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Communities of Practice

Author: Nigel Ball

Earlier this year, the Big Lottery Fund, the Government Outcomes Lab and Ecorys worked together to organise the first meeting of the SIB pioneers across the country, bringing together people in commissioning and delivery organisations who had been closely involved in setting up a social impact bond (SIB). Why did we think this was worth doing? Chiefly it was because we had all heard from people in and around the SIB space that they would find peer learning useful, but none of us felt we had the right answer on how to do it well. So we wanted to collaborate on the event so that we could all jointly learn how to most effectively nurture an effective peer learning network.

One of the major challenges we felt we needed to overcome was the fact that any ‘peer learning’ network is likely to contain different learning needs. At one extreme you have people who are new to a particular issue and in need of the basics, while others may be ‘veterans’, ready for the latest cutting-edge thinking. Since this was a network for ‘pioneers’ we expected to have people who had a good basic grounding in setting up SIBs, but nonetheless we anticipated a range of experience, simply because some SIBs had been set up much earlier than others.

Prior to the event, we had lots of thoughts and questions about how to do it. 

  • Could people afford to give up an entire day to travel to a venue and meet each other face to face? 
  • Could we make use of online tools to build a community?
  • How much facilitation would such a network need – could it be self-led? 
  • Was there really an appetite at all, or were we just all talking to the same group of keen beans?

All of these were questions we wanted to learn more about at the event – through a combination of trying stuff out, and eliciting feedback directly. Of course, we designed the day to ensure that participants would get value out of it no matter what – and the feedback indicates they did. It was clear that what most participants valued above all was coming together in relatively small, local groups, and hearing from each other. People valued the mix of peers from different sectors and with different backgrounds. You can read more about what was discussed on the day in a post from James Ronicle of Ecorys, including a timeline of the “triumphs and treacle” of setting up a SIB..

We were surprised by the preference participants expressed for face-to-face events over online solutions, and for small meetings over large ones. There are clear limitations to this small group-based approach though. You might want to discuss different issues. You might be at different stages of developing your projects. You might have different levels of prior knowledge, or differing areas of specialist expertise. Or there may be questions none of you can easily answer. How can we ensure that small group meetings lead to everyone learning and benefitting, not just some?

‘Conversational Leadership’ expert David Gurteen has an idea for us: to set up small ‘knowledge cafés’ or clubs that have a learning resource at their heart, thus blending the opportunity for people to learn from each other with the opportunity to learn from existing expertise. He tells us more about this approach in his online book here. The learning resource – which could be a short article, or even a simple diagram – is intended to stimulate discussion, and provide a focus to return to, but the discussion can go off in any direction the participants wish. It is also very easy to put together such a group – all you need is someone to offer to host each month or quarter (or whatever you decide between you) and to choose a resource to discuss. The reading topics can be quite diverse and participants are free to choose what they want. 

The reading topics can be quite diverse and participants are free to choose what they want. How to write a good payment rule? Go right ahead. An artefact from the ‘museum of failure’? Be our guest. What are SIBs even for? We’ve got something for that, too.

The Big Lottery Fund, the Government Outcomes Lab and Ecorys have put together a set of initial resources and have identified key people to lead pilot groups in a few localities, to test the approach. You can find out more about that on our SIB Knowledge Club page. If this goes well, it is over to you to set up a group in your area (with our support of course). With this approach, the SIB Knowledge Club can grow as big as it needs to, and people can learn both from peers locally, as well as from the growing knowledge base that is forming around SIBs generally. Of course, there will still be lots of opportunities to come together with national peers and talk about the bigger issues, too.

What do you think of our proposed approach? We would love to know! Share your thoughts on the dedicated Yammer channel or get in touch with us at golab@bsg.ox.ac.uk.