Analysing questions and answers in communities of practice

Analysis of search trends is common in KM – and you can use a similar approach to analyse community questions and answers.

Many organisations analyse internal searches of their Intranet or Knowledge Base, using tools similar to Google Analytics to find out what peopele are searching for, and what they find through those searches.

However your Intranet search engine is not the only tool for finding knowledge – manage aorganisations also use question and answer forums in their communities of practice.

We tried a similar approach of analysing queries in a big online community of practice recently. The queries to the community forum were already characterised into topics, because when you submit a search to this particular community of practice you have to choose which topic it is related to. So that saved us having to assign categories.

We divided these topics into four quadrants;

1. Topic categories where there were few questions, but each one got lots of answers. These tended to be areas of common knowledge, where most people knew the answer and only a few new people did not. For these topics, we could write guidelines or faqs for the benefit of the new staff

2. Lots of questions, lots of answers. These were the important and evolving Knowledge topics where it was worth while setting up community meetings so that we could start to exchange and document best practice (maybe a knowledge exchange, maybe a knowledge market).

3. Lots of questions, few answers. These were the problem areas, where some more research or action learning was needed to start to develop solutions.

4. Few questions, few answers. Our assumption was that these are not particularly important areas, but that it was worth watching them in case they developed into problem areas.

This was a very useful analysis and led to a greater understanding of the important evolving and problem topics within the community, as well as helping to suggest some community activities in order to improve their knowledge.

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Sites don’t build communities; communities build sites

It takes more than a SharePoint site to build a Community of Practice.

Image from wikimedia commons

Not for the first time, we recently ran a Knowledge Management  Assessment for an organisaton which claimed to “have lots of communities of practice”. When we pressed her a little more to find out what she meant by this term, we found that for her, a Community of Practice is a SharePoint site with a list of contributors, a blog, and a wiki. Then when we went online to look at these “communities”, the vast majority were entirely empty. Quite silent. No activity at all.

It takes far more than a SharePoint site to build a Community.

The key is in the word Community. Community is a feeling – it is a feeling of having something in common. It is a feeling of trust and of loyalty. Communities of practice deliver value in organisations because they set up structures of dual loyalty. A community member is loyal to their work team, but also loyal to their community, and this loyalty and trust is what enables the communities to be a conduit of knowledge between one work team and another.  The site is a tool they use to support the sense and feeling of community, not something that creates this feeling.

Providing a set of community tools and expecting community behaviours to emerge is a variant of the “Build it and they will come” argument. It’s like building a village hall in sectarian Northern Ireland, and expecting a multi-sect community to develop.  For many organisations, there are internal divisions and silo walls to overcome before anyone even thinks about sharing knowledge with each other.

They key is to build the community first, often through hard work and much face-to-face interaction,  and let them build the hall. Or the website/blog/wiki/whatever.  The community builds their own site.

Below is the vision I like to offer to communities of practice when it comes to building and populating their site. This is not something you do for the community, it is something the community does for itself.

Provide lots of sites, and you just end up with empty sites. Provide a sense of community, and the site will be built.

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Communities of Pratice at World Vision

I blogged recently about the evolution of Communities of Pratice at Shell, and how they moved from free-for-all to a more managed approach. Here is a similar evolution at World Vision.

Image from Wikimedia commons

The decision between a managed approach to communities and an unmanaged bottom-up approach is an important one. Early in the history of the topic, the unmanaged approach seemed the default, but watching the evolution of communities, it seems that this is not necessarily the best way. I have already blogged about how Shell switched their approach from managed to unmanaged, found it resulted in a drop-off in community activity, and went back to a managed approach, Here is a similar story from the charity World Vision.

The story was presented by Jack Merklein at KM Australia last month, and you can find Jack’s PowerPoints here (thanks to my colleague Ian Fry for notifying me of this story).

Jack sees Communities of Practice as fundamental to World Vision’s KM program, and a “force multiplier” for the organisation.  At the moment World Vision has 27 communities of practice organised on a voluntary bottom-up basis, with largely part time support, and over a hundred voluntary interest groups. They are finding this approach less than optimal, with a lack of guidance and training for the CoP coordinators, resulting in inefficiencies and limited learning.

They plan to move to a managed approach.

