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Everything is fragmented—Building CoPs for knowledge flow

This article appears in the issue July/August 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 7]

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As promised, I am presenting a step-by-step approach to a low-cost knowledge management (KM) program using social computing, and will focus on the functionality that has been touted but rarely delivered by communities of practice (CoPs).

The name brings to mind Etienne Wenger’s pioneering work in observing naturally occurring use of virtual environments by engineers. The problem was that when people went from a researcher’s description of what had grown naturally in the past to a prescriptive recipe, things went wrong. People never accurately report all the factors that lead to the success or failure of a project; retrospective coherence clicks in. Also, the fact that something worked once in a specific context does not mean that it will work again even in the same conditions, or that you can accurately replicate the starting conditions. The other big problem was that people built over structured, formal top-down systems that replicated the design methodologies for enterprisewide systems like SAP.

So, let’s look at a bottom-up, naturalizing approach to building communities for knowledge flow using blogs:

Install software for blogs (designed for blogs that is, not a general package with blogs tagged on). Don’t lay down rules and regulations for their use, just set it up. Run multiple online and face-to-face training programs around the organization; ideally you train the trainer with support staff in the business units. Find the opinion leaders and get them up and running by sitting down with them every day or so to help them produce their blog for the day. Stay with them until they know what they are doing, and have gotten into the habit of regular blogging.

Do everything you can to avoid the initiative becoming a corporate program. Learn from what other people have done using blogs, but under no circumstances copy what someone else has done—no matter how successful. Your context is different. Make sure that a small cadre of people commit to early participation. Encouraging a few senior people (not the same as opinion leaders) to blog maybe once a week will help. Again, sit next to them and help them, but don’t write it for them; employees can detect that type of bad, inauthentic practice.

Now be patient. You can use social network analysis software on the blogs to see who is connecting with whom. That will also produce objective measures of connectivity where you need to have some sort of performance target. It might happen quickly or might take a year; don’t get heavy-handed, fertilize the soil. Do a bit of covert or even overt weeding from time to time, but wait for a critical mass of activity to emerge.

In parallel, talk to the experts and knowledge workers. Find out what is working and what is not. Feed one-to-one help, not training courses to get rid of log jams. Start to put in some utilities to allow sharing material across the boundaries of the informal networks. A good document repository with a search engine is one basic; teach people how to link to it. By now people should be used to HTML references, and once they get used to HTML, they will want the same facility in everything they write. Don’t make use compulsory, but make it easy and help people. Start to look at progressively removing attachments from e-mail and have people reference centralized systems.

Before you know it, you’ll have a searchable and connected knowledge management system, which adapts quickly to changing context in a way that formal communities never can. If you introduce wikis and change some e-mail behavior patterns, you will have a sustainable KM program. 

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