Making Communities of Practice Work in the Real World

03 November 2017

This is the third and final article on Communities of Practice (COPs), a model designed to help align business strategy with the evolving knowledge and experience of your people, while still taking advantage of the efficiencies that can be gained through more formal organisational structures and processes.

I can now safely say, after many years of practice — complete with a few painful cock-ups along the way — that the workplace model, Communities of Practice (COPs), does work. Making Communities of Practice work doesn’t happen on its own, but with the right groundwork in place and organizational support they can flourish.

COPs are made up of three essential elements: a domain (common ground or project), community (the particular group of people working on the domain), and practice (the community’s actions taken to develop and share knowledge in carrying out the job together).

There are six key components to making Communities of Practice work in the real world

1. Select the Practices that will underpin business strategy and unite your people

This process isn’t dictated by one manager. We pulled together a team of respected leaders and experts in the business and charged them with finding an initial group of three areas for “practice development”. That team determined that the business’ management of records and documents, information security, and messaging, were critical technologies with skills, activities and innovation at a premium.

Getting people to agree on exactly what “messaging” meant, for example, was difficult.

Expect the first few COP sessions to be talk fests where people debate in minute detail exactly how the particular Practice is defined, what members should be doing , how they will do it and what outputs they expect.

2. Identify the right people to participate

We asked for volunteers. Trying to name people and then advise them “congratulations we have found another way to suck the joy out of you” just doesn’t fly. We recognise many dedicated staff already work longer hours than is good for them.

3. Make time and resources available

Asking your busiest expert to take on a COP lead role without providing support and resources will see him or her head out the door faster than you can say “Mummy has moved in with Uncle Bob”.

Over time the Practice will introduce efficiencies and improvements that make work more enjoyable and effective, but it won’t happen overnight and you need to plan for that in terms of resources and people’s time.

4. Find easy-to-use technology to ensure ongoing engagement

When we first started COPs we thought a couple of face-to-face meetings a year and a monthly video or voice conference would be enough to drive results. How wrong we were! After a short time, the demands of day-to-day work took over, excitement waned and we struggled to keep people engaged.

The arrival of instant messaging tools such as SharePoint, Skype, Google docs, hangouts, classrooms and chat forums have changed everything. Communities of Practice can now be made a practical reality for an extremely low cost and with astonishing speed and availability.

5. Set realistic goals and objectives for each Practice

At first, we tried to set grand goals for Practices. As expected, everyone became confused, frustrated and rapidly lost interest. So, we changed tack and asked, “What is the biggest single problem we face and how could we solve it?” By narrowing down the discussion to a short, sharp challenge, people became more engaged.

As important as engagement is to making Communities of Practice work, it was an unexpected consequence. It turned out that many people had actually solved this specific problem in the past, either in their region or at another job. Often, they had spent hours at home building a powerful and viable answer to the problem. It was just that no one knew about it!

The Practice provided these people with a forum for sharing their solutions with colleagues who were genuinely interested and could offer further improvements.

6. Appoint executive sponsors who are accountable for results

In saying this, I don’t mean some poor middle manager who has just been assigned to COPs “special projects” while you prepare to clean out his office. Accountability for COPs is an executive role for two reasons: they will make sure it succeeds; and the people involved will actually believe it will succeed.

Confidence is essential when starting any new initiative, and Communities of Practice are no exception.

This is part three of a series. If you missed it, catch up on parts one and two here: Forming Communities of Practice and three essential elements for successful Communities of Practice