Keeping communities of practice alive! by lindayy


More Info
									              Keeping Communities of Practice Alive!
Dr. Sylvie Vanasse & Amy Poynton
Business Consulting Services - IBM Australia

Groups that collaborate to share their learning and knowledge, based on a common
interest, are known as a Communities of Practice. These communities are abundant
across a vast spectrum from social-volunteer groups to commercial-high technology
and business communities. Each Community of Practice (CoP) may focus on a
particular interest, which will vary greatly across CoP’s. Regardless of the focus, most
communities will be faced with challenges when they work to create, manage and
continuously improving the Community. Importantly, these challenges directly affect
the sustainability, or demise, of the CoP.

This paper addresses three key components of communities of practice from an
organisational perspective. The three key components to be reviewed are:

   1. Identification of Effective Communities of Practice
   2. Identification of the development of community paradoxes and challenges that
      can undermine their scope and direction; and
   3. Methods and tools that is available to continually improve and sustain CoP’s.

During the last few decades, knowledge has become a more essential resource than
raw material. Thomas Stewart (1997) reports that research conducted in the 80’s
indicated that the knowledge industry (information technology and other knowledge-
based services) was 36.5 percent of GDP. Twenty years later, services represent 74%
of Australia’s GDP (Rylatt, 2003). What has also changed is the fact that most
individuals no longer remain with a single organisation throughout their working life.
They take their knowledge with them each time they leave an organisation. In
addition, organisations, from bush-care groups to global information technology
companies, recognise the competitive advantage of knowledge. The advantage is
recognised through the benefits of accelerating knowledge dissemination within the
organisation and, where possible, protecting and cultivating the knowledge within
their own walls.

Organisations are recognising that a singular mechanistic approach to capturing and
storing ‘knowledge’ in cluttered databases is doomed to failure. The reason this often
fails is that a mechanistic knowledge management approach misses out on these
insights and the creative energy that emerge when individuals share and build upon
each other’s knowledge. Knowledge is gained by individuals from years of
experience, reflections and insights. They miss that learning is a social activity – it
happens in groups (Stewart, 1997). In addition, it is simplistic and naïve to consider
that a singular approach to a complex challenge, such as knowledge sharing, would
have sustainable benefit across the CoP or the organisation itself.
Organisations have an over-reliance of explicit knowledge, however to gain
competitive advantage it is accepted that the organisation must also tap into the
individuals’ tacit knowledge – the experiences, insights and mental models that
resides in their mind. CoPs create and share tacit knowledge. The benefits gain from
CoPs to both organisations and their members are numerous. Some of the immediate
& visible benefits are that they help decrease learning curves, increase responsiveness
to customers, reduce re-work and prevent re-invention. Importantly, and sometimes
less visible, is the generation of trusted relationships across the community. These
relationships form the communities’ strength to evolve and sustain.

Though CoPs can be created relatively quickly, they can also disappear just as fast.
Further understanding CoP key components assist us to answer difficult questions
such as what makes them successful, what threats are they facing, and how they can
(or should they) be sustained.

Communities of Practice and Learning

A CoP can be defined as an informal group of individuals who share an interest and,
from their own will, coordinate their activities to resolve common problems or issues.
Lesser and Stork (2001) define it as “a group whose members regularly engage in
sharing and learning, based on common interests.”

CoPs are successful at producing learning and knowledge because they respect the
fundamental concepts of adult learning such as, autonomy, action, goal-oriented and
experience. CoP members can learn in an autonomous way and at their own pace.
Members can be actively involved in their learning and the learning of others by
directly contributing to the community. They can more easily meet their goals by
connecting with others to share lessons learned, tips and strategies. Also, members
can build on their previous experiences by leveraging from other experts in their field.
In these ways, members can also reinforce their own expertise by providing mentoring
or coaching to less experienced community members and establish a positive
reputation within that community.

All of this reinforces the human learning premise of intellectual motivate; that people
want to go a good job and are motivated to do their best work.

Just as critical is the need to make participation easy and intuitive. If participation is
difficult, particularly if it is disconnected from adult learning principles, then
practioners will be more prone to drop-out.

