What makes a community of practice successful? Top 10 factors

There have been many articles and blog posts (including here) listing “Top Success Factors for Communities of Practice“. Usually these are based on a combination of experience and theory. Here’s a different approach.

Image from wikimedia commons

As part of our global global Knowledge Management Surveys in 2014 and 2017, we included an optional section on communities of practice. 251 people out of the 700 participants answered this section. Those that did were asked to rank the effectiveness of their Communities of Practice in adding value to their organisation. They were also asked to identify which of a list of CoP components they apply as part of their CoP approach.

The combination of these two questions allows us to work out which of those components make the most difference to the effectiveness of the CoPs. The “difference figure” is calculated as (average effectiveness when this component is included) divided by (average effectiveness when this component is absent), expressed as a percentage. High percentages therefore represent the greatest effectiveness impact. The top ten factors are listed below, together with their effectiveness difference (for example CoPs with a way of interacting online are rated as 23% more successful than those which don’t).

To be clear, this list is based not on theory or experience, but on looking at the common elements between successful CoPs as defined by global knowledge managers. The list is in order of declining importance, with the most important factors at the top. Obviously these elements are not independent, and so the list is approximate rather than exact.

  1. A way of interacting online – 23%
  2. A performance contract or objectives agreed with the sponsor – 20%
  3. A charter or terms of reference which reflects the members’ view of the network objectives – 19%
  4. A clear focus on business issues – 19%
  5. A business case – 19%%
  6. A defined facilitator in addition to the leader – 18%
  7. A defined leader – 17%
  8. A store for common documents – 15% 
  9. Training for CoP leaders and facilitators – 13%
  10. A collaboration tool for collaborating on documents – 11%
Also, let’s not forget that size is important, and with Communities of Practice, Bigger is Better.

So the number one requirement for effective CoPs is a way to interact online, while requirements 2, 3, 4 and 5 are all about governance and a common valuable purpose. Then 6, 7 and 9 are about leadership.

Give communities a defined common purpose, a way to interact, and good leaders, and success will follow.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Bigger communities of practice are more effective, data shows

The bigger a community of practice is, the more value it delivers. At least according to our KM surveys. 

Knoco conducted two major surveys of knowledge management programs in 2014 and 2017, collecting in total more than 700 results.

As part of the survey, participants were asked whether Communities of Practice (CoPs) formed part of their KM approach. Over 250 people then continued to answer supplementary questions about their CoPs. (this was an optional section and not all of the people running CoPs took the option)

One of these questions covered the average size of CoPs in terms of teh number of members, and another was a subjective assessment (marks out of 5) of Community effectiveness in delivering value. 
From the plot shown here, there is a very close link between CoP size and perceived CoP effectiveness. Larger is better, and the largest CoPs were ranked as the most effective. There seems to be a jump in effectiveness between 100 and 500 members, which may represent “critical mass”

This is not to say that smaller CoPs don’t add value, but respondents marked these are less effective.

As you might expect, the larger CoPs are found in the bigger organisations, confirmed by the plot below of average CoP size v organisation size. The large organisations, with CoPs of more than 100 members, are where CoPs were deemed the most effective at delivering value.

However the survey also showed that the majority of CoPs are small – the modal size being 10 people, the median 50 and the mean 250 (see plot below).

There are a lot of organisations out there with very small Communities of Practice, delivering disappointing results. If this is your organisation, with many small CoPs, then consider if possible amalgamating them, as Bigger seems to be Better.

Go here for more details of the survey results, and how to ask for a free copy.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Example Community of Practice charters

Every community of practice should have a charter, but what does a good charter look like?

Image from wikimedia commons

One of the main success factors for a community of practice is a charter.

A charter is a definitional/governance document, created by the community members, which describes what the community is for, and how it will work. Often a draft is created by the community core team, or by the people present at the community launch event, and that draft is then refined over time through discussion within the community.

