Supporting Cross-Sector Teams through Designing Effective Learning Communities

Beth Siegel
President, Mt. Auburn Associates

Over the past decade, national foundations and the federal government have designed many multisite initiatives that seek to address complex social problems. These initiatives have spanned many fields, from criminal justice to early childhood education to community development and health. In addition to providing sites with funding and technical assistance, a number of these initiatives have included some type of cross-site convening within the design, often referred to as “learning communities.” Evidence suggests that, when addressing complex problems, the common learning mechanisms in a field, such as traditional conferences, are not effective. Learning communities provide an opportunity to learn and network but with a more deliberate focus on knowledge exchange, team building, and innovation.

While there is extensive literature concerning organizational learning that is relevant to the design of multisite learning communities, including research on “communities of practice,” there is limited literature on best practices in the design of learning communities where multiple stakeholders involved in place-based initiatives are brought together. To fill this gap in the field, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation asked Mt. Auburn Associates to research how learning communities have been designed, the challenges that have been faced when implementing this work, and what have been some of the best practices in terms of building team cohesion, strengthening the capacity of the stakeholders involved in the work, and sparking new and creative thinking.

With limited literature on the subject, we turned to the experts who have designed learning communities. These interviews revealed many common elements in the design of the learning communities as well as best practices to address implementation challenges.

Interviews found diversity in terms of the goals of the work; some learning communities emphasize peer learning, while others emphasize building strong cross-sector teams. Regardless of the emphasis, however, there was consensus among the interviewees that the goals of the work must be clear and that elements of the design, such as whom to invite and how to structure convenings, must be aligned with those goals. For example, if building cross-sector teams is a goal of the work, having an individual in the role of “team” leader or “champion” and developing both customized support and set responsibilities for this person is important. To achieve this goal, it is also critical that there is some consistency in the team over time. If cross-team peer learning is one of the goals, designers must make sure there is enough commonality across the teams convened that they are able to learn from each other.

Aligning Goals and Design

Goal Who Attends Design Elements
Building Cross-Sector 
Teams Assigned team leader

Consistent core team
Sufficient team time during convenings

Focus on action project at home

Community Coach

Sufficient focus on “how”

Communities of Practice for leads

Cross-Team Learning Sufficient commonalities across teams in terms of role & level of authority

Each community has a peer

Working on similar problems, systems, or results
Sufficient informal time – receptions, etc.

Site Visits

Sufficient focus on strategies

Sub-groups based on common interests

Effective networking platforms
Catalyzing Innovation Diversity in terms of perspectives and roles

Working on similar problems, systems, or results

Open and trusting environment

Use of design labs/innovation labs

Specialized physical environment
Field Building Working on similar problems, systems, or results Use of documentarian

Staffing for policy and best practices reports

Communication and knowledge dissemination strategy

One commonality across all types of learning communities is creating a format and “culture” that encourages honesty and supports risk taking. This helps to create a safe place and level of comfort both within and across teams. Methods for building this safe place include having enough informal time, including receptions and networking time during the meetings, to support personal and professional interactions; encouraging honest feedback and exploring the learning in failure; including work sessions on having honest or difficult conversations as part of the convening; and utilizing design thinking and innovation labs that encourage risk taking and experimentation.

Another area of wide agreement across many of those involved in designing learning communities is the need to balance team time, peer exchanges, and external experts. In particular, while many learning communities include outside experts who make a presentation or an “inspirational” speech, most interviewees felt strongly that this practice should be minimized and that expertise should emerge from within the group. While the initial meetings may devote more time to outside experts or faculty, as the work evolves, much of the convening should be devoted to team time and cross-team sharing.

While the convenings are important platforms to learning, building a learning community can involve other activities that strengthen cross-site relationships and promote knowledge exchange. For example, site visits, learning circles focusing on specific issues or strategies that are of interest to subgroups, and other real-time platforms such as conference calls, video conferencing, and webinars, can all contribute to the outcomes. Similarly, experts agreed that assigning a coach to each community involved and/or to the team leads, providing small grants for experimentation, and providing rapid TA during learning communities and at home are best practices that add significant value to the overall work.

As collective impact and other forms of cross-sector collaboration become the norm to address a wide range of community challenges, learning communities provide a critical opportunity for the stakeholders in these collaboratives to meet away from home, to focus their attention on “how” to work together more effectively to make a difference in their communities, and to learn from their peers who are working on similar challenges. As this platform becomes a more important component of the work, it is critical that those sponsoring learning communities are more deliberate about learning from best practices and ensuring that the time spent provides significant value to those attending.

Read Best Practices in the Design and Implementation of Learning Communities for more details about the findings from the literature review and interviews.

Beth Siegel is the president of Mt. Auburn Associates. Over the past decade, she has led the evaluation of a number of multisite initiatives that have involved the use of learning communities. She has particular expertise in the design and evaluation of complex system change initiatives.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.

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