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Sustaining communities of practice

This article appears in the issue March 2006 (100 Companies) [Volume 15, Issue 3]
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Many organizations have spent significant time and resources designing and implementing communities of practice (CoPs) in an attempt to connect people to others with similar issues and to collect valuable content to improve business processes. However, the completion of implementation is just the beginning of the story. The true value of communities, both for the individual participants and the supporting organization, comes from the ongoing interaction and work of the group. To sustain that value, organizations should quickly move into a "sustaining-and-evolving" mode to match ever-changing member needs and business goals.

How? APQC's best practice research and client experience suggests that you should create processes for measuring health and business alignment, design surveys for member satisfaction, develop mechanisms for promoting ongoing activity and embed transition processes for leaders and members. This article will explore how organizations sustain and evolve their efforts and highlight responses from more than 700 actual CoP members whose organizations participated in APQC's Using Communities of Practice to Drive Organizational Performance and Innovation.

APQC's research and practice suggest that all of a CoP's working norms must be assessed yearly and potentially realigned to ensure that the best results are being achieved. Assessing health and aligning CoPs to business goals should provide organizations with insights about how to promote and sustain ongoing activity and outcomes. Organizations also must close the loop after ascertaining needed changes by realigning their strategy and design processes to continually improve and impact business outcomes. 

Assess alignment with business and CoP goals

No matter what type of community (formal, informal, helping, best-practice sharing, knowledge stewarding, innovation, etc.) an organization forms, it should align that community and its members with business needs. Members' roles should align with those needs, whether that includes discussing and helping with new ideas, developing solutions or creating new capabilities. Most employees in an organization are busy and are not waiting around hoping someone will suggest that they participate in a community. People need to be attracted to communities to participate in the beginning, and must continue to find things that attract them over the life span of the community. Fluctuating business strategies, external market influences and job changes greatly impact participation in and the effectiveness of CoPs; therefore, annual and systematic alignment checks should be conducted by CoP leaders and support teams.

Regardless of whether a community is formally supported or informally created, research suggests that it is critical to create a charter or business case to clearly articulate its scope, goals and purpose. Additionally, that document should act as a "living" embodiment of the CoP and should be revisited at least annually for updating, revising and validating. Community sponsors, leaders and facilitators, and members of the core team should actively engage in that process. Be sure to have a representative group from the CoP work together on that; leaving it to just one or two individuals could potentially cause resentment or issues with lack of ownership.

For example, after Fluor deploys a community, the KM team encourages community leaders to revisit the community mission and charter on an annual basis to ensure they are still in line with organization and business strategy. The team also encourages community leaders to look for new opportunities to integrate knowledge sharing and collaboration into their members' work processes. Fluor uses its community performance system to get much of that accomplished. Using the community's charter, the system is designed to:

  • translate community business objectives into measurable activities (value),
  • identify planned value to be generated, and
  • coincide with fiscal year for budgeting purposes.

Community leaders take the objectives outlined in the community charter and place them in an evaluation template to weight and define them. Two important questions they ask at that point are: "How are we doing (against objectives)?" and "What do we want to change?" Those objectives turn into action plans. Two such action plans to come out of the system are "clean sweep" and knowledge gaps. Clean sweep involves identifying old content and data, which has turned into noise in the community site, and cleaning it to eliminate the noise. Knowledge gaps are the identification of where a community lacks key knowledge. Plans are then made to fill those gaps. Communities are tasked to revisit their charter and evaluate their performance against the system annually.

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