The community charter usually contains the following elements:

  • Community Purpose – what the community is for; it’s high level aims and vision, and business case if appropriate 
  • Objectives – what the community is trying to achieve in concrete terms; things that you can measure
  • Scope – which areas of practice knowledge are in scope, and which are not
  • Processes – the ways in which the community will operate in order to share, use and co-create knowledge
  • Tools – the technologies the community plans to use 
  • Roles – who does what (names of the community leader, sponsor, core team etc)
  • Principles and Behaviours – which underpin the community.
Let’s look at some charter for real communities of practice, and see what they cover. My favorite is the third one.
The Community Charter for the PMI Agile Community of Practice contains the following elements:

  • Vision of Who We Are (a community of highly accountable project professionals, improving skills, expanding minds, and continuously raising the day-to-day effectiveness and professional satisfaction of project teams across the world.)
  • Mission (To equip PMI Members with Agile skills and knowledge)
  • Values
  • Goals & Objectives
    • Resources
    • Committed from our sponsor
  • Expected from community stakeholders 
  • Roles
  • Working/Operating Agreements
I like the way resources has been split out, and I like the way “values” and “operating agreements” are differentiated.

The Wisconsin Heart health community charter is a 9-page document containing the following sections:

  • Overview
  • Justification
  • Scope
    • Vision (Wisconsinites living with healthy hearts)
    • Mission (To improve cardiac health related outcomes across Wisconsin – especially a reduction in hypertension – through the advancement of best practices, establishment of strong organizational relationships, and the mutual activities of community of practice members)
    • Goals
  • High level requirements
  • Major Deliverables
  • Participation
    • Benefits
    • Norms
    • Ground Rules
  • Assumptions
  • Constraints
  • Risks
  • Roles and Responsibilities 
  • Facilitator

For me, this is just a little too long, and many of the sections which could be single sentences, are paragraphs instead. However it is certainly a very well though through charter, and there are several charters out there that use a similar template.

The Restraint Reduction Network community of practice

Without using a formal template, the page linked above defines

  • The Vision of the community (We are a community seeking to equip one another to reduce restrictive interventions through using person-centred, proactive, preventative and therapeutic strategies)
  • The Mission (We share and discuss resources, tools, policies, research and personal experiences to encourage and inspire one another as we seek to improve quality of life for those at risk of restraint and the people who interact with them on a daily basis)
  • The tools the community uses,
  • and a really nice “Rules of Engagement” Graphic linked below.

I think I like this charter best because it is concise and straightforward, and the Rules of Engagement poster is inspiring, simple, and can be printed and posted on a wall as a reminder of the way the community works.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

When knowledge sharing becomes collaboration

There is a step in the maturation of communities of practice when their focus shifts from knowledge sharing to collaboration

Working Together by Hepcat75
Working together, a photo by Hepcat75 on Flickr.

Collaboration is an unnatural act in humans.

We are tribal animals, and all our instincts lead us to see life in terms of “us and them”. When we divide people into teams in our “Bird Island” experiment, for example, each isolated team naturally starts to compete against the others without any prompting from us.

The famous “Eagles and Rattlers” experiment showed how this competition, when strengthened, began to lead to destructive behaviour. We can see this behaviour in any society driven by competition for limited resources.

This is often the case in business. Divisions are in competition for budget and people, and as a result the familiar organisational silos emerge and strengthen. The Eagles/Rattlers experiment demonstrated that traditional forms of team-building – social events, movies etc – did not break these silos. Something different is needed.

Communities of practice can begin to break these silos. Initially Communities operate as a self-help mechanism, where people in one silo raise a question which people in other silos can answer. Through principles of reciprocity and “what’s in it for me”, knowledge begins to flow through the communities.

However there is a radical step in Community behaviour, when they start to focus, not on value to the individual, but the value they collectively can generate. In our Community Maturity model, this is the step from 3 to step 4 on many of the key variables, and is where communities move from being a mechanism for knowledge-sharing to a mechanism for collaboration.

