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Next-generation communities—Part 1 Designing flexible communities that fulfill business needs

This article appears in the issue May/June 2018 [Volume 27, Issue 3]
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As technology and work norms shift, the support structure for enterprise communities has evolved in turn. Social media-savvy employees want to use peer-based networks for a range of purposes, from focused collaboration on cross-functional business issues to more casual networking and conversations with colleagues. Technology advancements have also made it easier for employees to form and customize different types of groups. Modern community of practice programs are expanding their scope to accommodate those changing needs and objectives.

That widening of the official community umbrella is one of the biggest departures member-based nonprofit APQC observed in its 2017 Next-Generation Communities of Practice research. Derived from in-depth interviews with 12 organizations identified as having best-practice community programs and analysis of survey data from more than 200 KM professionals, it is APQC’s fifth major study on communities and a capstone on 16 years of research on the topic. The study reveals that leading organizations are embracing more agile community structures while continuing to insist that communities fulfill clear business objectives.

Some organizations formally recognize different community models

Some of the best-practice organizations APQC studied—including several with longstanding community programs—have formally adapted their programs to include different categories of communities. For example, professional services organization Accenture separates its communities into three types: professional communities, communities of practice and communities of interest.

Professional communities are the most structured community type at Accenture. Those groups develop deep specialization within an industry, function or technical topic by tapping into expertise from across the global enterprise. Professional communities are a key source for training and professional development, and new employees are automatically enrolled in at least one based on their specialties, talent segments and roles.

Accenture’s communities of practice are smaller than its professional communities; they are designed to help employees connect with experts and learn about new or quickly evolving topics. Communities of practice can be local or global, and membership is voluntary. The least structured community type at Accenture is the community of interest. Those groups connect colleagues who share interests, personal passions or backgrounds. For example, the organization has communities of interest focused on photography, cancer survival, gaming, running and certain local languages.

Accenture created that three-pronged community approach to accelerate employees’ skill development and help them respond more quickly to client challenges. The arrangement allows the firm to accommodate a range of needs while scaling the levels of governance and support required for each respective level of collaboration.

Other organizations enable varied community types on an informal basis

Organizations that have not created official community tiers still recognize the necessity for different types of communities, especially to deal with short-term needs and promote employee networking. Water treatment company Nalco Water, an Ecolab Company, recognizes that communities have varying lifespans depending on their intended role and purpose. Some are designed to persist indefinitely, whereas others are commissioned to support specific projects or events, such as product launches. Product launch communities help disseminate information during a product’s initial six to 12 months on the market; the KM team then decommissions the community and integrates any relevant content into the organization’s existing knowledge libraries.

Nalco Water also has “social communities” that do not serve a specific business purpose. Those groups facilitate networking among certain subsets of the workforce and allow like-minded people to share knowledge on topics such as professional development or public speaking. Social communities are largely self-governing and allowed to grow organically. Nalco Water’s KM team provides minimal support for those groups. Social communities help drive engagement in the overall community program by providing an easy entry point for people to learn how communities work and become comfortable with community tools and approaches.

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