The twelve principles of adult learning (Hoffman, 2002) is a useful framework to
further understand the relationship between learning and community characteristics,
as outlined in figure one (1).
       Adult Learning Principle                     Community Characteristics
Motivation for Focus and Attention          w Learning is often fun, without sacrificing relevance
                                            w Often general interest & attention
Tailored to Meet Specific Needs             w Members tend to join specific to their needs
                                            w Member involvement can make it more specific to
                                            their needs – each individual member owns this.
Focus only on Building Skills that          w Communities exist to build on these skills & produce
Produce Valued Output                       output – again, will be dependent on gaining individual
                                            member involvement.
Easily Transferable                         w Examples. Case studies and Anecdotes are common
                                            among communities & easily transferable
Relevant                                    w Member driven – individuals join communities
                                            which have relevance to them
Emotionally Supportive Environment          w This can be achieved through blended approaches to
                                            learned such as face to face sessions, collaboration etc.
Provide a Clear Context                     w Communities provide context to understand “big
                                            picture” and also provides access to expertise to
                                            understand how to apply the concepts.
Emphasis Key Points                         w Effective communities would monitor and facilitate
                                            key points
                                            w This principles may be the most challenging, as
                                            communities can often tend to be “quantity” not
Adequate Environment for Practice           w Again, a blended approach would facilitate an
                                            adequate environment for collaborating & practicing
Variety & Appropriately Paced               w Members can pace to their level, and take advantage
                                            of the variety of materials & involvement
Build Student Confidence                    w Through collaboration & practice, confidence grows
Be Worth the Effort                         w In communities this is so strong, if it is not focused
                                            they members drop-out, if it is worthwhile then the
                                            community foster & grow.
                                                              Figure One (1) Reference: Hoffman (2002)

CoP’s which consider adult learning principles in their method and practice will have
a tendency to be more effective & sustainable.

Effective Communities of Practice
CoPs are informal and cannot be successfully created by non-CoP members, created
under pressure or even from persuasion. According to Thomas Stewart (1997,
communities of practice emerge of their own accord. The forces that unite them are
both social and professional. So, they can only be created by one or a few individuals
who express a common work-related or other interest.
Case Point

At IBM, communities of practice are initiated by thought leaders or experts. They are
also driven by a professional or business imperative. Professional CoPs include
project managers, educators, IT architects, etc. Business needs such as e-business,
pervasive computing or a new technology drive other individuals to form a CoP.
Though they share a common professional or business need, CoPs do not have an
agenda. They do not have to meet financial or commercial targets, unless defined by
themselves. Involvement is on a volunteer basis and can take many forms -
organising, sharing, creating, mentoring, teaching, reviewing, assessing, and so on.
                             Reference: IBM A/NZ Intellectual Capital Needs Assessment Report, S. Vanasse, 1999

CoPs are not on organisation charts nor are they managed by appointed staff. CoP
leaders volunteer and rotate as required. The leader plays the role of a coordinator and
motivator and does not become the ‘manager’ of the CoP. True CoP leadership comes
from community members who can demonstrate their expertise, experience, insights
or can make valuable contributions. Like trust, CoP leadership is earned.

An important distinction is that, even though CoPs share common characteristics with
teams, they are not the same thing. They both revolve around a common purpose or
goal. However, the goal of a team is often established by someone outside the team,
as CoP goals are established by the community members themselves. Second, team
members are normally appointed as CoP members are volunteers. Therefore, CoPs
emerge and operate differently than teams. The differences are categorised in the
following table one (1).

Teams                                              Community of Practice
Assigned Membership                                Self-selected Membership
Authority Organised                                Authority Emerges
Team Goals for Organisation                        CoP Goals for Members
Structured Work Processes                          CoP Processes Evolve
Legitimacy through Role Assignment                 Legitimacy through Interaction &
                                                               Table One (1) Reference: Lesser and Storck, 2001

To further understand the distinction of the CoP contribution to the organisation, it is
interesting to review the research and relationship of communities and social capital.
Lesser and Stock (2001) have conducted a study with seven companies that
recognised that CoPs were creating value. The study included interviews of CoP
members and categorised the interview results from which they abstracted the key
sources of individual and organisational value. It was conclude that CoPs are linked to
organisational performance through the dimensions of social capital.

Social capital is defined as the resources that are within or made available via the
network of relationships held by individuals or social units. This study identified three
social capital dimensions: structural, relational and cognitive.
The structural dimension is defined by the connections and links that members have
with one another. The perceived gain for members of the community is that it will
take less time and effort to gather information via the network of connections than on
their own. Increased connections increase the likelihood of benefit for the community.

The relational dimension refers to the relationships, the bonds and the sense of trust
the members of the community develop for each other. Without these, members risk
withholding information instead of sharing it.

The cognitive dimension is related to the common interest or the shared understanding
of the issues the community wishes to resolve. CoP members are united through their
common interest and a common language – as in ‘code’ or technical language - which
naturally sets the limits of the community. Individuals who do not share this common
context are unlikely to become members.

In conclusion this study claim that the above dimensions are the fundamental
mechanisms by which CoPs deliver value. If we wish to support the CoPs in bringing
sustainable value to the organisation, we suggest that these dimensions are taken into

The Challenges & Paradoxes

Common Definition

“A Paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.”

We believe that after a community is established, the same adult learner
characteristics that drove individuals to engage in it also create paradoxes and other
challenges that will impact the three dimensions of social capital.