Let me explain why this step is so important, by going back to the “Eagles and Rattlers” experiment.

In this experiment, the groups of boys in an American summer camp were divided into hostile tribes by giving them competitive tasks. However the experimenters were able to turn this around completely, and to develop a massively collaborative culture, simply by giving them collective challenges that each group could not solve on their own.

Simple step, massively powerful outcome.  The way to break silos is to give challenges no silo can achieve on their own.

The same thinking can be seen in the “T-shaped Manager” approach. Give managers collective targets, and they cease competing internally.

Communities of practice can take this step almost as an evolutionary process. I remember a Community meeting many years ago, when someone stood up – eyes shining – and said “guys, just think what we would accomplish if we all worked together on this. I bet we could cut costs by 50%!”

This is where a CoP starts to think less about one individual or team solving the problems on another, and more about pooling everyone’s knowledge to make a step-change in collective performance.  That’s when a sense of true collaboration begins within the Community – something that previously might have felt unnatural.

That’s when you can hear the sound of silo walls collapsing

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Knowledge Management – a wildflower meadow or a market garden?

In KM – do you “let a thousand flowers bloom”? Or is your garden more planned that that?

Image from wikimedia comons

One of my favourite sayings is that if knowledge is organic, KM is gardening.  And as all gardeners know, gardening is hard work!  Even within the topic of gardening, there is a range of approaches, and we can see that also in KM terms when it comes to how we work with communities of practice.

 There really are two approaches to “community gardening”, which we can call “select and support” and “seed and promote”.

 The first approach sets the conditions for community growth, lets communities emerge spontaneously, and then selects and supports the ones that are felt to be strategic. Its like preparing a patch of soil, allowing flowers (weeds) to appear, then thinning out the ones you don’t want and watering the ones you do want. You get a wildflower garden; unplanned, beautiful, but with many weeds

The second approach is to deliberately seed communities on key topics. Here you plant the things you want to grow – the gardenias and the hollyhocks, or the carrots and the pumpkins. You prepare the ground, plant the seed, and nurture the seedlings. You get a kitchen garden or a market garden.

Each approach has its merits and demerits The “select and support” approach makes use of existing networks and existing energy. As a manager or network champion, you will be “pushing on an open door”. Payback will be rapid, as there will be very little start-up time and cost. The communities will spring up.

However there may be no existing communities which cover the most crucial and strategic topics, and many of the communities that do emerge may have relatively limited business benefit.

 The “seed and promote” approach allows you to set up communities to cover the three areas of

  • Strategic Competencies (crucial to competitive success), 
  • New competencies (crucial to growth and new direction), and 
  • Core competencies (crucial to income and market share). 

The link between business results and the CoP will be more direct in this approach, and you will get greater traction with management.

However payback will take longer, as you need to climb the start-up curve, and it may initially be hard work generating enthusiasm and energy among prospective community members. These communities will take more work, just as creating a vegetable plot full of prize-winning vegetables takes more work.

But the results will almost certainly, in the long term, be more valuable.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Should you allow people to be anonymous in company online forms?

Is anonymity a good thing in online organisational (in-company) knowledge sharing forums? I suggest it is not, and my reasoning is below.

Public domain image from SVG

When you first set up knowledge sharing forums, it can be tempting to allow people to contribute anonymously, to reduce their fear of exposure. But is this a good idea?

Please note I am not talking about public forums, where people may want to talk about personal problems – relationships problems, abuse, addiction – which they do not necessarily want their family and neighbours to know about. Nor am I talking about anonymous activism, or Wikileaks. I am talking about knowledge-sharing communities of practice as part of an organizational Knowledge Management framework.

There are arguments for and against anonymity, and lets look at those first.

Arguments for anonymity

  • In a toxic culture, where knowledge is power, it can be a risky act to challenge the status quo. To ban anonymous comments, is to remove the possibility of honesty. An anonymous forum creates a safe space for knowledge sharing.
  • In a non-Western culture, where admitting mistakes is not acceptable, it can be very difficult for people to admit they don;t know, and to ask for help. Anonymity again gives a safe space for asking.
Arguments against anonymity
  • People are more likely to share positive knowledge if they get credit for it (see my blog post on keeping the name with the knowledge).
  • People are more likely to use the knowledge if they trust it, and if they trust the source. I remember, when testing an anonymous knowledge asset in an organisation, how people responded “Why should we trust this, if we don’t know where it comes from”.
  • It is very difficult to learn from the written word. Most effective knowledge systems allow you to find the contributor of a lesson, a good practice or a document, and to speak with them to learn more. With anonymity, this is not possible.
  • If the culture is difficult, toxic, or intolerant of mistakes, then an anonymous forum  acknowledges publicly that you have to be anonymous to share knowledge, and so to an extent perpetuates the culture. Conversely, if people can see knowledge being shared openly by brave souls, and those brave souls being praised and rewarded for it, then you have the potential to change the culture.

That last one is the clincher for me.

If you need to be anonymous to share knowledge in your organisation, something is badly wrong. Work with the culture, sure, for example providing named individuals who can share your knowledge for you if you are not brave enough, or provide alternative safe spaces where knowledge can be discussed and shared without anonymity, but don’t reinforce a bad culture.

Instead, seek to influence it; seek to change it.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

What is the value proposition for a community of practice?

The whole purpose of community is enabling people to help each other.

Vkw.studiogood [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The primary vision of Community is a group of people who help each other.  This might be an Amish community raising a barn, pooling their strength and skills to help each other.  Or it might be a rural community pooling their money to fund a village hall, or to buy a village pub in order to keep it running.

In the case of a Community of Practice (CoP) it is a community of practitioners in a specific area of practice, who pool and share their knowledge in order to create a greater knowledge base as a resource for all members.

The value proposition of a CoP is therefore to increasing the effectiveness of its members through access to common and co-created knowledge.  By making the community members more effective though access to common knowledge, the organisation becomes more effective.  The value proposition is therefore firstly to the members, and as a byproduct to the organisation.

A community does not necessarily hold a collective performance objective with the business (although come communities voluntarily choose to do so) but allows each member to deliver better against his or her own individual performance objectives, by giving them access to the knowledge base of the community. 

Specifically the community offers

  • Help in solving problems 
  • Faster learning through observing interactions between others
  • Access to experience and expertise 
  • Access to proven practices 

Membership of a CoP should pay its way. If you don’t get benefit from being a member, then the CoP is not working. Many communities have voluntary membership on this basis, and it serves as a self-regulating mechanism.

  • If the community adds value to the members, the old members stay, new members join, and membership grows.
  • If the community does not add value to the members, then members leave and the community dies.

If the community becomes effectively a blog run by a single person, it’s not working as it should, and it has become a teaching platform or a communication platform and not a community.

If a community is only a means of publication of news, its a newsletter and not a community.  Communities can use newsletters, but are not created by newsletters.

If a community is concerned only with doing tasks such as writing best practice documents, its a virtual workgroup and not a community.

It’s a community if the members hold their knowledge in common, using it to solve each others’ problems, and therefore delivering value to the members.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

4 reasons why communities of practice can die young

It is not uncommon for communities of practice to start with passion and intent, and to fade away and die out over a period of months. Here are 4 possible reasons why.

Image from wikimedia commons

I have just been reading a very interesting article entitled The Rise and Fall of a Community of practice: A Descriptive Case Study, by Alton Chua. I can’t find an online version for you, I’m afraid, but the article describes the experience of developing a community of e-learning instructional designers at Holden College, and why the initiative, which seemed to enjoy a promising start, fizzled out completely in less than one and- a-half years.

Unfortunately this seems to happen all too often. I have spoken with many companies, with experience of attempting to use Communities of Practice, only to see them fizzle out and die.

The Holden College example shows typical reasons for failure, which can be summarised as follows.

1. The Community of Practice was too small. It covered a very narrow element of practice – the creation of e-learning content – and so only had 25 potential members. There is such a thing as Critical Mass for CoPs, which varies depending on the urgency of the topic and whether the CoP can meet face to face, but generally the Bigger the Better for CoPs. Shell, for example, started with 300 small CoPs, but when these struggled, amalgamated them into a handful of giant CoPs. The Holder college CoP was too small to live. 

2. The domain was not really a practice domain, more a task domain. The members were primarily lecturers and teachers – creation of e-learning was a task (and for some an unwelcome task), and not a practice area that the members identified with. The CoP would not pass the “I am a …” test. There was therefore little identification with the subject matter for the CoP. 

3. The CoP had the opportunity to meet face to face, but found it difficult to organise meetings (partly because of reason 2 above – people did not identify with the topic, so did not prioritise it), and therefore fell back on electronic communication. Critical mass is far greater for CoPs that interact online, and the fate of the Holden College CoP was sealed at this point. 

4. The leader and core group of the CoP decided to focus on “creating deliverables”. The interviewed members said that they had joined the CoP to learn from each other, and yet here they were being asked to do additional work. Given that the CoP was voluntary, then people who were already busy, and who would get limited value from the deliverable, voluntarily resigned. Communities operate best though Pull of knowledge – in other words through solving the problems of the members. Once they become Push (publication) mechanisms, they lose a lot of value.

Contrast this with a CoP which I continue to monitor, which started on 1997 and is still going strong 16 years later. It contains nearly 2000 members, covers an area they identify with, has occasional face-to-face conferences, and is focused on solving the problems of the members.

That’s how you give a Community longevity.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

What you need to know about social tools and KM

Here is a very interesting article from HBR entitled “What managers need to know about social tools” – thanks to Anshuman Rath for bringing it to my attention.  It’s well worth a complete read.

Image by Codynguyen1116
on wikimedia commons

The article by Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley, from the Nov/Dec issue of HBR last year, looks at the way companies have often introduced social tools – often because “Other companies are, so we should too” or “That’s what you have to do if you want to attract young talent”  – and describe some of the surprising outcomes.

Here are some of the points the article makes, with excerpts in quotes:

  • Use of these tools make it easier to find knowledge, through making it easier to find knowledgeable people.

“The employees who had used the tool became 31% more likely to find coworkers with expertise relevant to meeting job goals. Those employees also became 88% more likely to accurately identify who could put them in contact with the right experts”

  • Millenials are not keen adopters of enterprise social tools.

“Millennials have a difficult time with the notion that “social” tools can be used for “work” purposes (and are)wary of conflating those two worlds; they want to be viewed and treated as grown-ups now. “Friending” the boss is reminiscent of “friending” a parent back in high school—it’s unsettling. And the word “social” signals “informal” and “personal.” As a 23-year-old marketing analyst at a large telecommunications company told us, “You’re on there to connect with your friends. It’s weird to think that your manager would want you to connect with coworkers or that they’d want to connect with you on social media [at work]. I don’t like that.”

  • How people present themselves on internal networks is important to developing trust.

“How coworkers responded to people’s queries or joked around suggested how accessible they were; it helped colleagues gauge what we call “passable trust” (whether somebody is trustworthy enough to share information with). That’s important, because asking people to help solve a problem is an implicit admission that you can’t do it alone”.

  • People learn by lurking (as well as by asking).

“Employees gather direct knowledge when they observe others’ communications about solving problems. Take Reagan, an IT technician at a large atmospheric research lab. She happened to see on her department’s social site that a colleague, Jamie, had sent a message to another technician, Brett, about how to fix a semantic key encryption issue. Reagan said, “I’m so happy I saw that message. Jamie explained it so well that I was able to learn how to do it.”

  • The way social tools add value to the organisation and to the individual is to facilitate knowledge seeking, knowledge awareness, knowledge sharing and problem solving. The authors give many examples mostly of problem-solving, and about finding either knowledge or knowledgeable people. One example saved a million dollars, and i will add that to my collection of quantified value stories tomorrow.

  • The value comes from practice communities. The authors do not make this point explicitly, so perhaps I am suffering from confirmation bias here, but they talk about the “spread of knowledge” that they observed as being within various groups covering practice areas such as marketing, sales, and legal.

The authors finish with a section on how to introduce the tools, namely by making the purpose clear (and the purpose may be social, or it may be related to knowledge seeking and sharing), driving awareness of the tools, defining the rules of conduct, and leading by example.

The article reminds us again that social tools can add huge value to an organisation, but need careful attention and application. Just because Facebook and Twitter are busy in the non-work world, does not mean similar tools operate the same way at work.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

2 types of community of practice.

There are two main types of community of practice depending on how knowledgeable the community members are.

One type of community of practice exists to connect knowledgeable people, so they can share knowledge with each other and act as a resource for each other. The other type exists to connect learners, so they can learn together. In this example much of the knowledge comes form outside the community. We can call the first type a Knowledge Community, and the second a Learning Community.

Type 1

The standard view of the Community of Practice is that of a network of people who collectively act as a mutual knowledge resource. Within the Community is a wide range of experience – from highly-experienced old-timers, to relative newcomers – experts and newbies sharing the same community. Through asking and answering questions, they provide each other with useful knowledge that helps each practitioner to perform their work better. Often the answers to questions come from the more experienced staff, but this is not always the case, as I explain in my blog post about the Long Tail of Knowledge.

This is the model of Community of Practice that we see in the standard case studies, from the likes of Shell, IBM, Fluor and ConocoPhillips.

The role of the leader or facilitator in a Community of Practice such as this is to provide the conditions (culture, technology, behaviours) that allow conversation to happen, and then sit back and watch it happening, intervening only if necessary.

This is a knowledge community. Everyone is a knowledge user, everyone is potentially a knowledge supplier. The knowledge flow is multi-way, and the knowledge primarily comes from within, and circulates within, the community.

But this is not the only sort of Community of Practice.

Type 2

Takes for example another famous case study, the US Army “Company Command” CoP. The Army creates 2000 company commanders a year – it is the soldiers first command assignment – and they stay in post for 2 years. There is therefore a CoP of about 4000 Company Commanders, with an average of 1 year experience in the role.

This is not a CoP that holds the knowledge itself. The CoP is not the primary source of experience, because they are all learning together. The Community, in this case, exists to support the individuals on their learning journey, rather than to be a closed system of knowledge exchange. This is a community of learners – almost everyone is a knowledge user and only a few are knowledge suppliers. Plenty of newbies, no experts.

The role of the leader or facilitator in a Community of Practice such as this is to promote and facilitate the learning journeys of the members. So for example, in Company Command, they provide the following learning tasks.

  • Quizzes
  • Discussions initiated and coordinated by the leaders
  • “Book clubs”
  • Interviews with leaders
  • Video interviews
  • “Challenges” – discussions on typical scenarios a Company Commander will face
  • Community blogs
  • Community email newsletters
(Please note that the Community leader is not Teaching, but is still actively facilitating and directing the learning activities). You will see few if any of these activities in the Flour/ConocoPhillips style of CoP, because their communities contain experienced people rather than being a community of the inexperienced.

Company Command is not the only example of this type of Community of Practice, and it will be a useful Knowledge Management tool in any organisation which regularly has to provide knowledge to a large population of inexperienced staff (see my blog post on the influence of demographics on KM – this type of situation is likely to be more common in the Far East than in Europe or the US).

So, as always, choose “Horses for Courses” as we say in English. Choose the KM approach that suits your organizational context. That may be type 1 or it may be type 2.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.