Background: Communities of practice and social-professional networks are generally considered to enhance workplace experience and enable organizational success. However, despite the remarkable growth in interest in the role of collaborating structures in a range of industries, there is a paucity of empirical research to support this view. Nor is there a convincing model for their systematic evaluation, despite the significant potential benefits in answering the core question: how well do groups of professionals work together and how could they be organised to work together more effectively? This research project will produce a rigorous evaluation methodology and deliver supporting tools for the benefit of researchers, policymakers, practitioners and consumers within the health system and other sectors. Given the prevalence and importance of communities of practice and social networks, and the extent of investments in them, this project represents a scientific innovation of national and international significance.
Methods and design: Working in four conceptual phases the project will employ a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to develop, design, field-test, refine and finalise an evaluation framework. Once available the framework will be used to evaluate simulated, and then later existing, health care communities of practice and social-professional networks to assess their effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes. Peak stakeholder groups have agreed to involve a wide range of members and participant organisations, and will facilitate access to various policy, managerial and clinical networks.
Discussion: Given its scope and size, the project represents a valuable opportunity to achieve breakthroughs at two levels; firstly, by introducing novel and innovative aims and methods into the social research process and, secondly, through the resulting evaluation framework and tools. We anticipate valuable outcomes in the improved understanding of organisational performance and delivery of care. The project's wider appeal lies in transferring this understanding to other health jurisdictions and to other industries and sectors, both nationally and internationally. This means not merely publishing the results, but contextually interpreting them, and translating them to advance the knowledge base and enable widespread institutional and organisational application.