Reshaping communities of practice for social workers

Published: 6 December 2022

Four leaves, mirrored to create a pattern.
Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash.
How a questionnaire and mapping exercise enabled us to set the early direction for development of a new community of practice. 

We’ve recently been helping the Research, Data and Innovation team at Social Care Wales to develop support and services for the social care workforce. We’ve been developing a plan and purpose for a community that will support practitioners interested in developing their understanding and championing the use of research and evidence in their practice.

Along the way we’ve discovered more about this group of people, what their interests are, and what they want to learn. We’ve also learned how Social Care Wales engages with its communities to understand opportunities to improve.

Starting small with a survey

To begin, we ran a small survey with people interested in evidence-enriched practice, to understand more about their experiences with communities of practice. The survey ran for two weeks and was sent to 52 people working in social care. These people were known to Social Care Wales through previous involvement in research, academic mapping exercises, or training sessions.

The survey received a 54% response rate; most told us that they worked as social workers, social care team leaders, consultant social workers or consultant practitioners. We also had five responses from academics. While these numbers are small, they gave us some useful direction, and helped us to focus on what people wanted from a community of practice.

Practitioners are part of a vast system of groups, communities and initiatives

We asked respondents to let us know if they were currently part of any communities or groups. We received an array of responses to this free-text question, with more than 60 unique groups and 25 acronyms mentioned.

Most people told us that they were members of seven or more groups, and we saw a variety of different descriptions and terminology used to describe these. These included forums, networks, special interest groups, boards, development groups, steering or advisory groups, and working groups.

Only one respondent told us that they were a member of a community of practice.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, Introduction to Communities of Practice 

Most of the groups that people mentioned were focused on delivering work, making decisions, and strategy. While it was hard to know everything about the communities listed, we didn’t see any groups that appeared to fit with the definition above, of learning how to do it better as they interact regularly’.

People told us that they regularly go to events and meetings linked to these groups and that they didn’t see this changing. They decided which to attend based on themes and subjects that were most useful for their day-to-day work.

We also identified that people valued learning as part of their involvement in those groups, and also valued the ability to build relationships with others working in the sector.

This helped us to see that the people we hoped to engage with were eager to learn and improve their practice, but were not currently participating in any communities of practice that would support that learning and ongoing development.

Mapping how things are currently done

We sought to understand more about the social care community and Social Care Wales’ current ways of working with its members in order to learn more about their needs. We spoke with several improvement and development managers at Social Care Wales, who currently run groups of different kinds.

We also looked at a couple of best practice communities in order to compare these. We used a simple colour coding to look at elements like people, organisations and technology and arrows and annotations to show the interactions between elements.

A diagram showing the relationship between organisations, technologies, and individuals
Social Care Wales communities’ map, showing the organisations and groups involved, their interactions and ways of working. Grey bubbles represent organisations, green are platforms or technologies used and red are individuals. Arrows and connections show how these interact and how close organisations are to one another.

We learned that the current initiatives used by Social Care Wales are based on periodic in-person meetings with limited one-way communication with attendees. Technology or platforms aren’t systemically used, with the team most likely to use video conferencing software or, occasionally, booking platforms such as Eventbrite.

There was little to support interaction between participants outside of discrete meetings or events, which we felt reinforced the boundaries between the organisation and the members of its groups. Similarly, one-way communication meant that there may be missed opportunities to gain insight from participants and feed these back to the wider organisation.

A diagram illustrating how technologies or platforms can be better integrated into communities
Best practice’ communities map, showing a community run by another organisation. The key used is the same and this shows how technology or platforms form a much more integral part of the communities. Relationships with other organisations are also much closer and communication flows both ways between groups, organisations or individuals.

What’s next?

This work enabled us to start small and iterate on the development of a community, we used it to inform our approaches to developing a purpose which we worked with social care professionals to review and revise. It also helped us to think about the needs for a community platform, how members might interact there, and the processes that the Social Care Wales team would need in order to be able to keep the community running effectively.

The maps shown also became a compelling way for us to communicate the different shapes and activities of communities. It helped to align current approaches with the organisation’s ambition and to show where there were opportunities to make changes or improvements that would support practitioners to learn.

This is just the start for Social Care Wales community development approach. Since Social Finance delivered this work the team have decided to invest in the hire of four community managers, and are undertaking a programme of upskilling and training their team in community development.

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