Starting a community of practice – fostering relationships

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 17, 2008
Filed in Collaboration

In starting any community of practice, the first objective is to help the members recognise the value they will get from being and working together. Often we will help organisations kick their communities off with a work shop that has a number of objectives but perhaps the most important is to foster deeper connections among the potential members. Here are some of the activities I’ve used to do that. Would love to hear about activities you have found useful.

  • asking participants to bring to the workshop one thing that other participants might value. It might be the description of a tool, tips, data, stories. We would pin this to a wall encouraging people to ask questions and talk about their artefacts—great triggers for conversation
  • interviewing key members before the workshop to better understand key issues, potential hot topics and what they feel are the enablers and blockers for the community
  • run a sociometry exercise where you arrange people physically in a room according to a set of questions ranging from, How far did you travel to get to this meeting? How much experience do you have as a HR professional? to Who do you collaborate with? or Who do you go to to solve difficult problems? With these latter questions the participants place their hand on the shoulder of the person they identify as their answer. An instant social network forms. A terrific exercise to help people get a sense of the knowledge and social networks already in place.
  • conduct appreciative interviews with people you don’t know well. This process is a one-on-one interview where each person talks about three highlights in their career and the listener retells their stories back to them. Then they swap places. This is always a memorable and impactful experience.
  • build a social network diagram on a wall of the participants with post-its and string. Another way to see what networks already exist and for the group to see where the potential is for the community.
  • take photos of each person to be displayed on the online directory. If an online directory doesn’t already exist for the community then it’s a good idea to build one. People find it easier to remember facts about a person if they have a picture of their face. With a digital camera we can snap everyone’s photo to provide the basis for the directory. You have to make this a fun exercise so as not to scare people off and best to tell everyone of the plan before they arrive—no surprises when it comes to photos.
  • Good conversations around topics that matter. We like to use the World Café technique to facilitate a set of conversations around the hot topics. We encourage people to retell their stories in these small group conversations as this also helps to foster relationships.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Richard Hare says:

    We run similar workshops as part of our CommunityBuilder framework.
    To encourage relationship building in the early stages, we run an “Object Sculpture” exercise. Everyone is asked to bring three items which represent them and their interests. People are placed in teams and each team is told to create a sculpture incorporating the same number of objects as team members (they are not told to use one object per person – this is something they may decide for themselves).
    Individuals must explain the relevance and importance of their objects to the rest of their team. The team votes on which objects to include and builds the sculpture. Each team then presents the final sculpture to the other teams.
    The stories which emerge are fascinating and people often learn something completely new about someone they may even have shared an office with..!

  2. Thanks Richard. I like the sound of the Object Sculpture. Can you share a little more about your CommunityBuilder framework.

  3. Tim Cermak says:

    Hi Shawn, It is great to see someone taking the concept of localized community of practitioners to a more public discussion. I am a former VP of Strategic Alliances for a global user group, and would love to connect with you and others to support the growth of CoPs. Keep Networking and Rock On!
    Cheers, Tim.

  4. Richard Hare says:

    Sure! We begin by interviewing potential members to find out the potential benefits and use this to agree a way forward with the sponsors.
    We then facilitate a kick-off meeting to introduce the members to each other. As well as objects, we ask them to bring along stories about their experience of belonging to a community. After some warm-ups and ice-breakers, we sit in a circle and get people to tell their story, identifying the attributes that helped make the community a success. We then help the group to consider these attributes in order to create an operating agreement and a schedule of events for the near future. We round off with another getting-to-know-you exercise and take everyone out for dinner.
    Once the group is up and running, we provide support for the fledgling community by helping coordinate activities and facilitate conversations. We like to handover day-to-day running to the community itself as soon as we can, though we are there to help if there are problems.

  5. Thanks Richard. I met with Chris Young at Thiess yesterday and she took me through her CoP kick off approach. The common theme is the effort to build relationships in this first meeting.

  6. Hey Tim, thanks for the note. Sure, would love to chat. In fact the issue of alliances in the construction industry was a topic of conversation yesterday and I would enjoy hear more about it.

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