Building Communities of Practice in Crop Research
(Jane Maland Cady is International Program Director at The McKnight Foundation. This post first ran on The McKnight Foundation's blog.)
To spur change at the systems level, it is critical to involve many individuals and institutions that work within that system, facilitating the sharing of information and knowledge. This has been a core belief of McKnight’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) for many years. Our assessment, however, is that cross-sector collaboration, learning, and networking have historically been sorely lacking in agriculture research and development systems across the world.
Testing a New Model
Twelve years ago, CCRP sought to change this by testing out a community of practice (CoP) model in the Andes region of South America. Community of practice, a term that has come into fashion over the last few years, refers to a group of people with a common concern or passion who interact regularly to improve their work. In the case of CCRP, the cohort of Andes grantees was united by geographic region and common interest and experience in addressing the stark hunger and poverty issues in their communities. As the model began to prove effective in strengthening capacity at regional, institutional, project, and individual levels, CCRP expanded the model to our other regions.
Today, all four CCRP regions exchange ideas within their communities of practice and with each other, working to spark new thinking and innovation in agriculture research and development. Over time, the communities have grown their skills and approaches, particularly around farmer-centered research and agroecological intensification (AEI) — or, finding food solutions that balance the needs of the earth and its people.
With the success of The McKnight Foundation's four implemented communities of practices, the foundation has identified several methods that help to achieve success in networking, learning, and collective action. First, each community of practice is supported by a regional team that supports CCRP’s grantmaking processes; the team also facilitates ongoing support and feedback loops. These include reviewing concept notes and proposals, planning inception meetings, cross-project meetings and exchanges, initiating mid-year reviews, and providing feedback on annual reports and project progress. It is a resource-intensive model, to be sure. But the foundation hears consistently from grantees that this structure of regular interactions builds skills and relationships with project teams and other partners, serving to strengthen the capacity of the larger CoP.
Another important way that CCRP builds an effective community of practice is by tailoring its priorities and activities based on each region’s context. A combination of efforts help promote a CoP’s vibrancy within the crop program, including:
- A grantmaking portfolio driven by regional needs and opportunities
- In-person and virtual trainings and workshops to explore particular thematic areas, strengthen research methods, and build particular sets of skills
- Annual facilitated CoP convenings that typically involve scientific presentations, interactive or modeling exercises, peer exchange and critical feedback, collective reflection / idea generation, and immersive field visits
- Targeted technical assistance based on emergent needs, both grantee-led and initiated by the regional team, as well as linking with program-wide technical expertise and support
- Cultivating an evaluative culture that supports 1) integrated monitoring, evaluation, and planning; 2) learning regarding developmental-evaluation and adaptive action approaches; 3) using and incorporating foundational principles that guide the work and program as a whole; and 4) building participatory evaluation skills
- Other resources and tools such as handbooks, guides, videos, checklists and templates, sensors, database access, and GIS technology provision
- Ongoing formal and informal peer learning
- Support and collaboration in the CoP for leadership development, mentorships, conference planning, peer review for publications, and other kinds of professional and academic development
The foundation's crop research program first implemented the community of practice model in the Andes 12 years ago and in Africa 10 years ago. Today, these seasoned CoPs continue to lead to new innovations and inspiration. The foundation is excited and proud to celebrate the 10th anniversaries of both the Southern Africa and West Africa communities of practices this year. On the occasion of these anniversaries, each CoP recently produced collections of research and insights gathered from their respective areas of work. We invite you to review them and learn more.
--Jane Maland Cady