Abstract Deliberation, dialogue and systematic learning are now considered attributes of good practice for organizations seeking to advance sustainability. Yet we do not know whether organizations that span spatial scales and governance responsibilities can establish effective communities of practice to facilitate learning and action. The purpose of this paper is to generate a framework that specifies actions and processes of a community of practice designed to instill collective learning and action strategies across a multi-level, multi-partner network. The framework is then used to describe and analyze a partnership among practitioners of Canada's 16 UNESCO biosphere reserves, and additional researchers and government representatives from across Canada. The framework is a cycle of seven action steps, beginning and ending with reflecting on and evaluating present practice. It is supported by seven characteristics of collaborative environmental management that are used to gauge the success of the partnership. Our results show that the partnership successfully built trust, established shared norms and common interest, created incentives to participate, generated value in information sharing and willingness to engage, demonstrated effective flow of information, and provided leadership and facilitation. Key to success was the presence of a multi-lingual facilitator who could bridge cultural differences across regions and academia-practitioner expectations. The project succeeded in establishing common goals, setting mutual expectations and building relations of trust and respect, and co-creating knowledge. It is too soon to determine whether changes in practices that support sustainability will be maintained over the long term and without the help of an outside facilitator.