Sunday, December 12, 2010

Communities of Practice: Leading Practices

Communities of Practice (CoP’s) are not a new concept, however, sustaining community enthusiasm, with challenging growth and continual learning experiences, is critical to sustain long term community engagement.

Coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the 1990's a community of practice is a group of people who share an interest, a craft, or even a profession. CoPs can exist either online, in discussion groups, in newsgroup, or in real life. They are an evolution from working group like Quality Circles from the 1980's but an evolution in terms as a result of the focus on community from the cultural anthropological perspectives, vs productivity improvement perspectives. The one common learning element was the emphasis on story telling to share knowledge, transfer practices and create shared meanings, and experiences. A community is most healthy when the stories are rich in meaning. One of the key success factors in leading CoP organizations is the constant mining of stories to keep the community fresh, and behaving as a strong learning organism.

This was recently validated by AQPC in their Collaborative Benchmarking Study, however, their insights are not particular new, as those of us who have been experts in Collaboration for over 25 years, know that a community of practice needs to have a strong sense of purpose.

Although it’s fairly easy to hold people’s interest when a community is new, initial enthusiasm often settles into apathy, and keeping members actively engaged can prove challenging. Leading practice organizations typically use several techniques to promote long-term member engagement. These include:

„ providing a center of excellence, or one stop shopping with expertise in content, resources, ask an expert, research sourcing;

„ provide a place for learning by holding regular activities and learning events, and

„ provide a vision for the value of leading and participating in CoPs for leadership development as a core capability important to organizational growth, and ensure leadership measurement systems look for in performance reviews active demonstration of knowledge management, of which participation in CoP’s is a clear expectation of performance accountabilities.

Below is some excerpts from both AQPC research, but also from our research at Helix Commerce.


1.) Provide a center of excellence, or one stop shopping.

Organizations committed to Collaboration, KM or CoP health ensure a Center of Excellence (COE) is clearly established. Companies like: Accenture, Bain, Caterpillar, Conoco, Phillips, Fluor, IBM, and Schlumberger have embedded KM/Collaboration or CoP practices for some time now. New innovators like RIM, have only recently developed CoP strategy capabilities, but with such a young and talented culture, adopting collaboration practices is germane to their unique and creative DNA.

Some of the importance practices needed in a COE is ensuring strong leadership and a governance process for sustaining a long term collaboration vision. Some of the activities they typically do are regularly hosting events and providing learning opportunities, best-practice communities offer a one-stop shop for content and resources. This means that everything related to a particular topic—documentation, how-to articles and videos, discussion forums, collaboration spaces, contact information for experts, notices regarding virtual and in-person events, and so on—is accessible through the community interface. Most elements are available through both “push” mechanisms (i.e., community members can go to their respective communities to search for information) and “pull” mechanisms (i.e., community members can sign up to receive alerts whenever new content and resources become available).

2.) Provide a place for learning

Many communities become places of learning for their members through the myriad of resources they offer, from expertise location services and discussion forums to content repositories and tips documents. For example, Schlumberger’s communities host regular Webinars led by experts, enabling members to expand their knowledge while networking with their peers. Similarly, at ConocoPhillips, career development strategies highlight the importance of community membership as a means of professional growth and development.

Fluor takes this strategy one step further by making its communities a destination for employees seeking career development and learning resources. Information on career paths, formal training opportunities, and links to the learning management system are all available within the communities section of the organization’s knowledge sharing portal. According to Fluor’s vice president of KM and technology strategies, no employee is required to join a community nor, once he or she joins, to be an active member. However, if a person wants to keep abreast of his or her peers professionally, community membership and involvement are critical.

Another technique that best-practice organizations use to keep community members engaged is to schedule regular community activities and events. The type of activity—monthly community
projects, teleconference calls, bi-weekly Webinars led by subject matter experts, lively discussion forum exchanges—does not seem to matter. What is important is that there is a variety of frequent, structured activities that focus on relevant topics or issues and engage a significant portion of a community’s membership. For example, ConocoPhillips’ knowledge sharing team holds an annual, face-to-face Network Leader Summit at the organization’s headquarters where community leaders can network and share tips for managing communities. Schlumberger’s communities hold Webinars hosted by experts once or twice a month, with many Webinars drawing more than 100 participants. Fluor leverages similar activities in addition to some that are unique to the organization, such as an annual campaign to collect and promote KM success stories and a community-based mentoring program that pairs subject matter experts with less experienced colleagues.

3. Provide a vision for the value of leading and participating in CoPs for leadership development as a core capability

For CoP’s to sustain their growth capabilities, leadership needs to ensure there is a clearly defined vision for what a CoP is, why a CoP is a key organizational learning enabler, and what value they bring to an organizations health systems in terms of: innovation, employee engagement & loyalty, customer loyalty, & share holder value (Productivity improvements, and supporting profitable revenue and growth goals).

CoP measurement systems need to be linked carefully to broader KM and collaboration systems. and also performance appraisal systems.

Organizations that regularly inspect the health of their CoP’s against a more strategic KM and collaboration framework will be more successful than those cultures that have inconsistent and lack of integrated collaboration practices.


The key to member engagement for any organization is to establish communities as hubs where employees can get help with tasks, take advantage of professional development opportunities, and/or engage with like-minded peers around issues of mutual interest.

Employees must know that the community can meet their needs. When a community gains a reputation as the place for learning and networking, it becomes a powerful mechanism that ties employees to their colleagues, their departments or functions, and the organization as a whole. Communities are instrumental in making employees feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of belonging is a strong motivator for participation and an enabler of long-term community success.

When Dr. Jose Claudio Terra, Heidi Collins and I wrote Collaboration Commerce, we explored the importance of CoPs as a core competency in enabling collaboration health in organizations.

Source Inspiration and Recognition:

APQC’s 2010 report Sustaining Effective Communities of Practice


Anonymous said...


I read this post two times.

I like it so much, please try to keep posting.

Let me introduce other material that may be good for our community.

Source: Performance appraisal systems

Best regards

P Dreco said...

I wonder how many COPs were created from the top of the organization and how many came from the field.

I'm involved now with a field created construction COP and am interested in hearing about similar attempts

Stu said...

Great post will be following and reading much more from you!!


Stewart Higgins
Intranet Expert
Intranet Software

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