We see two paradoxes that will affect the structural, relational and cognitive
dimensions of social capital: (a) the paradox of production and (b) the paradox of

The paradox of production is expressed by the desire to resolve one’s problem or
produce a desired outcome based on the learning provided by the CoP. However, this
same desire decreases the motivation to take the necessary time to create connections
and relationships in the CoP.

Case Point

The paradox of production was first explained by IBM researchers John Carroll &
Mary Beth Rosson [1987] when they observed hundreds of adult learners learning
new computer systems. They found that most adult learners tended to ‘jump the gun’
and preferred exploration to taking the necessary time to read the instructions or
follow tutorials.
                                                           Reference: IBM Knowledge Network, 1987
The paradox of efficiency is expressed by the need to learn quickly, but to do so in the
unstructured way of the CoP. Efficiency can be provided by an increased
formalisation of processes, procedures and norms, which is contrary to the informal
nature of the CoP structure.

Case Point

One of the authors was a ‘core team member’ on the IBM Project Management
community of practice. The paradox of efficiency experienced by the core team
members was due to the conflict between the need to manage the volume of
contributions made by community members and the need to formalise a process to
assess these contributions. The assessment was important to help sort out the most
valuable pieces of intellectual capital assets (mostly documents, tools and other
collaterals) and prevent overloading document repositories with non-valuable
materials. Contributions were encouraged, but too many of poor quality made the
search for reusable assets difficult, cumbersome and frustrating. Some experienced
contributors also resented their materials being assessed by others, especially if the
assessors had less experience or if they held no formal qualifications.
                                                           Reference: IBM Knowledge Network, 2002

Given the rate of change in today’s market, organisations are quick to restructure
often resulting in fluid management lines and/or matrixes. Paradoxically, as rigid
structures retreat, communities gain legitimacy and foster. Organisations concerned
with social capital as a competitive advantage recognise that while are aware that
structure change must include creative initiatives to sustain and grow communities.
(PriceWaterhouse LLP, 1996).

One of the reasons why CoPs are effective is because they are not slowed down by
hierarchical or bureaucratic processes. On the other hand, this lack of formality and
structure may appear inefficient to some CoP members. With time, a mature CoP will
have established a certain number of norms of acceptable behaviours. They will also
have developed a sense of reciprocity, trust and identification with the CoP.

Another challenge affecting the relational and structural dimensions of social capital
is the risk that the CoP becomes an isolated group and relies too much on a few
people to operate. Over reliance on one expert or leader can reduce the longevity of
the community. In the event that the leader leaves or is changed, people may opt out.
This could be sufficient to destroy the CoP.
Case Point

“…When people leave ActKM an automatic message is sent to them asking the
departing members to describe, in brief, their reasons for leaving. The responses are
usually of two types – their interests have changed or they are feeling overwhelmed
with email and are getting rid of some their listserver memberships.”

“…The ‘community advocates’ and ‘thought leaders’ are also vital. These people
pose questions, suggest speakers, promote the forum, and provide ideas, references
and links among people and organisations.”
                                                                     Reference: Callahan (2003)

As it tends to be required of teams, CoP may need a wider range of skills in order to
survive. However, this tends to be more difficult to achieve by CoP than teams
because CoP members do not necessarily have complementary skills, on the contrary,
they tend to have similar skill sets. So, a technically oriented CoP may lack the
marketing or communication skills that would allow it to raise funds. Some non-
business CoP may lack business skills such as basic accounting.

Methods and Tools to Keep CoPs Alive
Given the informal and rather spontaneous nature of CoPs, too much effort in trying
to save a dying CoP would be paradoxical. To look at how to sustain a CoP, it is
important to first look at the principles which make them successful in the first place
and then draw lessons and experiences of how these can be used for sustainability.

                           Principles of Successful Communities
       S – Sponsorship
       H – Headed by a well respected leader
       A – Are voluntary
       R – Reach new members by communicating effectively
       I – Interest of members is maintained
       N – Network by creating opportunities to meet and interact
       G – Goal / Shared Purpose
                                                                                 Vanasse, 2003

Sponsorship – Typically, to become effective and stay alive, CoPs need the support of
an Executive Sponsor. This person is usually from the line of business of the CoP
members though is rarely involves in the CoP core activities. The role of the sponsor
is to be the CoP advocate, to help promote the CoP across geographies and/or across
different lines of business, to provide the overall business directions and to provide
resources if needed. It is important to note that the sponsor does not manage the CoP.

Headed By a Well Respected Leader – Unless the CoP is totally informal, for
example, a group of workers exchanging tips at the coffee shop, someone needs to
initiate the CoP. This person tends to become its natural leader. However, this person
must be open to shared leadership and be credible. If a new leader is selected, these
two qualities should be taken into consideration.

