mind.
Very recently, I was interviewed by Magda Pieczka as part of preparing for a conference paper. Her focus was on the development of lobbying legislation at Westminster and Holyrood, and its potential impact for the lobbying profession in Scotland. In the course of this, it suddenly dawned on me that the implementation of the Scottish lobbying regulation would make an appropriate opportunity to establish a community of practice (CoP) to explore and share understanding for our professional practice the implications of a new law regulating my work.
So what is a CoP?
Communities of practice initially developed out of research into how new entrants into apprenticeships set about learning the sociocultural norms of their work group. Like most theory, it has evolved over time. Some CoP is focused on knowledge management within a structured organisational development setting. However, I am more interested in the interpretation of how peers learn and share to build an understanding of their professional practice. A bit of reflective practice, a touch of problem-solving and a good sprinkling of collaboration. I was taken with these key characteristics of a Community of Practice:
Objective To share knowledge and promote learning in a particular area
Membership Self-selected; includes part-time and marginal members
Organization Informal, self-organizing, leadership varies according to the issues;
Termination Evolves; disbands only when there is no interest
Value Proposition Group discovers value in exchanges of knowledge and information
Management Making connections between members; ensuring topics are fresh and valuable.
How would a CoP work?
Several disciplines such as education, local government, nursing, project management, etc have used CoPs and have written guidance on how to create an effective CoP but ultimately there is no right or wrong way to organise a CoP.
It will be what the members of a CoP want it to be. You can collectively meet face to face or online as much as you like or as little as you need. Ground rules, such as committing to read previously circulated material in order to make a full contribution to group discussion and learning, can be developed by the group at inception and developed with experience. For a new CoP in a discipline that is unused to CoP in general, this is a significant opportunity to build knowledge about CoP in action as much as develop shared understanding about emerging professional practice. The means is a learning activity as much as the end.
Is there experience of Community of Practice in PR?
Steve Waddington has written about his foray into the emerging world of community of practice in public relations. His experience is of a very wide engagement using social media tools like Facebook public discussion groups. He has drawn a number of conclusions for the profession to address: a mix of macro and micro issues. It’s wide and comprehensive and very focused on the development and relationship between those who construct public relations theory and how people put public relations into practice. There may well be smaller groups of PR practitioners operating a CoP, such as PR Praxis, but little has been discussed and researched about this. However, in Europe, senior lobbying professionals have organised to meet their needs:
“AALEP’s view of a community of practice is that of a group of people who share a concern for government relations and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”
Where do we go from here?
So, back to my selfish reasons for writing this in the first place: establishing a CoP for lobbyists in Scotland. I would like to establish a CoP to look at how the implementation of the Lobbying (Scotland) Act will impact on public affairs practice. It is narrow. It is intended to be just that. If it evolves or not into something else, so be it. At least I can say I tried and every day is a school day, so I will learn. If this article inspires you to want to learn with peers about PR practice that is closer to your main professional interests, then why not think about creating a CoP to meet your needs. Maybe you will be in more than one CoP, who knows?
A CoP for Scottish lobbyists
Image courtesy of geograph