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Sustaining communities of practice

Assessing community alignment with business and CoP goals annually is not the only activity the partners take to ensure the sustainability of their CoPs. It is important to continually promote CoPs to engage new members, re-engage existing members and sustain the community over its life span.

Promote and sustain CoP activity

While aligning organizational and CoP goals is the first step on the road to success, most communities need regular care and feeding to promote the best results. Effective communities serve multiple functions, such as providing efficient channels for information sharing and personal connection, creating a dynamic repository for knowledge retention, stewarding a body of knowledge, creating innovative solutions and transferring best practices. Participating in communities can help employees come to a shared understanding of some problem or need and can provide an exchange for relevant information with like-minded individuals.

Communities also become the owners of key knowledge even while the individual experts and content providers come and go, reducing the potential danger of demographic shifts or business cycle changes. It behooves the organization to promote communities to achieve all of the intentional goals (and unintentional benefits such as employee satisfaction, improved "culture" and fewer silos) they lay out. Because communities also provide a way to steward competencies and maintain cutting edge thinking, encouraging CoP leaders, members and management sponsors to continually improve their working processes, engage new members and find new ways to provide benefits is critical to the future success of the organization.

To increase member engagement, efforts should include word of mouth, strong CoP facilitation, specific outreach plans by community leaders, communication by management of the importance of the community and integration of the CoP into daily work. Surprisingly, user-friendly technology was employed by 79 percent of the study participants, but was found to be only marginally effective at helping to engage members. That supports the long-term contention by many in the KM field that the best technology in the world will not help people connect to CoPs unless strong business alignment, personal value, people and content go along with it.

Examples of CoPs

Air Products and Chemicals has noted that even with active communities, passionate leaders and effective collaboration tools, people prefer to meet face-to-face to gain a full appreciation for the people with whom they are working. They encourage community leaders and members to take advantage of business-justified travel to make the personal connections that will help the communities grow and prosper. They also recommend that community leaders rotate every two years because a managed change of leadership can be very beneficial for most communities.

Leadership often rotates around the core community group for many of Air Products and Chemicals' communities. In their experience, communities with a dynamic core group and leadership pool tend to be more successful than others. It is important to have an exit strategy for community members (just like with leaders) to bring in new perspectives. The company believes that monitoring the community's progress against the measures, targets and standards established in the community charter will help to sustain and promote healthy community activity.

Arup indicated that it is critical to remember that networking and communities are based on people, not technology. In keeping with its mission and focus on people doing great work, Arup also focuses on engaging young engineers and promoting staff transfers to shorten network paths and increase inter-community connections to prevent communities from becoming stale. Individual communities use a variety of methods to ensure that members stay engaged and stretch the envelope, including lunchtime talks that cover different topics related to specific community goals, simulation and model sharing, and newsletters that focus on specific community issues and enhance the information that comes out in the corporate newsletter. Many times new employees contribute to those newsletters, sharing new perspectives from their experiences in the organization.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) community members connect with one another via the community Web site, using the discussion forums, the community directory and community events to stay in touch and share knowledge around the topic areas most relevant or interesting to them. Community facilitators work diligently to keep the community forums relevant and up-to-date with hot topics and new content. Additionally, community members participate in question-and-answer forums, share documents and work products that are of value to the larger community and help identify new pressing needs and hot topics for the community. Community leaders and facilitators use every resource at hand to keep them engaged, including contests, discussion forums on the community sites, Webinars, conference calls and more. That can be especially challenging for external-facing CoPs, which is why communication and marketing to promote the community are so crucial for FHWA's CoPs. In the early days for a community, the key is "market, market, market." FHWA also solicits external organizations to put a link on their sites to FHWA's communities. Word of mouth about the CoPs is also used extensively to reach major practitioner organizations and to get professionals in the business to talk about the CoPs.

The chart on this page (KMWorld, March 2006, P.10) shows the most valuable benefits of CoP participation for study participants (sponsors are the learning organizations that fund the research; partners are exemplar organizations that the sponsors study). Partners indicate that quick solutions to problems, best-practice transfer, the ability to ask and answer questions of peers and subject matter experts, and the ability to participate in discussions with other members ranked highest on the benefit scale. Over two-thirds of the partners also find that communities help to innovate new solutions. Documentation created by communities ranked lowest for the best-practice organizations, indicating that the primary focus remains connecting people, transferring best practices and innovating, not documenting every piece of information.

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