Knowledge management: Learning in the community

When an employee leaves, so does an organisation’s knowledge. One way of countering this is to set up communities of practice, as Sue Weekes reports.

Finding a way to ensure an organisation’s expertise doesn’t walk out the door with employees when they leave is high on the agenda for many HR professionals. Organisations are reliant on the skills and know-how of their staff, and are acutely aware that they have to find ways of preserving it.

To tackle the issue, some companies are realising the benefits of communities of practice (CoPs) as potentially powerful tools in helping to manage and propagate knowledge. CoPs are groups that share knowledge, ideas and practices on a common topic. They meet face-to-face or online, or often both.

Virtual teams

CoPs are springing up thanks to global market forces – employees move around a lot more – and also because there is an increase in virtual teams and homeworkers, as well as changing internal working practices.

“As companies move from being more hierarchical to project-based in their approach to working and workers, communities of practice will become a very important aspect,” says Mark Pittaway, chief executive of Learning Light, a learning technologies specialist. “They’ll be the glue in many organisations as the more formalised line management hierarchy breaks down.”

So what is HR’s role in CoPs, and how can it encourage the setting up of such communities? If HR doesn’t get involved, it may find that other departments take ownership of the organisation’s knowledge.

Some years ago, according to Pittaway, the trend for ‘knowledge management’ led to organisations building fantastic repositories for documents and records, but employees were still not sharing that knowledge among themselves.

However, HR should not get too hung up on ownership of CoPs, as by their very nature they are self organising, says John D Smith, a coach and community steward of US-based CP Square, a community of practice for those involved in communities of practice.

Rather, HR should focus on providing structure and support for communities to exist and flourish. “Communities need support, permission and a framework to take place,” says Debbie Lawley, director of the learning and collaboration specialist Willow Transformations, who has worked on CoP projects with companies such as Orange and Oracle.

“Communities must be seen to be in alignment with what the company needs to achieve,” she says.

Flourishing community

At the Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA), communities must provide a statement of why they should exist, says Helen Sinclair-Ross, talent management consultant at IDeA and project leader of its talent management CoP.

And once up and running, the community leader must then ensure the community flourishes.

“You must feed information into the community all the time and ensure users are engaged with it,” she says. It is a good idea to have a hub of people to help stimulate and propagate the flow of information as well as discussion, she adds.

Other active IDeA local government communities cover areas as diverse as the Cornish language, community cohesion and policy and performance.

Another factor in building successful CoPs lies in appointing the right facilitator or leader for the community. Picking the wrong person is a common mistake.

“Some organisations pick a web librarian, for instance, because they see it as a data management role, which it isn’t,” says Lawley.

“The person must be trained in facilitation skills and be a good communicator and networker – a party host, who is committed to linking people up.”

Other common errors include not giving the facilitator time to devote to the community, a lack of funding for face-to-face events, and giving ownership of CoPs to IT.

Lawley admits that, while IT has a role to play in storing and transporting the data, it should not oversee community development. Interactive forums, webcasts and podcasts are important for knowledge-sharing, but it is important not to over-complicate the issue.

“Make sure any technology used is simple,” concludes Lawley. “You must ensure equality when it comes to being able to see and access material. Technology shouldn’t get in the way.”

Case study

The Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA) launched a community of practice (CoP) around talent management last October. It has more than 220 members from local authorities and the private sector.

“We wanted to ensure it provided people with practical solutions,” says Helen Sinclair-Ross, talent management consultant at IDeA and project leader of the CoP. “There is plenty on the internet about talent management, but not much specifically for local government.”

Content on the community’s website includes an events calendar, a document library, wikis (online user-generated encyclopaedias), blogs, podcasts and interactive forums, which are particularly popular.

One of the most notable contributions so far has been from Janet Berry, recruitment and strategy manager at Bracknell Forest Borough Council. She managed to save £192,000 in costs in just six weeks at the authority, and posted some of her work on the IDeA site so that other local authorities could share her knowledge.

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