Etienne Wenger wrote a case study in 2002 about Ayuda Urbana, a constellation of communities of practice focused on urban issues and challenges in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean region, or as they call themselves: 'Red Inter-municipal'. The case describes the efforts to assist 10 huge cities in the Central American Region to improve their technical expertise and municipal effectiveness by connecting mayors and their staff into forming communities of practice. The initiative followed the move of the World Bank to become the 'knowledge bank'. The first focus on informational infrastructure was followed by a recognition of the need to supplement the focus on collecting information with connecting people. The Ayuda Urbana initiative followed from a conversation between the World Bank's urban specialists and several mayors and their municipalities: Guatemala City, Havana, Managua, Mexico City, Panama City, San Jose, San Juan, San Salvador, Santo Domingo and Tegucigalpa. The members of the network include the mayors and their staff, specialists in various areas of urban development and management. Even though membership is open to other cities, I still see the same members on the website now.
A central part of the initiative has been partnership: several organizations joined forces to bring the resources necessary for the 'project' together (World Bank, UCCI, cities, local organizations). Eight topics were selected by participants (from e-government to disaster prevention) and seven CoPs were started, bringing together 128 members from 10 cities. Different cities volunteered to coordinate one or two communities of practice. They were each launched through a two-day workshop, facilitated by a team of the World Bank. A web-based tool was made available to continue online conversations and stay in touch. Furthermore there was a website serving as a repository. A formal evaluation by an external agency gave extremely positive feedback. The 'project' was adopted by the UCCI/CAMC in 2002 and the municipal councils have agreed to integrate it into their annual plans and alternate in taking the coordinating role for the communities and the website.
Very interesting are the lessons learned:
- The experience in cultivating CoPs from the inside in the World Bank was critical to the success of the Ayuda Urbana project
- The communities of practice were an effective vehicle for learning; enabling sharing of knowledge with direct applicability to practice
- Adapting 'best practices' requires adaptability to local conditions; CoPs allows people to explore the principles underlying a successful practice
- Learning is best enabled by a variety of activities that enhance each other's effectiveness
- Always stay close to the needs of the members
- Engage the practitioners: provide assistance to enable them to develop materials and organize events
- Bring a variety of resources- the most important resource being process and domain knowledge (in this case the process knowledge came from the World Bank people)
- Prepare for hand-over; start with lots of support but prepare to hand over the initiatives, eg. convincing local authorities to take over the sponsorship of the project.
In the conclusion it is stressed that this is a new model for knowledge transfer in development, giving voice to local expertise, and whereby target countries are not recipients of ready-made knowledge handed down by experts from outside.
Even though this may have been the shift for the World Bank; compared to all participatory processes and methods common to most grassroots development projects, I'd almost say, the main shift in a community of practice 'approach' to learning is away from the idea that everybody has to participate and has to be heard. CoPs theory acknowledge the role experts can play in a community of practice.