Doing better things

Dyfrig Williams

I've had a couple of conversations about Communities of Practice lately. One person said to me that Communities of Practice don't really work. It might be that they’re not a good fit for what they’re trying to achieve, but there are also lots of things that aren’t often taken into consideration that can determine the success (or not) of Communities of Practice.

Why might we need communities of practice?

There isn't a silver bullet approach for gaps in traditional learning provision, but we need to give consideration to how learning from training can be applied in reality. The gap between learning and practice is usually smaller within communities of practice because the content is driven by learner needs. Communities of practice within single organisations are also better placed to grapple with their organisational context.

There are some great quotes from Prof. Donald Forrester et al's research in this brilliant Practice Supervisor Development Programme guide on Communities of Practice. They describe how “culture eats training for breakfast” and that we need to “focus not just on helping individuals to improve their practice but also on changing the organisational contexts which they work in.”

This is bang on, and reflects lots of what I've learnt from communities of practice over the years. Here’s what sticks out for me.

What's in it for me?

Before starting, it's important to have a clear idea of what you want the community of practice to achieve. In doing so, it's important to go beyond the benefit to the host organisation or department. The benefit to us will be quite clear – we're developing a supportive learning environment which will yield deep learning. The bigger question is what's in it for the community members, and how can we demonstrate and articulate this value at the outset? What is going to make people put in the time and effort to contribute? This is a particularly important question to ask in the social care sector, where time is a precious commodity and large caseloads are well documented.

They're free?! What are we waiting for?

Organisations spend thousands of pounds on training every year, whilst self-hosted communities of practice are free… in theory. The “in theory” is doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Whilst there isn't a cost for the facilitator, it takes a lot of staff time to make a community of practice work. Whilst it's tempting to think that all the amazing people who have joined your community of practice will just immediately crack on and start sharing expertise and information, the reality is that people will be participating on top of their day job. The role of the “Community Gardener” (as it’s called in the PSDP guide) is really important – you need someone to tend to the community to demonstrate that it is a safe and welcoming space where learning is both welcomed and encouraged.

Not as many people will contribute as you think

The community of practice will start out quite low on people's priority list. There will be a lot of lurking going on until you can demonstrate the value of the space. Even then, the participation rates will likely be quite low.

It's important to have a large community so that you have a high number of active participants. This excellent post on communities of practice by WhatsThePont suggests that only 1% of people will actually create content, 9% will edit, modify or comment on that content an 90% will be lurkers. This feels about right from my experience of multi-agency Slack groups over the years.

Slack Emojis appearing on a Slack themed background

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

When you get lots of people together in one place with rich practice knowledge, you can unlock so much information that would otherwise be hidden. This paper on 'Theories and Frameworks for Online Education: Seeking an Integrated Model' encapsulates that nicely. When analysing Siemens' theory of connectivism, Picciano looks at how “learning rests in a diversity of opinions.” If we apply a strengths-based lens and see the wealth of knowledge that participants bring with them, we can see how the range of ideas and viewpoints can help us to grapple with the complex environments in which we work. There is no one size fits all, but collectively we have lots of knowledge and expertise that can help us to explore what might work.

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As of this month I'll be a line manager again after a bit of a break. As a bit of a refresher to myself, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what I did well and what I would do differently the second time around.

Start as you mean to go on

My previous role was the first time that I had line managed people and I learnt a tonne from it. I went into the role with a plan in my head around implementing a servant leadership approach. It was broadly positive, but it meant that I boxed myself in a bit. Going in to a situation with a methodology in mind is the ideological equivalent of “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Aligning yourself too close with any theory can be problematic. Think Ferris Bueller.

Ferris Bueller Ferris Bueller saying “Isms in my opinion are not good”


Every person is different. Of the 3 people I initially managed, one person and I clicked. Their strengths complemented where I needed development, and my management style was what they needed from me. When reflecting in coaching last year, we talked about relational approaches being within my comfort zone. The others needed something different from me, which I didn't get my head around until much later when we had settled patterns and interactions. This time I'm looking to get some helpful processes in place early doors to mitigate some of my weaknesses. I want to take some of the emotion out of conversations. I'm looking to link our one to one conversations with the middle manager meetings, so that we all have clear expectations and clarity around what's expected.

