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Communities of Practice: The Differentiator for Collaborative Knowledge

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez

Communities of Practice: The Differentiator for Collaborative Knowledge
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As organizations have evolved and learned that it is ok, and even expected, for people to make mistakes. The faster mistakes are made and corrected, the faster to market with a working solution. However, people need to learn from these mistakes – people beyond the product team, so that all can avoid a similar future mistake. The good news is that technological advancement has opened the door and driven collaborative platforms that facilitate knowledge sharing among peers. Yet turning a group of people into a community takes some extra effort.

Learning involves many ingredients in varying amounts such as theoretical knowledge, experiments and tests, our own experience, and the ability to access the knowledge of others. The traditional learning models are still in practice but have changed in their form and scope.

In this article, I want to share what makes a Community of Practice (CoP), what they can contribute, how they can help organizations, how to organize them to achieve their maximum potential, and what value they can bring as a means of fostering and disseminating knowledge.

What is a Community of Practice?

Communities of Practice are an evolution of models we already know, but with an orientation and scope that make them a powerful tool for acquiring and developing knowledge and skills. A Community of Practice is an organized group of people who meet regularity around areas of common knowledge and interest.

At these meetings, members share their experiences, best practices, and knowledge for the benefit of the community. The rest of the rules of operation, objectives, mechanics, work methods, ways of sharing knowledge, or the community’s own organization are only aids to achieve its objective. The ideal way to reach it is through what the community members themselves define, although they can also be directed, to a greater or lesser extent, by the host (an organization, for example).

This type of organized group has always existed, generally supported by very informal mechanisms. They have allowed us to contrast our own experience with the experiences of other people in the same domain of knowledge or activity.

Formally, a Community of Practice assumes that the people who participate in them are highly knowledgeable and skilled in the domain in question (surgeons, plumbers, Java programmers, property registrars, embroidery enthusiasts, etc.). There are other types of communities, those of interest, which include people who want to learn and acquire knowledge in a new domain. However, when we talk about Communities of Practice today, especially in business organizations, we are talking about a model that includes experts and learners: all the people in an organization who are interested in a given activity or knowledge area.

How can a Community of Practice contribute to an organization?

A Community of Practice can serve any purpose. While they were first formalized in the field of technology (a study on Xerox equipment repairers), the term has more recently become popularized within agile ways of working and organizing. 

In fact, Spotify has popularized a cultural model comprised of squads, tribes, chapters, and guilds. Guilds are lightweight communities of interest that cut across the organization and bring people together to share knowledge and experiences about a specific area. SAFe, or Scaled Agile Framework, also incorporates Communities of Practice into its definition of an organization. Communities are a common element in agile organizations, although they can be established and applied in any other area.

From an agile perspective, Communities of Practice are groups of autonomous, self-organized people who work as a team for a common goal: to enriching the community itself with the contributions of others. They are a means to break silos, one of the ways to move towards agile organizations.

Also, the self-management and self-organization aspect of agile is very relevant to CoPs. Nothing prevents a company from promoting and directing its own Communities of Practice from above, but we also know that nothing is more effective than an initiative that emanates and is encouraged directly from the people who promote it

How can an organization organize a Community of Practice?

A community raised and managed by the organization will find it more difficult to attract and promote collaboration between people. It will also take more effort to encourage and keep it alive. 

Obviously, incentives (both positive and negative) can be brought into play, but in an activity of this type, encouraging them to grow from grassroots will help the communities to be more dynamic, active, and useful to everyone… both for their members and for the whole of the organization.

The best thing an organization can do is to facilitate the creation of communities. When there is real interest, communities end up existing in one way or another, sometimes even outside the walls of the organization. Encouraging its emergence and ease of operation will create a flow of knowledge within the company that will enrich it.

What kinds of actions can a company take to foster communities of practice?

  • Provide tools that facilitate its operation such as mailing lists, collaborative spaces to house the knowledge generated, communication media, and any other technical utility that may be needed.
  • Provide physical means such as rooms and spaces for them to meet regularly
  • Add specific incentives to reward involvement and collaboration in company communities
  • But most importantly, make it easier for people to participate in the communities. This means placing value on community participation so it is viewed as a priority instead of a secondary or to any other task, even one of low priority.

The company can also help maintain the health and effectiveness of communities. For starters, require a minimum of people interested and committed to launch it. Communities that do not meet, do not have activity, or do not exchange messages can be an indicator of both a topic that is losing interest and of people who cannot dedicate time to improve their knowledge and skills. Also, thanks to proactive members who have identified a need, new communities can also help the company to identify new technologies, tools, and areas of activity.