Under the new approach they plan the following

  • Each of World Vision’s 5 sectors of operation will have no more than two CoPs each – ten in total 
  • Each CoP must first be justified by a business case and have a KM Manager overseeing the CoP
  • The interest groups will be put on hold, and replaced by a focus on centres of competency 
  • A KM/CoP advisory committee will meet to set direction for KM/CoP strategy for the Partnership 
  • Business management of World Vision’s intranet, which hosts the CoPs, will transition to the KM team

The plan is underway, and one of the next steps is development of a Knowledge Management strategy aligned with the mission and objectives of World Vision, which guide the CoP Business Case implementation and other policies/procedures for CoPs

We will watch the development of CoPs at World Vision with interest.

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Communities of practice – managed or unmanaged?

Is the best approach to Communities of Practice a managed one, or an unmanaged one?

There has always been a polarity of views between those who see Communities of Practice as something that should be allowed to flourish naturally and unmanaged, springing up as a bottom-up initiative in response to user demand, and those who see communities as more powerful when they are aligned with the business strategy, and managed from the top down to provide a valuable resource to their members.

In this top down selection , the company decides on strategic knowledge areas, and deliberately selects communities to support these, assigning leadership and core members and securing resources. This allows resources to be spent supporting the communities which will have most value to the company, but sometimes these top down communities may not align with the interests of the workers.

In contract, in the bottom-up selection, the company enables the organizations with community tools, and watches for communities that form spontaneously around an area of business need. These CoPs are often high energy, but may not coincide with areas of knowledge which are strategic for the business. Also it is all too common to find multiple CoPs starting up which cover the same topic as each other, and communities that initially flourish then wither and die.

Given that we have two stakeholder groupings in KM (management and knowledge workers) and both need to be satisfied, and given that satisfying one without the other can lead to instability in your KM program, how do we choose which way to support our CoPs?

Shell’s experience

Let’s look at some real experience. As part of a Linked-In discussion on “Communities of practice, limited or unlimited”, we have a useful story from Arjan van Unnik, who was head of Knowledge Management at Shell.

“In my experience the decision about “limited”or “unlimited” turned out to be an underestimated parameter … I managed a portfolio with some 35,000 users (no pre-registration – everybody personally requested membership for 1 or more communities).  ….Initially we carefully managed the CoP’s, based on skillpools. Than the step was made where everybody via the IT department could request a community. The fragmentation resulted in roughly 35% reduced activity in the communities. I had to implement corrective actions and increase the management of the portfolio.” 

 “1 of the biggest breakthroughs was when we combined this unmanaged set of 100+ CoP’s into a managed set (15+ years ago, and violating all theories about CoP’s). Other companies that are successful in CoP’s (Fluor, Schlumberger) also manage their portfolio. I’ve heard about a company that did not manage their portfolio, ending up in more CoP’s than number of staff… Not managing the portfolio indeed implies the risk of ending up in a situation that again staff do not know which communities to join – we had that as well back in 1997, before we started to manage the portfolio”.

So Shell tried both approaches – managed and unmanaged. The switch from managed to unmanaged led to a reduction in activity, leading Shell to switch back again.

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When learners become teachers – how community roles shift over time

Community of practice members may start by being learners and end up being teachers who still learn.

Let’s look at patterns of behaviour in a Community of Practice forum, or discussion area.

  • When a novice employee is very new to an organisation or to a topic, they are usually very quiet in a community forum. They are still learning the basics, which they get from training and from the community knowledge base, and they spend 100% of their community time watching and reading community discussion. They don’t tend to ask questions on the forum – their questions are still fairly basic, and if they do ask, the answer is usually a version of “read the flipping manual“.
  • After a while, and maybe quite quickly in some cases, the employee starts to face problems and issues that are not in the manual. That’s when they start to ask questions of the Community, and begin to use the Community members themselves as a resource. They move from 100% lurking and reading, to (over time) mostly asking.
  • After a bit more time, the employees begin to find that they themselves can answer the questions of others. They have become practitioners, they understand the practice, and can share the lessons they have learned. This can happen relatively quickly as well – I remember interviewing one guy who was less than 2 years into the company, and a question came up on the community forum which was related to a special study he had just completed.  He answered this successfully, and reported how pleased he was to be able to “feed something back” to the CoP.
  • The more experienced members- now experts in their topic –  may take on a leadership role in the CoP, as core team members, or as subject matter experts, with accountability for teaching and for owning some of the Knowledge Assets of the Community.  However a good expert never stops learning. Only last week I saw, in a busy community forum, an expert asking for feedback, comments and advice on a document she had produced. Even the most advanced expert should spend some time asking, some time answering, and some time teaching.
Now lets map some demographics onto the diagram above. 
Imagine a far-eastern company, with many many young staff, and few experts. Here the bulk of the staff will be in the Red area in the diagram, with a few in the other segments. This CoP will act more like a Teaching CoP, with relatively little discussion and quite a lot of publishing.
Imagine a western engineering company, loaded with baby-boomers. Here a large proportion of the staff are in the blue, yellow and green segments. The bulk of community activity will be about discussion and dialogue, rather than about publishing and reading. 