Helpful challenge

When managing one of my colleagues, I ended up moving between “overly directive” and “overly nice.” I had to counter-balance each approach when the fallout inevitably happened. This time I'm aiming to avoid that pendulum swing. I'm going for the sweet spot of the Social Discipline Window, the helpful challenge. I'll be keeping that in mind throughout my conversations, looking to create adult to adult conversations and spaces.

Avoiding the hospital pass

As a middle manager, there were lots of things that were out of my control. When these cropped up, I would tend to pass them on to my manager, who at least in theory was in a position to do something about them. In retrospect, this meant that I sent some hospital passes their way.

Peer to peer conversations really helped me think about how I might better deal with these conversations. A colleague told me that when they got similar requests, they would go back to the staff member to say that they needed clear evidence that an approach was required before they would take it to senior management. This put the responsibility back on the individual to develop the work, retained agency in the space, and also gave them time to have wider conversations around the issue too.

Here we go again

So I'll soon be back in a line management role, which will give us a clear direction of travel around quality assurance, learning resources and user experience. I'm looking forward to the challenge this time. This post has been exactly what I wanted to get out my blogging this year – an opportunity to reflect on my learning. I'm sure there will be more of these posts as my line management develops!

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I was always rubbish at practical subjects like Design Technology at school. That became my barometer of whether someone had practical skills – were they able to whittle something out of wood? I was not. I was an introspective thinky boy, which has fed into my perception of myself as an adult.

I found myself reflecting on my childhood education whilst listening to this Squiggly Careers podcast on doing by learning. David Erixon talks about how YouTube videos are powerful moments of learning, and it struck a chord with me.

I'd given up on being a practical guy until I got into cycling. But as I started racking up the miles on my bike, I realised that I couldn't take it into the bike shop everytime something needed a tweak. It was going to get expensive very quickly unless I could learn how to maintain the bike myself. I've learnt and applied so much from channels like GCN Tech, which have saved me a fortune on bike servicing.

Kermit standing on a moving bike Kermit standing on a moving bike

How do we communicate complex learning ideas in video?

We're currently testing some video development processes. We're looking at alternatives to the talking heads approach so that we can create narratives around the application of social care tools in practice.

The GCN videos that have enabled me to index my gears and recondition my brakes are in really simple contexts – the bike either works or it doesn't. In social care it's about hearts and minds. We have to work with people's messy realities and engage with them. This means thinking about how we can bring people with us.

My colleague Phil (who is part of Baobab Theatre) and I have been working on how we can commission or develop better videos. We're thinking in particular around how our resources make people feel. In initial conversations with colleagues, Phil's use of mood boards made it much easier to explain how we want resources to resonate with people.

Influencing practice

Mairi-Anne Macdonald shared this EfratFurst site on making sense of cognitive science and education with me, which breaks learning down into different stages. I find the “making meaning” stage fascinating, where we organise new concepts and connect them to existing ones before we are motivated to apply them. When I'm fixing my bike, I'll compare the setup of my bike to what I'm seeing in the video, bringing that knowledge together with my motivation to have a bike that works.

The learner motivation is a little muddier when there isn't a binary right and wrong. It means that we need a clear idea of what we want learners to achieve through watching our video, so strong learning outcomes and a good treatment is really important. If we know that facts don't change minds, then it’s really important that we tell stories in an engaging way. It's how we bring people with us and align our goals.

Then it becomes about putting things into practice. For the practical YouTube videos, actioning the learning was my rationale for watching them in the first place. But theory can be applied in lots of different ways and in varying conditions. We need to think about how we can prompt people to put the learning into practice and make it a part of what they do. Then it's not just about doing that once, but making it a part of a routine.

There's the reward for the learning and putting it into practice too – that Ikea effect where there is a sense of satisfaction from the practical effort that we put in. We are more likely to feel connected to our learning if it's done with us, not to us, and it makes a practical difference.