It is important to note that if sharing knowledge and experiences is what you are looking for, members (those available) must meet. If meeting in a physical location creates an impediment, meet virtually. The meeting itself can simply be an occasion for conversation to emerge spontaneously or serve a particular purpose.

What's the value of a Community of Practice?

The type of activities that members will experience to gain knowledge are quite varied:

Internal training can be more or less formal but ultimately consists of community members who share knowledge or experiences with others. For example, it can be a way of disseminating information and skills acquired in courses, at events, or through the experience of a new technique or tool.

Discussions are best if they are structured around a topic of focus to guide it towards aspects that interest all its members. They can be used to share different points of view, find a solution for common problems together, or propose improvements that affect the entire organization. In fact, it can be a channel to defining the adoption of tools, best practices, or standards in the community domain.

Challenges and activities apply the knowledge and experience of community members to a specific problem. For example, members of a Developer community could compete in hackathon to complete the foundations for a new product. Challenges may have specific incentives associated with them. Communities themselves can create their own internal challenges and have company-provided means to reward individuals with the most outstanding contributions.

In terms of training, the Communities, in addition to promoting and managing internal courses, can also be a channel for managing the external training needs of their members. Organizations may even provide their Communities with a training budget that can be used to acquire external materials, tools, or courses.

At first, the idea of handing over control of learning and development into the hands of the community can lead to resistance in some departments, but it is the best way to truly meet needs and expectations of those needing the knowledge. Doing so requires delegating responsibility from centralized departments (whose contribution will continue to be essential for coordinating and facilitating access to training) to people and teams, who will be the ones acquiring new capabilities and with them also new responsibilities. Within an agile environment, it is naturally assumed that autonomous teams are responsible for bringing products forward. With Communities, it is possible to leave the course of their own professional evolution in the hands of the people.

Another function of Communities of Practice within an organization it is to connect people with common interests who don’t have a regular opportunity to collaborate. For example, a community about Blockchain or Big Data does not have to be exclusively for people with a technical profile. On the contrary, it is a great opportunity to include people from legal, marketing, and any other area that may be interested in a subject. This is one of the great values of the Communities: they help to structure organizations and facilitate the circulation of information beyond the internal borders (silos). This helps to create true multidisciplinary teams where new proposals for improvement and ideas for products and services emerge more easily.

How do you maintain a Community of Practice?

For a community regular and constant, sustainable activity, it requires maintaining a rhythm, a certain discipline, and preventing a decline in interest. In some Communities this happens naturally, but in others it is necessary to introduce mechanisms that keep them alive and active. An organization can use rewards or incentives, recognition, or simply listen and respond to the Community ideas and requests to keep it energized.

Having one or more people who act as leaders, promoters, or facilitators of the community is also crucial. These are the people who schedule meetings, talk with its members to identify possible activities, devise topics and forms of collaboration, ensure the tools of the community serve their purpose, and, in short, make the Community activity flow. 

From an agile perspective, it would be like having a Scrum Master in each Community. This role (or roles, depending on what the Community decides) can:

  • rotate, be elected by vote, or nominated
  • have a special recognition or just be another community member
  • require more or less of a time commitment (normally, it is very little)

Whatever form it takes, know that there is a great difference in Communities who have a facilitator versus those without one.

Whether or not an organization has adopted agile frameworks and ways of working, Communities of Practice are essential tools for connecting people and enriching their knowledge and experience. Its cost is minimal in relation to the benefits obtained:

  • circulating of information and experience
  • introducing different and complementary profiles to each other
  • addressing activities of high value for the entire company
  • providing a more satisfactory personalized training model

Any company that aspires to high performance and continuous improvement should have Communities of Practice as one of the basic tools to achieve its objectives.

Thank you,

– Alonso

communities of practice

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About the Author

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez, Netmind Lead Expert in Enterprise Agility, has over 25 years of experience and a successful track record of increasing personal and team productivity through agile methods. His knowledge spans agile related methods of Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, SAFe, Management 3.0, and Lean into software engineer areas such as cloud, video, and content management. and has played many roles in the software industry, including Developer, Consultant, QA, Project Manager and Department Manager. As an instructor, his objective is to help students gaining new skills and knowledges; as coach and mentor, he helps them overcome challenges and difficulties by putting in practice new ways of working and organizing. He is passionate about innovation, future forecasting, and overall agile philosophy, frameworks, and methods. Alonso is certified and experienced Scrum Master, Product Owner and Agile Coach. Author of two books and several articles about Agile methods and practices. Mountain bike, nature, cinema, traveling and photography are his other passions. Connect with Alonso on LinkedIn.

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