AreVoluntary – David Snowden, Director of the Cynefin Centre for Organisation
Complexity of IBM, explains the paradox of privacy in knowledge management. This
paradox states that “if you allow people to keep their knowledge private they will
share it; if you tell them to share it, they will keep it private.” The literature on CoPs
also clearly states that CoPs cannot be owned and members volunteer to become
members. Appointing a CoP ‘manager’ should be avoided as well as micro-managing
the CoP. So, CoPs cannot be formally appointed like teams tend to be.

Reach New Members by Communicating Effectively – A good communication, even
marketing plan, will help the CoP in attracting new members and creating additional
connections between members. It may also be necessary to raise funds or obtain
sponsorship for needed resources. Some ideas include:
• Email invitations – if potential members of the community are known
• Advertisement on intranet or web site
• News Letter
Successful CoPs also communicates their achievements and by doing so, increase
their chances of obtaining additional support if needed

Interest of Member is maintained – This is linked with the cognitive dimension of
social capital. Activities that can be done include the generation of new knowledge,
by opposition to ‘administering a database’. Some activities to maintain interest are
the same as those encouraging meetings. They include:
• Invite renowned speakers to present at a face-to-face event or facilitate a web chat
• Put something new regularly on a web site to incite members to look
• Organise face-to-face meetings, seminars or conferences
• Develop email-based questions-and-answer service where members can ask
    questions to other members of the community or to experts

Network by Creating Opportunities to Meet & Interact – Successful CoPs spend a
significant amount of time in creating opportunities for the members to share tacit
knowledge and create connections. There are various means and tools that can help
members meet and connect. Some examples include:
• Holding ‘brown bag’ meetings at lunch time or breakfast seminars
• Organise coaching or training sessions
• Organise conferences
The leverage of technologies can also help CoP members meet and share ‘virtually’.
Examples include:
• Web Sites
• Chat rooms or discussion databases
• Virtual classrooms
• Web conferences or e-meetings (use of conference call simultaneously with the
    web to post presentations)
• Video-conferences
• Web jam sessions (free form threaded discussions of a short duration eg: 48 hours
    and on a specific topic)
• Electronic repositories such as document libraries or other types of databases
• CD-ROMs to store and share documents
Another technique is to help CoPs capture shared narratives or stories. David
Snowden (2001) claims that stories help bring tacit knowledge to the surface. They
are the way we communicate complex ideas. The IBM’s Story Circle methodology
helps capture elements of stories called ‘Knowledge Disclosure Points’ (KDPs).
KDPs are then used to identify knowledge assets and evaluate their vulnerability to
loss, hence making a major contribution to the formation of a knowledge management

Goal / Shared Purpose – This is the last though the most important success factor for
CoPs. It is their goal or purposes that unites them and motivate their initial

The benefits of becoming involved in a CoP are numerous. We can learn faster, get
access to experts, and even gain recognition for our own contributions. The value to
organisations is also important. CoPs help generate intellectual and contribute to
social capital. They decrease learning curves, increase responsiveness to customers,
reduce re-work and prevent re-invention.

Members are faced with many challenges. Participating in CoPs requires both
commitment and time. The learning is unlikely to take place after one meeting or
interaction, but after regular participation. CoPs evolve and, like organic systems,
some will have a better longevity than others. They cannot be forced to remain alive
due to their very nature of being voluntary, but organisations can provide CoPs with
the means that will help them survive.


Callahan, S. D. (in press). Cultivating a Public Sector Knowledge Management
     Community of Practice. In P. M. Hildreth & C. Kimble (Eds.), Knowledge
     Networks: Innovation Through Communities of Practice. Hershey PA: Idea

Carroll, J.M., Rosson, M.B. (1987). Paradox of The Active User in J.M. Carroll (Ed.),
     Interfacing Thought, Bradford/MIT, Cambridge.

Hoffman, John S., Ph.D., The Fundamental Principles of Human Learning, Mindspan
    Services, 2002.

Holder, Warwick, StoryCircles, Technique Paper, IBM Internal Document, 2001

Lesser, E.L. & Storck, J., Communities of Practice and Organisational Performance,
     IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 40, No.4, 2001

Rylatt, Alistar, Presentation to ISPI Monthly Community Meeting, Sydney Australia,
     July 2003.
Snowden, David, Organising Principles, The Cynefin Centre for Organisational
    Complexity, IBM - Internal Document, 2003

Stewart, Thomas A, Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organisations, Nicholas
     Brealey Publishing, London, 1997

Stewart, Thomas A, The Cunning Plots of Leadership, Fortune, 1998

Vanasse, Sylvie, Principles of Communities, Telephone Conversation July,2003.

Wenger, E, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge
    University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1999

To top