An approach that includes these factors is much more likely to influence change. We're on a journey with how we we make use of and work with video. I'm looking forward to seeing how we can apply some of this learning in what we do.

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I've recently binge-listened to The New Gurus, a podcast on the digital spaces created by gurus as an alternative to mainstream medicine, politics and media. It’s incredibly interesting, particularly around the role of evidence.

The cover image of the New Gurus: a figure with arms outstretched is superimposed on a phone against a stained-glass window

I'm a big fan of podcasts and the democratisation of media. I've come across so many thoughtful examinations of issues that are often overlooked. There is a flipside though. There is no longer one single version of the truth, and ultimately, it is harder to tell who you can trust. One of the taglines in the New Gurus is that “as our trust in institutions waivers, we're looking to charismatic individuals to tell us how to live.” In an episode where Will Blunderfield shares why he drinks his own bodily fluids, one of his followers minimises the role of modern science:

“I believe that we are all scientists, and that science in its primal form is about observation. You don't have to be a scholar or something to say what's right or wrong.”

Whilst it's tempting to see such statements in the context of shadowy internet communities and obscure theories, there are real world implications. BASW's podcast on Social Work in a conflict zone talks about how good quality information gives people control and agency in critical and complex situations:

“Social workers recognised that people make good decisions for themselves when they have good information… how people could access free public transport, which countries were offering places for people to go.”

How can we better communicate evidence?

This fascinating paper from Anne H. Toomey on 'Why facts don't change minds' is illuminating – not just for the conservation research on which it is focuses, but wider evidence and research too. It looks at how science is commonly communicated and what a better approach might look like.

Do facts change minds?

I have been told that facts don’t change minds, stories do. The paper suggests that there is “limited usefulness of ‘improved dissemination’ of the best evidence for practice and policy.” Just giving people information isn’t enough, we need to tell our stories in an engaging way.

We fight for what we believe in

It’s nice to think that sharing evidence is enough, but things get murkier when you factor in human behaviour. We tend to think that working with individuals will eventually build momentum that will lead to a shift in collective opinion. It turns out that people are much better at arguing their point than they are at making logical decisions. Working to increase scientific literacy alone is not enough. We need to understand the power of values, emotions, and experience if we want to change people's minds and behaviour.

Losing the snobbery

Going back to the podcast, one of the things that Helen Lewis does well as the host is to listen respectfully to people who very often have been ignored and sidelined. She doesn't make fun of people whose perspectives are easy to poke fun at. She stops short of judgment of any interviewee, even those that have no factual basis for their beliefs. This helps us to understand what it is about these counter beliefs that lead people to buy into these alternative systems. The strength of a single narrative overcomes the strictly logical factual account. Going back to Will Blunderfield's scepticism of medicine:

“Mere facts can't beat a story, and Will has a story about vaccines… if you piece together his life story though, his unhappy encounters with medicine as a child, the gay bashing after which he was offered pills rather than therapy, his concerns about his own masculinity, you can begin to see where his suspicion of mainstream medicine, what he calls allopathic medicine, comes from.”

Toomey's paper asks us to stop placing the blame on the “receivers” of evidence and instead think about how we can engage with people and topics in complex scenarios. For those of us who are seeking to change minds, this study at Yale University shows the benefits of 'arguing to learn' (here's a helpful overview). We can't just expect to convince people that we're right. We need to listen in order to understand someone's point of view if we're ever going to support people to change their minds and behaviours, as well as develop our own views and perspectives of the world.

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I don't really believe in New Year's resolutions, but this year I'm aiming to be a better ally, particularly to the trans community. As a first step in educating myself, I bought Shon Faye's 'The Transgender Issue' after reading this excellent review of it from Terence Eden.

The cover of ‘The Transgender Issue’ by Shon Faye

Bodily autonomy

In one chapter, Faye examines how social conservatives look to restrict and control trans-women's bodies in a similar way to how they seek to control cis-women's bodies. At the end of this and other sections of the book, Faye calls for an alliance of movements. To begin with this felt like preaching to the converted, but then I realised that these brittle relationships are at the heart of current divisions between advocates of social justice for different sectors of society.

