Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. ‒ ETIENNE WENGER

Standing in line took on new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Time passes slowly waiting in line alone, distanced from strangers to minimize health risks. It seems anti-social, almost inhuman. People are conditioned to enjoy and encourage each other, even on the most difficult days. In community, walking the road of commitment together makes the journey worthwhile.

People who belong to a community live in a much larger world. Henri Nouwen said, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Surrounding ourselves with familiar people can form a club or clique. It takes shared vision, hard work, and persistent networking to form a lasting community of people who are not like us. A community of diverse members captures the attention of the world.

Accelerate by John Kotter (2014) anchors operating systems in an inseparable partnership between hierarchy and network. Managers develop and implement a seamless flow of information and activity to maintain and improve daily operations. Hierarchies, whether silos, functional levels, or parts rarely involved in change, help people generate ideas grounded in data. Networks sustain relationships that enable managers to better cope with the speed and complexity of change.

Collaborating in networks and communities

Public sector projects touch diverse stakeholders across multi-level jurisdictions. Local action is difficult to mobilize from a centralized command structure. Decentralized problem solving and decision making empower community-based leadership of change. Projects achieve scale and impact quickly when hierarchical control is combined with networked information sharing.

Globalization, demographics, and technologies require networked government to be full-on collaborative. The future of public service demands closer working relationships with stakeholders in academia, civil society, and the private sector. Contextualizing and preparing public servants for a hyper-connected, interdependent world is a strategic task.

Senior public servants often find themselves in vertical hierarchies with little scope for networking. Collaborative problem solving empowers teams to discover patterns in unstructured data and predictive analysis. Disruptive technologies can also destabilize societies that reinforce old power structures, manipulate elections, and facilitate unlawful surveillance. Networking and connectivity reforms help overcome divisiveness.

People who participate in communities create agency to anticipate future challenges and articulate priorities for action. Communities of practice are groups of people who are bound together by area of expertise and commitment to collective learning. They are decentralized, informal knowledge circles that transcend boundaries and grow organically. They thrive on networks that cascade experiences across government, sponsor action research by institutes, and enable voluntary practitioner exchanges.

For two decades, the Treasury Board Secretariat built more than 20 communities of practice across the Government of Canada. They interrogate issues arising from management policies and practices while tracking domestic and international trends and developments in good governance. Communities also identify needs and expertise, connect issues and individuals, align belonging and recognition, and promote learning partnerships.

Lessons for managers

Collaboration is a central management strategy for leveraging the capacity to achieve wider government goals. Partners contribute to the pool of expertise and assist in delivering opportunities for learning. They are also engaged in researching and posting guidance, tools, cases, publications, and events that share experiences and inventory good practices.

It is crucial for leaders to constantly communicate with the public, key stakeholders, and public servants on the principles, methods, and timing of change. Government must be prepared to listen and build feedback into solutions. Engaging directly with citizens and stakeholders improves service experience, legitimacy, and impact. Leveraging the “wisdom of the crowd” to co-create better solutions takes into account service users’ needs and limitations. Cross-ministry collaboration and communities of expertise facilitate sharing.

Public servants are more motivated and productive when they know the vision, priorities, and results of change. Successful change initiatives have a human resource strategy that accentuates employee and labour relations, optimizes talent, and minimizes harsh impacts. When change management projects fail, 70% of proponents say it was because of unresolved people issues.