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Learning in Community – PTCC’s Learning through Evidence, Action and Reflection Networks (LEARN) project

Contents

I Introduction
II CoPS as a hub for PTCC’s knowledge development and exchange strategy
III Establishing and cultivating CoPs
IV Domain: CoP topics and how they were selected
V Community
VI Practice
VII Sponsorship and support
VIII Outcomes of participation
IX Lessons learned
X Conclusion

-- Submitted by Erika Steibelt and Sume Ndumbe-Eyoh, Program Training and Consultation Centre

I Introduction

Today’s busy practitioners are challenged to keep up with the growing accumulation of evidence pertinent to their work. (1) They have practice-based knowledge about the context of implementing chronic disease prevention strategies in particular settings but may not be connected to others in the province who could learn from and build upon their programmatic experience, replicate similar interventions in different circumstances, and otherwise share their experiences. Communities of practice have been used in a range of organizations to help people make use of research and practice-based knowledge residing within different fields.

II CoPS as a hub for PTCC’s knowledge development and exchange strategy

To help minimize missed opportunities to put research and practice-based knowledge into action, the Program Training and Consultation Centre (PTCC) established communities of practice (CoPs) for practitioners and researchers working on specific tobacco control and other public health issues. The CoPs are a major component of a knowledge development and exchange (KDE) strategy called “Learning Through Evidence, Action and Reflection Networks” (LEARN) that aims to assist public health practitioners, their community partners and researchers to integrate research and practice-based evidence in their work, through:  

  • Facilitating knowledge exchange and innovation
  • Connecting public health practitioners, their community partners and researchers
  • Documenting practice-based knowledge and experiences to support effective practice
  • Strengthening the link between research and practice by supporting the use of research-based evidence in practice, and championing practice-based research.

The CoPs serve as the hub within our KDE strategy. CoPs provide a mechanism for helping public health stakeholders connect with each other and make use of existing and emerging research and practice-based knowledge relevant to their work. Learning needs are identified through the CoPs and resources are developed to meet them. The CoPs also offer a platform for community-based participatory research, which leads to the development of new knowledge. (2)

III Establishing and cultivating CoPs

A CoP is “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.” (3) CoPs provide a mechanism for learning, sharing and co-creating knowledge. Through regular interaction members begin to recognize each other as learning partners. Shared learning needs can be easily identified and addressed and innovations are noticed and diffused.

While CoPs are often described as structures that emerge organically, successful CoPs benefit from support and coordination. In this section we describe our approach to establishing and supporting the CoPs. Our discussion is structured around three central components of CoPs as described by Etienne Wenger and his colleagues: the domain, community and practice. (3)

IV Domain: CoP topics and how they were selected

The domain or key content area is the joint area of interest, and creates the common ground for members. (3)  PTCC currently supports three CoPs in the following domains: tobacco-free sport and recreation, tobacco use reduction for young adults and media advocacy for healthy public policy.
The key content areas for learning in each CoP were determined through in-person consultations (4) and formal needs assessments with existing networks of local public health practitioners.

V Community

The community is a group of people interested in a particular domain of knowledge that interact, learn together, and build relationships. The interactions between the community members have both professional and social dimensions; relationship building/social capital has been shown to increase sharing and uptake of knowledge. (3, 5) LEARN CoP members are public health practitioners (health promoters, public health nurses, dietitians, planners, chronic disease prevention managers, etc), researchers and community partners who are actively working in the domain of a particular CoP. They work in a variety of settings including public health units, non-governmental organizations, professional associations and research institutions.

Membership in the CoPs is voluntary and the initial members for all CoPs were identified through existing structures such as the regional Tobacco Control Area Networks and the Chronic Disease Prevention Managers’ Network (for the Media Advocacy CoP), which have connections to all public health units across Ontario. These networks were asked to identify members who were actively working in the specific CoP domain and interested in participating in the CoPs. Researchers were identified through PTCC’s existing contacts. Identified members were then invited to a one-day launch meeting during which the purpose of the group was reviewed and confirmed. Following the launch, the CoPs increased in size through word of mouth, with people learning about the CoP through an existing member or PTCC staff. Twenty-six of Ontario’s 36 health units have staff participating and there are close to 100 people involved across all three CoPs. Each CoP elects two to three volunteer leaders to provide guidance and direction to the CoP, reflect the CoP’s needs to PTCC, and foster a culture of sharing and contributions.

Each CoP meets about once a month via teleconference and webinar, and in-person twice a year. Smaller groups are sometimes formed to work on a project that will advance the CoP’s learning and practice, and they meet outside of the regular CoP meeting schedule. Each CoP has a password-protected online space where members can share resources, and discuss issues.

VI Practice

The practice of a CoP is the set of common approaches and shared standards applicable to the domain. (3) The LEARN CoPs’ practice centres around evidence-based knowledge exchange with an emphasis on discussions that have practical value to members’ work. For CoP members, learning from others doing similar work as well as from emerging research is a key reason for participation. Members share and discuss current projects, challenges, insights and lessons learned as well as tools such as program materials and resources. Members often stress the importance of sharing information about their projects during their developmental phases so that others can provide input and identify opportunities for collaboration, as well as reduce unnecessary duplication. Guest speakers are invited to meetings and conversations as the need arises – these external voices are essential to keeping the CoP engaged with other perspectives and expertise. As the CoPs grow, conversations around opportunities for collaboration have also emerged. For example, members of the Tobacco-Free Sport and Recreation CoP played a key role in the development of the provincial Play Live Be… Tobacco-Free Project funded through the Ministry of Health Promotion and Sports’ Healthy Communities Fund. (6)

VII Sponsorship and support

PTCC funds the virtual and in-person meetings as well as the online space. In collaboration with volunteer co-leaders, and based on the needs and interests of CoP members, a PTCC Health Promotion Specialist position develops meeting agendas; connects CoP members with each other and brokers relationships with subject matter experts outside of the CoP who can serve as guest speakers or research partners; ensures good group process; and draws the membership’s attention to research evidence from peer-reviewed journal articles as well as initiatives related to the domain.

PTCC researchers summarize peer-reviewed research on specific topics of interest to the CoPs and document relevant local public health practices. These local programs/strategies/tools are documented with the input of the community members, making details of how the practice was developed, implemented and evaluated, including key success factors and lessons learned available to the community of practitioners working on similar issues. (2) As an example, three cases of partnerships between public health units and Ontario Hockey League teams for the purpose of promoting tobacco-free living and tobacco-free sport and recreation were documented through this process. Additional work by the LEARN researchers is described in section VIII (b) below.

VIII Outcomes of participation

Through a partnership with the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo, the short-term outcomes and functioning of the CoPs are being evaluated. We have found that members are largely satisfied with the leadership, resources, guest speakers, content of documents, and shared online space, meetings, and added value they get from the CoP. Members also feel that their respective organizations are supportive of their participation. Members note that they benefit from participating in a CoP by acquiring new knowledge, being able to contribute to the community and by having the ability to have more impact as a group. Evaluation findings indicate that knowledge gained through the CoPs has largely helped members to increase their awareness and understanding of the topic (conceptual knowledge use), with knowledge gained sometimes used to justify decisions and programs (symbolic knowledge use) and inform decision-making (instrumental knowledge use). (7) We are exploring ways to further increase instrumental knowledge use and networking opportunities between members.