I then gave my perspective some more thought. There can't ever be a complete account of a community's experience, as each one is so varied and diverse. It is perfectly fair for this book to be left leaning and to aim to build bridges, and for other books to pick up alternative discussions where needed.

Nuance in online arguments

Once I started to think about arguments, I started to think about the pile-ons that I've witnessed on Twitter. It's been a long time since I've seen it used for a nuanced discussion. I'd see TERFs trending and feel the urge to click and see what the hell was happening this time. Usually JK Rowling had said something grim or there was a reaction to the development of Scotland's Gender Recognition Act. I'd read all these angry and provocative comments and feel guilty for clicking away from all the rage that I was conveniently able to ignore.

As a cis-man, I know that I am incredibly privileged when it comes to discussions around gender. I've never had to reflect on whether I was born in the right body, and I also haven't experienced the fear that so many women have experienced at the hands of men (my wife Kelly Williams wrote this excellent post on this).

Whilst on Twitter trans identities are often only seen in the context of marginalising women, the reality is that trans people have little institutional power. In previous work I have heard from people who have been repeatedly deadnamed in an attempt to undermine their identities when they came into contact with public services.

What does good allyship look like?

Last year we went through the process of going through our podcasts and ensuring that they were transcribed for accessibility. We shared the work around a few of us, and I found myself getting engrossed in some of the episodes that I was responsible for. Something that Dez Holmes said on a podcast on race, privilege and allyship has stuck with me. The comment was made in the context of race, but it made me reflect on my role as an ally more generally:

“I think I take a, kind of, multifaceted view on privilege, or white privilege, in that there's definitely an element of what you've said, about unleashing power. I think in some scenarios, it is important for allies to unleash their power, but I also appreciate, for those people who, perhaps, are self-conscious about their power, the thought of unleashing it could make, kind of, make them feel condescending, as you say, or feel ambivalent about doing that. But I just think different scenarios require different things from allies. And so, that's why it's important allies are educated in terms of the power that they hold, how that could be used in different situations and what that power actually is.”

Since reflecting on this I have been considering the power that I hold and what I do with it. Whilst I don't intend on wading into online arguments, there is something around making my position clear so that when I do get drawn into discussions, I am in a position to respond in a helpful and supportive way to the trans community. In the current culture war, it means having the courage of my convictions to put my own thoughts and ideas out there and to be more vocal when I see injustice.

If you live or work close to Newport, Stonewall are offering this learning programme for trans allies – looks fascinating!

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It's been a couple of years since I last did a retrospective of the year. That's partly down to the pandemic and the subsequent changes to the way I live my life. My daily commute used to give me a tonne of reflection time to think about what I'd learnt and where things were at. Now that I'm predominantly working from home (which I prefer overall because of the tonnes of other positives), I no longer have that luxury.

Online changes

My blogging and reflection is a quarter of what it was in 2019. That year I wrote 24 posts, 11 in 2020, 6 in 2021, and this year I've managed to take things up a notch to 7, and that's only due to an end of year spike. Having said that, 2022 has felt like a new beginning for me in terms of how I work and reflect openly. For the first time in a while, I'm look forward to sharing what I'm doing and learning. I'd like to to get back to around a post a month if I can.

My relationship with Twitter hasn't been great for quite some time. At a previous workplace there was one eye on how staff used social media to ensure that we didn't post anything inappropriate. I'm treated like an adult at Research in Practice, but that unease has stayed with me.

In the pandemic, Twitter felt like something I needed to take a bit of a break from, and I've never quite reconnected with it. Elon Musk's takeover just seems to have exacerbated feelings that I already associated with the platform.

Since joining Mastodon, I've challenged myself to change my relationship with social media. As part of my nascent relationship with it, I've challenged myself to share a post a day if possible. These haven't been serious work posts, but posts about records I'm enjoying or a cheeky photo of the cat for #Caturday. It's been a long time since I did anything like that on Twitter. It no longer feels like a place where it's ok to post my random thoughts, partly because the algorithm ensures that low interaction posts disappear quickly, and partly because it's become such an adversarial space.

