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How to make communities work for you

This article appears in the issue March 1999 [Volume 8, Issue 3]

Four months after joining a large global services firm, senior consultant Bob Thompson realized something was amiss. His area of expertise, supply chain management, was being marketed by seven different organizations within the firm. Nobody knew what the other groups were working on--in some embarrassing instances two teams from his firm showed up at the same client to bid on the same job. Latest level thinking, valuable research and lessons learned from consulting engagements were not shared. Because internal skills were not communicated, outside consultants were being hired to provide expertise which was already available inside the firm. Bob saw an immense amount of wasted work and untapped synergy--but what could he do about it?

The pressure has never been greater to optimize learning and to leverage knowledge in getting business results. Learning, according to the latest research, occurs most readily in social situations--doing actual work--and not individually behind a desk or listening to a lecture. "The social world ... is not a distraction, but a rich resource essential to learning," maintains Etienne Wenger, of the Institute for Research on Learning. "In fact, there is no distinction between learning and social participation, and that is what makes learning possible, enduring and meaningful. Learning is most effective when it is integrated in a form of social participation. When learning becomes integrated with social interaction, it becomes part of who you are."

Communities of practice can fill a critical gap in today's business. While teams may provide the social context for the best kind of learning, unless that learning is shared effectively with other specialists its benefits can be delayed or lost altogether.

Companies such as Xerox (www.xerox.com), IBM (www.ibm.com), 3M (www.3m.com) and DaimlerChrysler (Auburn Hills, MI) have been working to establish communities of practice to foster learning and knowledge sharing in their organizations. But Liam Fahey, a professor at Babson College (Wellesley, MA) and an expert in knowledge management cautions, "I've not run into many companies that are good at establishing communities of practice."

Survey of existing communities

To better understand prospects for cultivating communities of practice, the IBM Consulting Group interviewed six existing communities, examining their characteristics, origins and experiences. The study also explored the communities' missions, organization and roles, methods for communication and supporting technology. There was a special focus on lessons learned that might be helpful to other communities.

Although the communities were of different sizes and stages of maturity, their stated purposes were strikingly similar. Primary missions include sharing knowledge, promoting efficiency by avoiding duplicate work and reinvention, and building skills. Many interviewees also indicated that their communities kept the participants up-to-date on new ideas, leading-edge thinking and best practices. Keeping current on the subject matter was viewed as critical to serving customers effectively and remaining competitive.

Organization and roles

All of the communities examined have leaders or "co-leaders." They tend to be passionate zealots about their subject matter--the person who keeps talking about business process re-engineering at your cocktail party and won't shut up. Whether the community leadership is but one of their assignments or their full-time job, they are measured on the success of their community of practice.

Successful leaders are not of the "lonely genius" ilk. Capabilities such as management, organization, communication and teaming skills are required to involve and leverage the other participants in attaining the community's goals.

Effective community leaders represent the "critical mass" of those in their group. For example, the supply chain competency network leader within a consulting group is an active supply chain consultant. The leaders do not separate themselves from the rest of the group by reporting to any centralized corporate "knowledge structure"--they remain business unit insiders by doing the same activities as members of the "community at large."

Community leaders are usually in some position of authority within the company. They provide overall direction and guidance to the community by developing the mission and objectives, building and sustaining membership and implementing action plans to achieve community goals. They also obtain management approval, implement collaboration technology and fulfill community objectives.

In addition to leaders, most communities also have "core teams" of highly involved participants. Core team members are usually subject-matter experts who represent their business functions or areas. The core team helps define the community membership and to establish goals and action plans. The core team also initiates and tests new community activities, such as developing and hosting online discussion groups.

As subject matter experts, core team members often lead subgroups. For example, in the supply chain example, subgroup leaders would drive initiatives for global logistics, warehouse automation, transportation, etc. Many subgroup leaders also evaluate papers, articles and other intellectual capital to be submitted to community electronic databases.

Communication and technology

In today's age of virtual teams, the Internet and distributed learning, it would be tempting to dismiss the idea of face-to-face meetings as too costly and time-consuming. However, this would be a major mistake, according to our high-performance communities. Almost all of those interviewed said that face-to-face meetings are an essential part of generating and sustaining strong communities. "It is essential to meet face-to-face, at least for the first couple of times, to build trust and camaraderie among the team members," says the engineering community leader.

All of the communities used some form of technology for communication and collaboration, ranging from E-mail and intranet Web sites to Lotus Notes (www.lotus.com) databases. Although commonly available collaboration software was advocated over the development of "home-grown" applications, the type of technology was seen as less important than its accessibility to the users.

The communities worked to find the right communication vehicles to match the needs of their members. "I started out with groupware, but because our people are traveling so much it wasn't very handy to share knowledge that way," said the supply chain leader. "We have found it more effective to use E-mail and teleconferences. This allows me to be very proactive when sending messages."

Why communities fail

A large consulting company conducted a "post mortem" review for a dead community of practice which, after a promising start, had shown no activity for several months. In order to share knowledge about the causes of failure and to ensure that the pattern was not repeated in other communities of practice, the company shared the results. The primary causes of death were as follows:

    1. The fact that the competency leader did almost all of the work himself resulted in a lack of buy-in and feelings of alienation among the core team. 2. Core team members were uncertain about their roles and responsibilities. 3. Not enough communication within the network contributed to the feeling of "disconnectedness." 4. The executives didn't treat the community work and knowledge sharing in general as important. There were no incentives to do work for the community. The culture encouraged billable client work, not time spent on knowledge sharing. 5. Not all people had "hassle-free" access to software or hardware required for the groupware system, which resulted in frustration and avoidance of the system.

Although these lessons were learned by a consulting group, they are applicable to startup communities in any industry.

Faren Foster is affiliated with IBM Internal Knowledge Management Consulting and can be reached at ffoster@us.ibm.com.


Critical success factors

  • Senior executives must endorse and continually support the community of practice.

    Executives must show that these learning groups are important, and then "stay out of the garden" by not demanding instant results or trying to control the communities. Etienne Wenger advises executives to "treat communities of practice as assets. Given the right conditions --enough understanding of circumstances, access to resources, and control over their destiny, communities of practice can use their shared history as a social resource to learn very much, very fast."

  • The community must have a clear focus and a shared purpose.

    The leader of a successful consulting community maintains that "the community must be focused on a few important objectives -- it's hard when you're starting up to serve many masters." A shared purpose is also important. "People in a community need a shared external purpose which causes an internal reason for being," said Liam Fahey. Whether that purpose is to provide better medical care or to improve engineering designs, a common mission will be the glue that holds a community together.

  • Any technology used to facilitate communication must be readily available and user friendly.

    The participants agreed that the ease of use in any technology used to facilitate communication or collaboration is of paramount importance.

  • A culture supporting both learning and experimentation must exist.

    When they are allowed to ask questions, make mistakes and disagree, people learn more quickly. In order to learn, people need to be allowed to take intellectual risks. A company should consider time spent learning must be considered time spent working.


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