How to set up a digital community of practice

This guide, by Yoti Goudas, forms part of the University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums.

Yoti worked with Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and explored ways to develop a digital community of practice within the museum.  This guide includes tools and templates to use to create your own community. The approach outlined is suitable for any museum or service, whose staff or volunteers want to share and develop digital skills and knowledge. It can be carried out in-house, particularly in larger museums or services, or in partnership with other museums or organisations. It offers a way for the people involved to begin and sustain a dialogue with others, learning and contributing skills.

Jump to: What is a digital community of practice? | What problem does it solve? | What are the benefits? | Who should be involved? | What are the key tasks? | Map strengths and weaknesses | How do I measure success? | What next? | Further information

What is a digital community of practice?

A community of practice, according to Etienne and Beverly Wenger Trayner is “a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”.

A digital community of practice (DCoP) in this context brings together people carrying out digital activities in a museum or similar setting. It is essentially a working group that allows members the opportunity to participate in a forum to learn about digital skills from their peers or from partner museums and organisations.

What problem does it solve?

Museums are busy places, and the people who work in them are often run off their feet trying to get their day-to-day work completed with less time and fewer resources than they might need.  Whether you are based in a large national organisation with hundreds of employees or a small regional institution with a few volunteer staff, museums are being stretched and are expected to deliver more with less.

In this kind of environment, organisational ‘silos’ can form, or isolation can set in. Staff can become so focused on their work that they do not have an opportunity to learn and benefit from some of the amazing digital skills and knowledge that may exist within their institution, or from partnering and sharing with fellow museums or other organisations in their sector or region.

What are the benefits?

One strategy that can help break down this isolation and encourage knowledge sharing is the creation of a DCoP. This creates an opportunity for informal learning, but can also benefit museums (both big and small) by:

  • Increasing transparency around who is leading and creating digital change or best practices within the organisation (or at another partner institution.)
  • Encouraging knowledge sharing and collaboration amongst departments and teams (or with other museums.)
  • Promoting curiosity about, and awareness of, what is happening both inside and outside the museum and how these trends and practices could apply to work within the museum

Who should be involved?

One important point to remember is that although DCoPs are forums that encourage informal learning among those carrying out digital activities in museums, they are not self-starting or self-regulating.  For a group like this to be successful you need certain staff to be responsible for championing, organising and running them on a regular basis and the resources (such as time, a travel budget or video-conferencing facilities) to make meetings happen. You will also need to measure how effective the group is in meeting the needs of its participants and find out whether they think there is value in attending the meetings.

What are the key tasks?

“How do I do all of this,” you may ask?  Below are some easy-to-follow guidelines as well as a baseline skills questionnaire, email invitation template and sample evaluation form to get you started.

Map strengths and weaknesses

There are two very important things to understand about your museum that will guide throughout the process of developing and running a DCoP:

  • Your museum’s areas of strength in terms of digital practice.
  • Areas in which your museum needs to improve people’s digital skills. 

You may think you know of certain areas, or staff members, that are digitally strong or weak at any given time.  Despite this, it is important not to make too many assumptions about what people may or may not know. 

It is best to ask staff to gauge where skills lie within an organisation.  In larger museums, you can either ask staff directly or survey managers to understand where digital strengths lie and where improvement in skills and knowledge are needed.  For smaller museums, surveying staff directly may be the best option. 

To help you in determining where your museum’s strengths and weaknesses are, you can use a baseline questionnaire or survey, which can be sent out electronically, or ideally be used as the basis of in-person conversations with managers.

Try to survey as many people as you can in order to get a comprehensive picture of the digital skills in your museum.  If you are in a small museum with few staff and volunteers, consider working in partnership with other small museums or organisations and use the questionnaire to establish your digital skills and weaknesses collectively.  It can be very important and fruitful to look outside of your museum, and the museum sector as a whole, to find digital best practices that you can learn from. Once you have finished the survey, you can begin to map the areas of digital strength and areas for improvement in your museum or museum partner.  Find out more about this process in more detail here.

You can use the map to establish strengths and skill-gaps, and decide what topics to cover at DCoP meetings. You can also see who may be able to lead on a certain topic and who may benefit from attending.

