Evaluating Technical Exchange Networks at Management Sciences for Health: Communities of Practice in Development: A Relic of the Past or Sign of the Future?
Since 2009, the international nonprofit organization Management Sciences for Health (MSH) has supported online communities of practice (CoPs), called Technical Exchange Networks (TENs), with the aim of increasing access to technical and programmatic knowledge, facilitating peer-to-peer exchange, and stimulating action and behavior change for improved programming. Years of building institutional understanding of the value of the TENs have made it possible for them to grow rapidly and achieve widespread recognition across the organization. Currently, MSH has 10 TENs composed of approximately 600 members from 45 countries. Over two-thirds of members are based in field-based projects supported by MSH. Each TEN is focused on either a technical area, such as reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis; health systems function, such as leadership and governance, health care finance, and human resources for health; or cross-cutting topics, such as gender, youth, monitoring and evaluation, and country operations.
In order to better understand how the TENs function toward that goal, findings from the literature were synthesized into an operational framework with three domains of change: formation, structure, and character. The three domains of change were subdivided into ten distinct levers of change. These levers represent discrete attributes of CoPs that can be individually or collectively selected to enhance the performance of a community. The TENs have three primary objectives: to improve access to information, foster a sense of community, and provide opportunities for action.
The levers of change were identified as: purpose; readiness; platform; membership hierarchy; sponsorship; organizational support; passion and enthusiasm; recruitment; mix of contributors; and connectedness. The framework and an assessment, with case examples, provide important insights into how the TENs can be used to collaborate with peers around the world and add value to the agency’s mission and vision. By using the CoP domains and levers of change, MSH now can identify which TENs are ready to be pushed to the next level of functionality to meet MSH’s evolving performance and learning priorities. Future evaluations of the TENs will help to link improvements in the TENs’ primary objectives with intentional shifts in the levers of change identified in this operational framework for CoPs at MSH.