How can multi-site cohorts build relationships and trust, and facilitate shared learning? One intern shares four lessons from Living Cities seven year history of working with cohorts across cities and initiatives.

This post is the second blog in a series about what Living Cities is learning from our work convening multi-site cohorts. Read the introductory blog.

For the last several years, multi-site cohorts have been a defining feature of Living Cities work to build a new urban practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people, faster. The cohorts that Living Cities supports are diverse, but all serve to connect people who might not have otherwise connected and accelerate the uptake of promising ideas.

What are the best ways to build relationships and trust? What are the best tools for facilitating cross-site learning? Add your thoughts 

Because multi-site cohorts also build relationships and trust, they have become integral to the way Living Cities structures its initiatives. But, what are the best ways to build relationships and trust? And what are the best tools for facilitating cross-site learning?

During my summer internship at Living Cities, I conducted interviews with staff members who have played an integral role in supporting cohorts to answer these questions. Our conversations surfaced four important lessons:

Lesson 1: Peer-to-Peer Site Visits are an Effective and Valued Tool for Cross-Site learning

Peer-to-peer site visits, where one or multiple sites visit another site to learn about their work on-the-ground, can be an incredibly effective tool for building cohort relationships and first-hand learning. The cross-sector partnerships participating in the Prepare Learning Circle (PLC) are testing the peer-to-peer site visit model. PLC members reported that they preferred going on site-visits themselves to see the work of another member firsthand, especially when their work aligned.

Site visits allow cohort members to hear, firsthand, the successes and failures of efforts from the people working on-the-ground– and direct connections to a place are often greatly valued. While in-person, face-to-face interaction is often the most effective and desired tool for facilitating learning and knowledge sharing, it can be time and resource intensive. Cohort managers need to budget in advance to make sure that peer-to-peer site visits are planned for.

Another similar alternative, which the City Accelerator engages in, is to have the larger cohort convenings take place in a member city which serves the dual purpose of both getting the entire cohort together and allowing them to see first-hand the work of one of the member sites.

If in-person interaction is not always possible, using videoconferencing for meetings where cohort members are able to at least see each other face-to-face while speaking can provide another alternative, if only because it is more real and human than a call.

Lesson 2: Informal Downtime and In-Person Interactions are Key to Building Relationships and Trust

In-person, informal and unstructured interactions can be one of the most powerful means to forge connections, solidify relationships, and build trust between cities. Making space for informal interactions during site visits and Learning Communities–which can range from happy hours and dinners to a simple walk down the hall–can provide a simple but critical foundation for cohort members to connect and learn from each other in a more personal and meaningful way.

Informal interactions allow for impromptu conversations that, when added together, can lead to large-scale changes and insights. We’ve found that sites often ask for more unstructured time to spend both with their other team members and to interact with other members of the cohort. However, this can be difficult to provide because time is limited at convenings like Learning Communities. It can be hard to strike the right balance between directed and structured time and unstructured opportunities for cities to work and learn from one another.

In addition, cohort members often voice a need for Living Cities to connect the dots for learning between sites, but we’ve found that influential learning can take place between the cities themselves without Living Cities having to act as the go-between. This can happen either through informal interactions, or through other methods as discussed in lessons #3 and #4.

Lesson 3: A Virtual Community for Knowledge Sharing can be a Great Tool

Many staff members have spoken about the importance of creating an intranet or social networking group for their cohorts. Certain cohorts, such as PLC and the i-teams, have already employed virtual communities to communicate with other cohort members. The development of these virtual communities allows sites to interact and learn from each other outside of in-person sessions, and across geographic distances, without an intermediary.

Virtual Communities could provide key knowledge tools such as discussion groups, learning resources, and other key documents. Although only recently launched, Yammer (the platform used to connect i-team cities to each other) has so far proven to be a useful tool for i-team members to post about their ongoing activities, share links, resources and ideas, and answer questions from one another. The majority of i-team cities have been using the platform on a regular basis.

However, we are learning that community management–to model and incentivize sharing behaviors–is essential to the success and value of the virtual community. TII used to have an internal portal for members, but not enough was known at the time about how to manage the community to demonstrate value to cohort members and achieve the desired results. When launching the i-teams Yammer community, Living Cities built community management capacity into the strategy. Now, the TII team is considering re-launching a platform based on learnings, best practices and strategies from other cohorts. In this way, learning and sharing could occur among sites at any time and in any place.

Lesson 4: Knowledge Should be Easily Accessible and Convenient

Cohort members are often pressed for time and, for most of them, being part of a Living Cities-supported initiative is only a small part of their busy daily workloads. It is therefore very important to make information easily accessible and convenient so that site practitioners can absorb it at any time. Last spring Living Cities launched its first e-course on community engagement. Although available to the public at large, particular attention was paid to engaging folks participating in our cohorts and many ended up participating in the e-course. The course received a lot of positive feedback.

E-learning courses are cost-effective and play off Living Cities’ strength as a collaborator and curator as they distill information from multiple sources. By putting together a curriculum and materials on key issues that cohorts are dealing with, from community engagement to racial equity, busy practitioners have information and resources readily accessible they might not otherwise have time to seek out.

Up until now, cohort engagement has mostly been thought of in terms of in-person meetings, conference calls and webinars. However, digital products are a useful, convenient and low-cost method for knowledge sharing among cohorts that Living Cities could look into using more.

These four lessons provide a foundation for understanding how cohorts can build relationships and trust, and which activities are most effective. Stay tuned for my next post, in which I’ll share four more lessons about what it takes to effectively convene and manage a cohort.