Relational learning in and for practice: the PSDP community of practice approach

Written: 24/05/2021

By: amy bishop

In: Reflections

Published: 24/05/2021

Author: Adi Staempfli

What are the underpinning ideas and experiences of the ‘community of practice’ approach as part of the Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP)? Within this blog Adi Staempfli focuses on three aspects to stimulate discussion across the social work sector and to inspire embedding this as an approach to ongoing learning in organisations.

The PSDP is a collaboration between 11 organisations that have delivered 79 courses for practice supervisors and middle managers across nine English regions since 2018. Within such a system, how does one develop good quality learning experiences for participants across all cohorts that are co-delivered by 24 facilitators?

The consortium chose a ‘community of practice’ (CoP) approach to achieve consistency and cohesion from the outset. CoP are defined by three main aspects: ‘The ‘domain’ is the shared area of interest that acts as a focus around which a ‘community’ of concerned people form bonds in the process of their shared learning activities; while ‘practice’ anchors the learning in what people do’ (Wenger, 2004).

Our approach to developing a community of practice

In the initial stages of developing the PSDP, the content of the programme was its main concern. Over time, inspired by Gillian Ruch’s (2020) focus on relationship-based practice and systemic understandings of parallel processes, we have come to realise that we needed to develop and nurture a community of facilitators.

Through supporting engagement with each other and with participants in relationship-based ways we strived to offer containment and establish an open learning culture. We were guided by the idea that if practice supervisors and middle leaders experience emotionally intelligent, practice-focused and relational learning, they, in turn, would be able to support their supervisees to work in relationship-based ways with families.

The CoP approach (Wenger, 1998) suggests that if people are given the opportunity to get together to develop their understanding and skills needed in their practice, they are able to address practice challenges and support the development of innovative local practices. Organisations that want to develop and support a learning culture should consider the role CoPs could play as part of an organisational learning infrastructure. You can read up on the key principles of CoPs in the PSDP CoP tool. So how we have adopted this approach and what we have achieved?

What we have done

The PSDP CoP’s shared concern and domain is to deliver high-quality learning experiences to practice supervisors and middle managers. The CoP events attended by the facilitators and key consortium members offer the opportunity to share experiences of facilitation, discuss challenges and develop approaches.

To ensure skilled facilitation, the delivery lead and other consortium members provided information on the programme and facilitators were provided with opportunities in small groups to familiarise themselves with both content and pedagogical approaches. As facilitators gained experience of delivery, we created spaces for reflection, focusing on facilitation challenges and sharing of good practice. To support high-quality delivery and shared learning further, we developed criteria for good facilitation practice and organised peer observation in the first wave.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, over the course of six whole-day in-person meetings, we developed from a CoP that was led by consortium members to one where facilitators’ interests and challenges determined the agenda. Thus, the CoP was increasingly co-created by its members.

Based on positive relationships and a shared understanding of the CoP’s purpose the transition to a virtual CoP went well. Instead of whole day in-person meetings we held 12 shorter meetings until March 2021. From September 2020 onwards, in the light of increased sensitivity to race issues, we started conversations about anti-racist supervision and teaching practices, building on discussions on diversity, with race as a central focus in wave two.

What we have learned

We evaluated the CoP based on nine evidence-informed principles for successful CoPs (Staempfli, 2020; Staempfli, et al., 2016). Facilitators were asked rate their agreement with statements related to each principle in an anonymous online survey. The feedback by 90% (18) of facilitators showed that facilitators agreed overwhelmingly that the nine principles were met. In a follow-up discussion with facilitators from nine local delivery partners (LDP) we generated an in-depth understanding of how the CoP contributed to positive PSDP outcomes.


The initial focus on content development and delivery as the CoP’s main domain was what many facilitators ‘needed that at the time’ (facilitator LDP three). Over time, this focus shifted as we went with the flow of the programme stage, thus allowing the CoP to evolve organically. CoP meetings in wave three unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Consequently, ‘illness, disability’ and ‘diversity and social grace’’ have ‘come into the foreground’ (Facilitator one LDP four). We challenged each other to reflect on racism and anti-racist practice and having a ‘virtual team was even more important during that time’ (facilitator two LDP two). The CoP became a ‘space as the safe haven to float things’ (facilitator one LDP four). This was seen as ‘one of its strengths’ (facilitator one LDP 2two) and also ‘meant that we have mirrored the approach to learning that we would wish…facilitators [and] participants to go through’ (facilitator one LDP two).


In this engagement around this shared domain, relationships within the community and ‘a culture [where]…everyone [was] kind of really interested in each other’s experiences’ (facilitator three LDP four) developed. This led to ‘people [being] very honest and…open’ (facilitator LDP six). Facilitators on the whole felt that they were able to form safe and trusting relationship with other CoP members.


The CoP’s focus on practice that was grounded in the shared practice of facilitation enabled facilitators to share what they ‘felt worked and what didn’t work’ and fostered a culture in which they could ‘think aloud, and potentially explore [their] uncertainty [and]…differing skills and perspectives’ (facilitator two LDP four). Hearing from people at different points in their career, with varied backgrounds and work settings from around the country and thoughtfully ‘chewing over the same challenges’ that came up in delivering the programme, was ‘absolutely…pivotal in terms of developing my confidence’ (facilitator two LDP two). The discussions around diversity and race have ‘been a real important foundation for being able to be brave and have conversations in the training’ (facilitator two LDP two). Modelling imperfection, reflective practice and experimenting thus became a shared practice within the CoP, and one that we hoped participants could replicate with their supervisees.

The interplay between these three aspects was highlighted by a quote by one facilitator who said that the shared focus on ‘delivering the same thing, the same content’ helped strengthen ‘relationships with each other, because…we’re all in the experience together’ (facilitator LDP six).

Starting a community of practice in your organisation

Overall, the approach to build a community of practice was invaluable. It enabled us to model relationship-based practice that led to facilitators feeling contained and confident to co-facilitate the programmes, including online facilitation. It opened up a space for reflection, discussion and challenge that was highly valued.

‘The ‘community of practice’ group for course facilitators has come into its own in terms of being a resource for us to share our experiences of online teaching and learn from each other.’

We started this CoP as an experiment and hoped that by addressing the challenges and concerns facilitators encounter in their facilitation practice, the CoP approach could ‘provide a concrete organisational infrastructure for realising the dream of a learning organisation’ (Wenger et al., 2002).

CoPs are not the same as project teams or working groups and ‘setting goals, tasks or expecting deliverables does not lead to success’, as we ‘can only create the right conditions for communities of practice to grow in and flourish’ (Staempfli, 2020). Supporting learning in your organisation in this way thus requires courage and trust in people, in the knowledge that if they engage with each other to develop their practice, learning and innovation can emerge.

I would encourage you to be brave and enable such an open approach to learning. A good starting point might be to consider the tool – Developing a community of practice in your organisation – and start a discussion with colleagues, managers and leaders about what areas in your organisation could be developed through a CoP. 

Adi Staempfli

Adi Staempfli is a social work practitioner and academic for over 30 years and has extensive experience in supporting learning in both practice and academia. Adi is a social work lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and is the learning lead for the Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP).

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