Communities of practice (CoPs) are not new, but are rapidly being seen as a powerful way to help build and share knowledge and accelerate its transfer across organisations.
CoPs are basically communities of people who share knowledge, ideas and practices on a common topic. They meet face-to-face or online, or often both. While typically these days they have a dedicated website to help facilitate their knowledge sharing, this is not a prerequisite. The cavemen could be seen as an early CoP – collectively learning how to survive by sharing practices, techniques and developing their skills.
While training departments will not necessarily be involved in every CoP within their organisation, they must ensure they are instrumental in helping to providing a framework for them to exist and prosper.
Mark Pittaway, chief executive of Learning Light, the Sheffield-based learning technologies specialist, believes we are seeing a lot of roles merge, but just who runs CoPs is yet uncertain. “It is something training, HR, operations, marketing, IT or others are likely to get involved in,” he says. “But I think companies should take a holistic approach.”
Early CoPs were more organic and tended to exist with or without the support of the organisation. In some cases, interference from the company detracted rather than added to their value, says Debbie Lawley, director of the learning innovation and collaboration specialist Willow Transformations in Wiltshire.
She has worked on CoP projects with companies such as Orange and Oracle. But times have changed, she says. “CoPs are more readily recognised and perceived as being valuable now, but they need support, permission and a framework to take place,” she says. “And communities must be seen to be in alignment with what the company needs to achieve.”
Their potential when linked directly to business needs is amply demonstrated by telecoms firm Orange (see case study below), which saw a community eventually developing into a corporate function.
“Communities need to start from a desire to do something better and address a business need,” says Viri Chauhan, head of knowledge management in the Bristol-based fraud and revenue assurance function at France Telecom, parent company to Orange. “They have a far higher chance of success if they do.”
Right person for the job
Other key factors in the success of a CoP include making sure a proper facilitator is appointed to run it.
Lawley says companies often make the mistake of picking a web librarian because they see it as a data management role. She stresses that the person must be trained in facilitation skills and be a good communicator and networker.
She adds: “The responsibility for the community strategy can be from any function but it is better if they’re from a strategic one and even better if they are involved with strategic skills.”
Other common mistakes can include simply not allowing the facilitator sufficient time to make it work, relinquishing ownership of CoPs to IT under the misapprehension that they are just about technology, and a lack of funding – one reason why it is important to align them with company needs. Lawley also says that organisations must ensure CoPs are the right route to take in the first place.
“CoPs are not intended for project-based work. If there is a project to be undertaken, put together a project team,” she says. “They are designed for long-term sustainability and innovation. They can initiate projects though.”
Evidence of the growing importance of CoPs has emerged in the US, where the role of community practitioners is now a job in its own right.
“Many companies have people who spend all of their time supporting communities of practice, directly or indirectly,” says John D Smith, a coach and community steward of US-based CP Square, a CoP for those involved in communities of practice.
The increase in virtual teams and mobile and home workers, as well as the move to more project- and team-based working within many companies, means CoPs are likely to be increasingly used to foster links and help bring people together.
Case study: Orange
What began as a small virtual team posting best practice guidance in the area of fraud management for the telecoms company Orange, has evolved into a full-blown corporate function in France Telecom (Orange’s parent company).
The team grew steadily into a community, and today comprises the fraud and revenue assurance function of 20 people with an extended community of 300. They all continue to share local and global information and knowledge through a variety of vehicles, including a secure website.
“We never labelled it as a community because we felt that would make it sound like an initiative, which would have shelf-life,” says Viri Chauhan, head of knowledge management in the function at France Telecom and one of the original virtual team.
The community has helped ensure Orange and France Telecom have earned a reputation for best practice when it comes to fraud management, it provides auditors with evidence of its commitment and activity in this area, and enhances the brand. “If you demonstrate good practice in an area like this, people will want to do business with you,” says Chauhan.