As always, it’s more complicated than any simple model will allow, and there is no “one size fits all” approach, but different communities of practice may operate in different ways in different settings, largely driven by the experience profile of the community members. 

View Original Source Here.

What is a healthy activity level for a community of practice?

How active should a community of practice be?

Photo from

Healthy communities of practice are busy communities of practice, but what sort of activity levels should you aim at?

It depends on the type of community, of course, and the  excellent publication from the National College for School Leadership “100,000 heads are better than one (lessons from the worlds largest online learning community)” suggests target activity levels for three types of community.

Within this document, they talk about activity levels, and the level of community “Buzz”. They answer the question “How loud should the buzz be?” by saying that as a rule of thumb, a good level of buzz is generated if, in one month

for a large community of practice (more than 50,000 members): 

  • 10 per cent of members visit 
  • 15 per cent of visitors contribute (1.5% of members overall)
  • each contributor leaves between two and three contributions 

 for a smaller community set up to meet a need or complete a project: 

  • 75 per cent of members visit 
  • 50 per cent of visitors contribute 
  • each contributor leaves between four and five contributions 

For a learning group set up around a ftf event, where all participants are expected to visit as part of the event:

  • 100 per cent of members visit 
  • 100 per cent of visitors contribute 
  • each contributor leaves more than five contributions

View Original Source Here.

A story of how a community lost trust

It is possible for the members of a Community of Practice to lose trust in the community as an effective support mechanism. Here’s one story of how that happened.

The story is from one of Knoco’s Asian clients.

  • This community started well, with 4 or 5 questions per week from community members. 
  • The community facilitator forwarded these questions to community experts to answer, rather than sending them to the whole community and making use of the long tail of knowledge.  This may well have been a cultural issue, as her culture reveres experts.
  • Sometimes the expert would answer on the community discussion forum, but most of the time they answered by telephone, or personal visit. Therefore the community members did not see the answer, and were not even aware the question had been answered.
  • Often the expert did not have enough business context to answer the question (this is a complicated business), so when they did answer on the forum, the answer was vague and high-level. In a culture where experts are not questioned, nobody interrogated these vague answers to get more detail. 
  • Often the questions themselves were asked with very little context or explanation, so it was not possible to give good answers. The community facilitator never “questioned the question” to find out what the real issue was.
  • Where there was a discussion around the question, it very quickly went off-topic. Again the facilitator did not play an active role in conversation management.
  • When the facilitator followed up, to see if the questioner was satisfied by the answer, the answer was usually No.
  • A year later, the questions have dropped to 1 or 2 a month.
As far as the community members were aware through observing interactions on the forum, the questions seemed either to receive no answer (as the real discussion happened offline), or to receive worthless answers.  The users lost trust in the community forum as a way to get questions answered effectively, and have almost stopped asking. 
One way to revitalise this community will be to set up a series of face to face meetings, so that the members regain trust in each other as knowledgeable individuals, then ask the members to help design an effective online interaction. This will almost certainly involve asking the community and not the experts, and making much more use of the facilitator to get the questions clarified, to make sure the answers are posted online, to probe into the details of vague answer, and to keep the discussions on topic.
This sort of discussion is needed at community kick-off, so the community can be set up as an effective problem-solving body, and so that the members trust that their questions will be answered quickly and well.

If the members do not trust that the community will answer their questions, they will soon stop asking.

View Original Source Here.

Four quadrants of community activity

We can use a simple quadrant to remind ourselves of four areas of community knowledge activity.

This diagram came out of a conversation with a community of practice leader, who was wondering what to do with his portal. He had created a massive database of community documents, and had the company experts providing blogs, and was wondering what to do next. Should he put in a search engine, for example?

My suggestion was to look at the twin aspects of Personalisation (Connection of people) and Documentation (Collection of documents), and of Push and Pull (Supply of knowledge and demand of knowledge).

These two dimensions, each with two complementary aspects, define a Boston Square with four quadrants, as shown here.

Our community leader was addressing the Push side of knowledge transfer, but was neglecting the Pull. Certainly he realised he needed a search engine to allow Pull from teh documentation, but even more than that, he needed to address the behaviour of, and the support for, asking.

We agreed that his community portal should address the four quadrants in the diagram above, and should give equal weight to each (if you are to emphasise any one quadrant, make it the Top Right quadrant). So the portal should include

1) the ability for people to ask the community a question, plus the roles and behaviours that mean that this question is answered, and answered well and quickly;
2) the ability for SMEs and others to blog about new knowledge they have gained and which needs to be shared;
3) the ability for people to search for and find documents they need;
4) The ability for SMEs and others to publish documents which may be of use to others.

My advice to a community portal owner would be tackle all 4 of these quadrants, in the order shown above, from 1 through 4.

View Original Source Here.

Why you need pull-based community meetings

Don’t just run your community meetings as presentations; instead engage in real multi-way dialogue around important questions.

I have blogged several times about Push and Pull in Knowledge Management – about the dangers of focusing only on Push (such a common strategy, unfortunately), and about the need to create a culture of pull – a demand for knowledge, a thirst for learning.

Push is Knowledge Supply – an answer looking for a problem – “Just in case” KM, with re-use only in the case where the knowledge happens to meet a need. Pull is knowledge demand – a problem looking for an answer – “Just in time” KM, with guaranteed re-use.

The need for creating Pull operates at many levels – in Communities of Practice, on websites, even in face to face meetings.

However very often community meetings are not designed this way. Very often they as “show and tell” meetings, where an expert is brought in, and the community members sit passively and listen. The members are treated as knowledge consumers, whereas the real value of a community is that ever member has knowledge to offer, as well as knowledge to learn.

One variant of these meetings is the dreaded “lunch and learn” – one of my pet hates. There are many reasons why I dislike “lunch and learn”;

  • they assume that community meetings can’t take place in “real working hours” and need to be held at lunchtime (thus perpetuating the idea that “KM is not Real Work”;
  • they assume you can eat and listen – that you don’t need to pay full attention;
  • they assume you don’t need to take any notes (with your hands full of sandwiches);
  • they assume that the people who turn up will be passive listeners and not active contributors. After all, how much can you contribute with your mouth full of food?
This is the worst way to transfer knowledge – a one-way presentation to a bunch of people who are busy doing something else.

If this is your approach to community meetings, then consider turning the meeting around, and base it around Questions and around Dialogue. Identify before hand the major questions and problems within the CoP (maybe using a Knowledge Market approach) , and build the agenda around those questions. Use the collective knowledge of the Community to address the questions. Bring that knowledge to bear on the most pressing business problems, so that every person leaves the meeting with a problem solved, and with new connections, new links, and a renewed sense of community value, and having contributed as much as they gained.

Maybe use a knowledge exchange approach, with small problem-solving break-out groups to make sure that everyone was involved in the dialogue. Not a series of presentations that probably very few people would be interested in, even if they weren’t eating lunch at the same time.

Even the face to face meetings need to be driven by Pull, if they are to really impact the business.

View Original Source Here.

How communities of practice can help reduce staff turnover.

There are many ways in which Communities of Practice add value to an organisation, 27 of which are listed here.  Here is a 28th way.

There is a really interesting analysis of Communities of practice from the Geneva Knowledge forum which looks at CoPs in several large multinationals, and which points out some of the softer benefits. For example, CoP members can get the following personal benefits:

  • the thrill of participating in an exchange of ideas with like-minded colleagues who share a common interest and skills, resulting in a major boost to organisational members’ motivation and satisfaction at work;
  • the feeling of belonging to a group and the particular value of recognition by peers who are perceived as competent judges of one’s own ideas and performance;
  • the possibility of honing existing skills and developing new ones through participation in network activities is an obvious plus for individual performance;
  • networks may serve as a ‘shop window’ for talented employees. 

As a result, network membership not only engages the employee, but also helps the showcasing of individual performance towards an audience that is ‘ready to promote.’

The article quotes the following example from Deutsche Bank

Networks at Deutsche Bank focus on this particular aspect. The company learned its network lesson the hard way. In 2000, the acquisition of Bankers’ Trust prompted an exodus of key investment bankers — taking accounts with them. However, top managers were less concerned by the loss of accounts than by the loss of knowledge, which they feared could potentially have even more severe consequences. After all, the managers who quit the organization had an in-depth understanding of key procedures and they knew best how to manage their customer relationships. 

In 2000, Deutsche Bank decided that merely tracking turnover was not sufficient, so it made explicit efforts to develop an indicator to measure the commitment of key individuals to the company. The reasons individuals left the bank proved the point that best-practice networks are one of the most important tools for tying highly qualified managers to the organization.

View Original Source Here.

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