Gwenllian the cat sitting on a turntable

I've changed my blogging platform to Write.As as well (thanks to an excellent recommendation from David Clubb of Afallen) . It isn't a like for like replacement for Medium, but it's a much more streamlined experience with less friction around blogging. Posting there is a pleasure, but it does mean that I'm losing some functionality that I'm having to recreate elsewhere. The bookmark feature was really useful, so I've now started using Pocket instead. The tagging feature allows me to find articles easily and to save posts outside Medium's walled garden.

Feedly also feels like an upgrade on the follow function. Again, this was restricted to Medium, so I tended to use Twitter as a means of finding posts from people on other platforms. This was quite unreliable, so having a cross-platform rss feed has been really helpful.

What's this year felt like work wise?

I've moved from an operations role where I oversaw our National Programme events to a Head of Learning role, where I'm working to develop the learning opportunities that we offer our network.

This year it has felt like my role has moved from a theoretical idea into a facilitative role that has opened up opportunities for us to work differently. I've been supporting colleagues to use Liberating Structures in their work after an excellent learning session with Happy. I've also created guidance for using PowerPoint to help us to move away from a chalk and talk approach. The next step is to develop our guidance and processes for the co-creation of knowledge over information dissemination.

Family life

The big man is now a year old. All in all, it's been a whirlwind of a year. There certainly hasn't been enough sleep, that's for sure. My wife has been amazing, but it's not been easy for either of us. She has been very supportive, and I hope she feels likewise as she's gone back to work following the end of her maternity leave.

We're both now working four days a week, which has been a bit of a shift for me in particular. It's required some changes to how I work (more of that here), but Research in Practice have been very supportive. Working from home in particular has meant that I've been able to get much more of the emotional labour in the household done.

One thing that I've got much better at this year is finishing on time. Pre-pandemic, I would get the train to the office, so finishing on time was written in to my day. This came to an end when I stopped commuting. But it's been obvious that work and family life have been a bit out out of kilter, so I've put that right.

What do I want to do differently in 2023?

I'd like to be braver in 2023. This means backing myself and my ideas in spaces where I have previously opted too quickly for compromise. I feel like I've started to do this in 2022, but too often I tend to try to go slow to mitigate risk instead of cracking on to get things done.

There is of course a bit of a balance here. I've really pushed back in some of our conversations around quality measures to ensure that we avoid the pitfalls of targets and New Public Management. In some reflection with my line manager, we spoke about whether I was able to offer a helpful alternative to help us move beyond that approach. There's lots of useful info in Human Learning Systems about this (particularly from Lankelly Chase) and in pushing back so much I haven't been quick enough to reference it. My line management is changing this year, and I hope to have more of these challenging conversations as part of that relationship.

All in all, it's been a great year. As I keep reflecting on in various posts, life is complex, so I don't expect the coming year to be straightforward. I am excited about it though, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how things develop. Here's to 2023!

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A couple of months ago I took part in a Productivity Blitz with Happy. It's a topic that I'm increasingly jaded by. Tech bros on Medium and work fetishists on LinkedIn write a tonne of posts every week on how you can make the most of every minute of your 100 hour working week + side hustle.

A squirrel panicking finding out there are 3502 unread email A squirrel dropping its food and panicking after realising it has 3502 unread emails

Having said that, this opportunity came along at the perfect time. With the support of Research in Practice, I've dropped down to a four day working week. Having a day a week of looking after my son is lush, but a day less of work has made me time poor. I know that I can work much more efficiently. Focusing on the right things and ensuring that the work I'm doing is adding value is something that I've found challenging.

What's worked

I've heard of The Pomodoro Technique before starting the week of Happy activities, but I hadn't really thought about what uninterrupted time looked like for me. Now that I'm working from home most of the time, I've realised that interruptions aren't just people chatting to me at my desk, they're the constant slew of interruptions from email and Teams.