Organise meetings:

  • Decide how long you would like the meetings to be and how often they should take place. If you are planning a series of meetings, pick a duration and frequency that makes sense for your organisation. For this project, we decided the meetings should be between 1-1.5 hours long and take place no more than once a month and no less than every two months. Making meetings too frequent would take too much time to organise and place too much of a time constraint on staff to attend.  Making them too infrequent risked the group losing momentum. This is a good rule of thumb if you are meeting locally or holding virtual meetings. If partners have further to travel, you may decide longer, less frequent meetings are more suitable, but in this case you will need to find a way to maintain momentum between meetings. One way to do this may be through creating an email or social media network.
  • Determine which theme(s) you would like to discuss during your first meeting. Create an agenda that includes speakers who are digital leaders in your museum or from other institutions.  Be sure to create a balanced agenda to allow for introductions, and presentations as well as questions, answers and round-table discussion opportunities.
  • Select a place to hold the meeting that is convenient for all participants. If you are going to involve people remotely, make sure you have the correct technology to ensure this is possible (such as phone/teleconference facilities/internet connectivity). 
  • Ensure that the room and the technology are as accessible as possible to those with disabilities.
  • Communicate the details of the meeting to your desired participants. You can do this in a number of ways, including via email. Use the email communications template as a guide to ensure you include the information that is most pertinent to your potential participants.

How to run and facilitate the meeting:

  • Arrive early to set up and test any technology that might be used during the meeting (such as laptops, projectors, web conference platforms).
  • Nominate a dedicated individual or individuals to facilitate the meeting.  They will be responsible for ensuring that the agenda is followed, that discussions are kept on topic and that participants are allowed to participate equally in what is discussed.
  • If you can assign someone to take notes, this can be a valuable resource for reflecting on the meeting, identifying particular problems or ‘pain points’, capturing input from participants and carrying forward topics or questions that require follow-up.

How do I measure success?

Once you have completed your first meeting, it is important to survey participants as soon as possible (ideally the same day) in order to evaluate how they felt the meeting went and the value they gained from it.

The surveys should measure how engaged and interested the participants were in the subject matter as well as how relevant and valuable they felt the topic was to their jobs and to the strategic goals of the museum. 

Surveys should ideally take only a few minutes and be as direct as possible. This survey template is a guide to sample questions that measure a variety of sentiments helpful in evaluating a DCoP.

By surveying participants regularly, you will be able to measure the value that they place on the meetings and identify themes to discuss in future meetings. You will also gain important insights into changes in the digital skills of your staff as time goes on.

What next?

To reap the benefits of a DCoP, consistency is vital. Ideally you want to make this an ongoing forum that staff and volunteers can participate in over a long period of time.  As previously discussed, DCoPs are not self-organising so making sure you have a plan to hold them regularly is vital to their success. 

Stick to the frequency of your meetings, and try to keep the format consistent.  Based on your participant feedback, you might have to make certain alterations and improvements.

Further information

Mapping digital strengths

Once you have carried out a staff/partner survey, you can begin to map the areas of digital strength and areas where improvement is needed in your museum or with your community partners. 

You can do this by creating a table with a ‘strength’ column and an ‘improvement’ column and listing the results from the survey in the appropriate column.  Be sure to include the departments/staff members that gave particular answers.

From the ‘improvement’ column, you can see what skills, knowledge or topics seem to be lacking in which areas. From there you can begin to create a list of topics for future digital community of practice (DCoP) meetings and identify the staff who might be interested in attending. 

From the ‘strength’ column, you will be able to identify the digital leaders in your museum or partnership with particular skills and knowledge who might be willing to act as presenters to the DCoP in order to share their knowledge and best practices with fellow staff.

If you are in a large museum, it is likely that you will be able to match digital leaders within your staff to the skills gaps you’ve identified and ask them to present and share knowledge with other members of staff.  In smaller museums, you might choose to work with other museums or partner organisations to share this knowledge.

Time: Around six months to establish and then ongoing. Allow time to coordinate, as well as hold, meetings.

Toolkit: Video conferencing facilities and a reliable internet connection if your meetings are virtual, staff time and a travel budget if they are not local.

Meetings: At regular intervals, depending on travel times and budgets, staff availability and location.

Case study: Developing a digital community of practice.

Resource templates: