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.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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 maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com

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.

A value-led KM story

I have blogged many times about how Knowledge Management should be value-led, and driven by the needs of the business. Here’s a story of how one KM Community leader helped define that value in a very graphic form. 

Image from wikimedia commons

The story was told to me by my friend Johnny, who was at one time the leader of a highly successful Community of Practice in the Oil Refining sector. The great thing about Johnny’s story is that way that the Community were able to make an enemy of the waste in the production process.

Johnny took this Cost of Lost Knowledge and personalised it as a thief – “The Phantom”.

Here’s Johnny’s story.

“It is always a hard one – to wrestle with the value that a community can deliver. It is very difficult to measure somehow. In some ways you just know instinctively that it has made a difference, but to actually pin a monetary value on it, is sometimes very very difficult.

“However, we recognised that in the operating area, there was money disappearing. Every year, while the plants are running, we say “this plant could have run better – we could have got more out of this asset”. So we have lost money somewhere along the line. 

“We like to spin it around, and say that it is money that has gone to The Phantom. It has disappeared, you can’t recover it. So we need to go after this Phantom Money. 

“One of the tools that we have in the Community tool box is “Capturing The Phantom“. We actually go after the drips and the bits and pieces like that. And shared learning is very important. If you can capture what people have done before you, you can get enormous value from that. We can start to measure that less and less money is going to The Phantom. 

“People understand what The Phantom is, and they also understand that we can maybe capture The Phantom, but if we take our eye off it, The Phantom will come back. The Phantom will always come back!”

View Original Source Here.

27 ways in which a Community of Practice can add value

How can communities of practice add value? Let me count the ways.

Image from wikimedia commons

Here’s a list we made of 27 different mechanisms by which a community of practice can add value to an organisation.

No doubt you can think of more!

Community members can

  1. solve problems for each other 
  2. Learn before” starting a piece of work – using the CoP as a “Peer Assist” mechanism
  3. “Learn during” a piece of work, drawing on the knowledge of the CoP
  4. “Learn after” by sharing lessons with the community
  5. support each other emotionally, through messages of support or congratulations
  6. benchmark performance with each other 
  7. exchange resources through the community, such as tools, templates and approaches
  8. collaborate on purchasing (buying things that any one member could not justify) 
  9. collaborating on contracts (using the purchasing power of the community) 
  10. cooperate on trials and pilots 
  11. share results of studies, and maybe remove the need for others to re-do the same study
  12. exchange equipment (re-use old equipment, share spares) 
  13.  mentor and coach each other 
The community collectively can
  1. collaborate on a community blog, to act as a real-time story of what the community is collectively learning
  2. act as a learning resource for new staff
  3. build and maintain documented Best Practices, perhaps using a community wiki as a shared knowledge base
  4. build and maintain a curated document base as a shared resource
  5. decide a taxonomy and/or metadata scheme so members can record their knowledge in a consistent way
  6. recognise the most useful resources (for example through feedback and voting)
  7. recognise the most helpful and generous sharers (for example through “contributor of the year” awards)
  8. develop lists of common risks and warning signs (and what to do when you see them) 
  9. develop checklists and templates for member use
  10. create knowledge products for use by clients or customers
  11. identify knowledge retention issues 
  12. identify training gaps and collaborate on training provision 
  13. innovate new products, services or opportunities by combining ideas from everyone
  14. advise the organisation on strategy

View Original Source Here.

Are communities of practice getting smaller?

A preliminary result from the Knoco 2016 survey suggests that Communities of Practice may be getting smaller over time.

In our survey of Knowledge Management around the world, we asked a series of questions about Communities of Practice, one of which was “What is the typical size (number of members) of your CoPs and Knowledge Sharing networks?    Please choose the nearest number from the list below”.
We then gave them a series of size ranges to choose from (given that we had responses form organisations from 10 people to 30 people).
The graph above shows the number of responses for each size range, and I have restricted this graph to internal CoPs rather than external. The results from this years survey are in blue, and the results from the 2014 survey are in red.
The number of CoPs of around 10 people has increased over the last 2 years, while the number in every other size range other than the largest has decreased.
The plot below shows this as a percentage of the results rather then the absolute number of results.
This is an interesting result, and if real is perhaps rather worrying, given that larger CoPs generally perform much better than smaller ones. 

Has anyone got any ideas why CoPs seem to be getting smaller, or smaller CoPs becoming more common?

View Original Source Here.

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