The 5 minute break at the end of each 25 minutes of focused work has been just as valuable as the work itself. In the past I've crammed in 5 minutes of a podcast whilst making a cuppa, but switching off properly has helped me to relax, refocus and reflect between tasks. This shouldn't be news or surprising, but given that phones and associated platforms are designed to keep us engaged and hooked, it's been a bit of a revelation to me.

It was also helpful to amend the notification settings on various platforms. I turned off email notifications years ago, but Teams is a bit more of an issue, as it's also where we store files. I've now added Sharepoint bookmarks to my browser to avoid going into Teams, and turned off the badges on my toolbar so that I don't have the number of outstanding notifications displayed. This has helped me to close Teams completely between meetings.


Eat 4 Frogs was also useful. I have found it really helpful to plan my work the night before so that I can clarify what I really need to achieve the next day. Alongside this I'm also trying to go without looking at my emails til lunchtime for at least one day a week.

Happy have prompted me to think differently about email. Instead of using my inbox as a place to store jobs to be done, I've been creating appointments to deal with each one by setting up a rule and moved to a 3-2-1-Zero approach. I've long been sceptical of Inbox Zero since reading this brilliant piece by Oliver Burkeman, but allocating time to tasks has helped me to understand what is work to be done and what is information only.

Inspired by WhatsThePont's post on why the email ‘cc’ option undermines the very fabric of society, I've also created a separate folder in my emails where all the emails I'm cc'd into are automatically moved into and marked as read. This has helped to declutter my inbox immensely.

So everything's perfect now right?

I'm yet to get things down to a fine art, and I don't think I ever will. Communication is an inherently human activity, and that means my inbox will never be perfectly managed. But these tools have given me a very helpful starting point.

At the end of the day, things won't change until we consider it at a systemic level. I find it interesting that people slag off platforms like Slack and Teams as time wasters, but email is seen as a valid use of time. It's still talking about and around work without actually doing any. If we can get our heads around that, then we can start changing how we work so that we can better focus on how we improve services that support people to live better lives.

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A pensive monkey A pensive monkey thinking and scratching his head via Creative Commons

My colleague Mairi-Anne MacDonald recently shared an interesting paper with me on “The Impact of Conceptualisations of Learning on Practice.” I can’t say that the title filled me with joy, but it was a really helpful piece that got me thinking about how we see learning within public services.

I’ve reflected before on traditional training as the status quo of learning. It places responsibility for learning in the hands of an expert trainer, and it sees participants as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Not exactly strengths-based then. This paper describes this approach as a “transfer/acquisition metaphor, where knowledge is transferred from authoritative sources to those with gaps in their knowledge.”

What might a different approach look like?

The alternative metaphor strikes a somewhat different note:

“The construction metaphor of learning sees learning as the construction of meaning within learners’ individual minds, as well as collaborative and collective constructions.”

This strikes a chord with me because relationships are key to knowledge sharing. It’s so important when we’re looking to embed learning from research into practice (as outlined in this research and this Transforming Evidence piece), and also from learning events and opportunities too.


I’m also really interested in how these two schools of thought fit around complexity. The paper suggests that “someone with a transfer/acquisition metaphor of learning would tend to also have a rationalist, scientist, objectivist*, and empiricist worldview.” This feels like a very binary way of seeing the world, that doesn’t fit with the reality of the nuance of people’s lives. Instead the exploration and critial analysis of the construction metaphor gives scope for learning both within the context of an event and beyond.

Is it useful to debate the meaning of a metaphor?

I think it is helpful to interrogate our use of language and our mental models. For example, I feel the need to critique training because it implies that people are tabula rasa waiting for knowledge to be imparted, which many people equate with learning in the sector. But I also feel that learning is central to good public services. If we’re not learning to understand what good lives look like to people, then we stand little chance of being able to support people effectively. Assuming absolute and authoritative positions of knowledge places us in an old-school position of patriarchal public service. To be fit for purpose, we need to recognise that we are working with and building on people’s strengths, knowledge and expertise.

*I read Ayn Rand so you don’t have to. I’d review that experience, but loads of people have critiqued her writing better than I could. This is a good start in case you’re interested!

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