Sunday, January 16, 2011

One CoP Bears Fruit

It's hard to believe, but this Sunday marks the culmination of 8 months of effort for the Community of Practice I created under the auspices of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Lookstein Center. Ironically, it also marks it death - but that was to be expected.

In January of 2010 I was asked to co-chair the Jewish Educators Assembly (JEA) annual conference. The theme was to be technology, and due to both my position on the JEA Board and my "studies" and expertise gained through the Jim Joseph Fellowship Program, the leadership felt I would be the natural co-chair. I accepted the appointment, with the understanding that I would plan the conference by creating an on-line CoP to do so. Until this point, every conference had been planned by a very small committee, whose members were almost exclusively from the host city.

The CoP began officially in July of 2010. I began by creating a structure, which consisted of several teams, each led by a facilitator, and each to deal with a specific area of the conference: programming, marketing, ritual, entertainment, etc.... There was also a coordinating team, which was composed of the facilitator of each team plus the JEA president, vice president in charge of conferences, and the Executive Director. We discussed the CoP at our July JEA Board Retreat, where I asked for volunteers to join the teams. I also sent out an announcement to all our members through our listserve, explaining the idea of a CoP and how we would be planning the conference, and asked for volunteers to join the teams. In the end, we had over 20 people in our CoP, divided amonst the various teams.

Each facilitator was trained in the use of an asynchronous platform (we used google groups), asynchronous collaborative tools (google documents and wikis), and a synchronous platform (we used DimDim). The facilitators then provided training to their teams. Over the last 8 months, each team has been busily using the tools to complete their charge. For example, the programming team used the synchronous platform to suggest topics and speakers, then used the asynchronous platforms to discuss the topics, suggest speakers, share videos of the proposed speakers and articles they had written, etc....

I won't bore you with a blow by blow description of how we used technology to create our conference - you can probably imagine it based on the short example above. What I will bore you with are some conclusions I have drawn about using the CoP model to plan a conference, and how the model has contributed to making this (hopefully) one of our best conferences ever.

  1. The CoP model allowed for and encouraged much greater and broader input than the traditional small committee model. Our CoP had great diversity in several key areas: technological expertise and experience, geography, and age. We had many opinions and ideas to consider, not just one or two. We were able to consider the needs of almost every JEA member. Many new and highly qualified speakers were brought to our attention. We discovered that CoP members had areas of expertise that we could tap into, and several members will be presenting keynotes, workshops, or presenting in our tech theater.
  2. Because it all took place on-line, and due to more people involved in the process, potential presenters from all over the country who we never even thought of somehow got wind of the conference and actually contacted us, asking us if they could present. Many presenters on the final schedule are only there because they heard of us, rather than vice versa.
  3. The CoP, because it engaged more people than the traditional process, was in the forefront of marketing the conference in so many ways. One member decided to set up a twitter hashtag in order to tweet about the exciting speakers and topics. Another chose to set up a facebook page for the conference. Yet others chose to do weekly posts on our listserve.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason, but as of today, our registration is quite a bit larger than any other conference in the past few decades. Every day I get emails from speakers, vendors, and JEA members alike, all extolling how exciting and innovative the conference appears. It could be the timely theme of Technology, it could be the central location (Philadelphia), it could be the exciting program. But I know that the main reason this conference will, please God, be one of our most successful ever is because it was designed through the efforts of a CoP.

This particular CoP will have no reason to exist past this week. But several of the CoP members will be joining me as a design team to create a new CoP for our JEA members who are interested in further pursuing the use of technology in their professional lives. I'll let you know how it's going next time I post!


  1. The CoP and the conference sound very exciting. I look forward to attending, presenting and, most of all--hearing of the exciting post conference developments. I won't be surprise if one or several CoPs "spin out" of the current CoP!

  2. What an exciting new model. Thanks for sharing your process so the rest of us can think about how to plan events in our own communities that draw on widespread expertise.