Beyond the formal evaluation of the CoPs we often observe the benefits and value that participation in a CoP brings to members. We share three stories with you:

a) A university researcher is an active member of the Tobacco-Free Sport and Recreation CoP. His research focuses on issues of direct relevance to CoP members. Through his regular participation he is able to identify the research needs of the group and offer leadership in proposing and implementing research studies to answer practical questions. His expertise has been invaluable in producing research that is timely and that informs the work of many members. As such, research that directly supports the goals and aspirations of members is more readily available.

b) The Tobacco Use Reduction for Young Adults (YA) CoP identified that there was a need for an evidence-informed workplace smoking cessation intervention aimed at young adults outside the educational system. As a result, LEARN researchers are spear-heading a multi-year collaborative research project with four public health units across Ontario and other researchers to develop, implement and evaluate a workplace intervention for young adults employed in the retail sector. Project implementation starts this spring and implementation guidelines from the project will be diffused through the CoP next year.

c) Many members of the Tobacco-Free Sport and Recreation CoP are trying to support their local communities to create smoke-free outdoor spaces (parks, playgrounds, beaches, entrances of public buildings) through by-law amendments, and/or support their local sport teams to implement tobacco-free policies. We have heard that many have used and adapted materials shared on the CoP’s online space, such as sample policies, presentations, fact sheets etc, to build support in their communities. Hearing about and sharing policy success stories from specific sport teams has helped some members make more convincing cases to the associations and teams they’re working with.

IX Lessons learned

The value of communities of practice to professionals and organizations is increasingly being acknowledged. (8) We have learned that sustaining successful CoPs requires the following essentials:

  • People: Bringing people together requires developing a clear sense of the purpose of the group. A clear purpose ensures that the group stays focused and motivated and also that the right people are present. Individuals who are leaders in their field are important in galvanizing the group and identifying trends and innovations. Having members of the CoPs play a critical role in the leadership of the group facilitates ownership and control over the group’s processes and content.
  • Facilitation and Coordination: A dedicated CoP coordinator/facilitator helps ensure the integrity of community process. We have found this role to be essential in fostering and facilitating member interaction and connecting members to relevant resources.
  • Technology: The use of technology is invaluable in supporting province-wide CoPs given their dispersed nature. Attention needs to be paid to the ways in which members use or don’t use the different tools made available to the group. Providing regular trainings and support for members helps increase members’ comfort levels and the ease of use.

X Conclusion

Many of us as public health professionals are involved in CoPs as part of our personal and professional lives. In professional contexts CoPs provide a mechanism to build relationships with others in our field, allow us to share our knowledge and expertise, problem-solve, and save time and resources for ourselves and our organizations. A supportive structure for learning is essential in building trust and openness. The value of a CoP can only be defined by the benefit members derive from their participation and is most evident when there is a balance between giving and taking amongst members.

Interested in the LEARN CoPs? Visit http://www.ptcc-cfc.on.ca/english/learn/ for more information.

References

1. Graham, I., Logan, J., Harrison, M.B., Straus, S., Tetroe, J., Caswell, W., and Robinson, N. (2006). Lost in Knowledge Translation: Time for a map? Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 26(1): 13-24.
2. Stich, C., Garcia, J., & Roberts, M. (2009). Guidelines for the documentation of practices in the Smoke-Free Ontario strategy. Unpublished manuscript. LEARN project, Program Training and Consultation Centre, Cancer Care Ontario.
3. Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W.M. (2002). A guide to managing knowledge: cultivating communities of practice.  Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA.
4. Lambraki, I. (2008) Final Report for the Communities of Practice Consultation with Ontario’s Tobacco Control Area Networks. LEARN: Toronto. Available at http://www.otru.org/pdf/learn/learn_tcan_final_report.pdf
5. Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.
6. Play, Live, Be… Tobacco-Free website. http://www.playlivebetobaccofree.ca/
7. Nowaczek, A.M., Lambraki, I., & Manske, S. (2010). Developmental Evaluation of PTCC’s LEARN Communities of Practice: Summary of Results. Propel Centre for Population Health Impact™, University of Waterloo: Waterloo, ON.
8. Hildreth, P. & Kimble, C. Eds. (2004). Knowledge networks: innovation through communities of practice. Idea Group Publishing: Hershey, PA.