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Communities of practice
addressing workforce trends through new learning models

By Eric Sauve / April 2007

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The amount and frequency of work driven by tacit knowledge—complex interactions which require that people handle ambiguity and solve problems based on experience—are on the rise. In fact, industry analyst firm Gartner estimates that the frequency of non-routine situations requiring tacit knowledge will double between 2006 and 2010. The reality is most organizations' situations change rapidly, making formal training once or twice a year inadequate. Organizations would be well-advised to shift budgets and resources from formal learning settings to informal situations where the majority of learning actually takes place.

As a result of this trend, organizations are increasingly adding communities of practice (CoPs) to their larger training and development strategy. CoPs are distributed groups of people who share a common concern, problem, mandate, or sense of purpose. They can be used to facilitate the informal knowledge transfer that drives leadership development, productivity, and innovation.

Internet Generation

At the user level, individuals often have more affinity for their coworkers than their organizations. With the youngest generation of knowledge workers, known as "millennials," this is especially true. In the drive to replace retiring workers and build tomorrow's managers and leaders, public sector organizations focused on recruiting millennials have to compete with attractive offers from the private sector.

Millennials are really the "Internet generation" and expect to work in a real-time environment. They have high expectations of employers, and are much more willing to change jobs and companies than the generations before them. Organizations need to recognize that to attract and retain millennials, they have to eliminate hierarchy and corporate bottlenecks, open up internal communications, and provide ongoing training and development opportunities.

Alongside these workforce trends, technology is changing the communication preferences and expectations of all generations of workers. Take the rampant popularity of social networking sites such as,,, and These sites dramatically change the nature of interactions between individuals. While email and collaboration have become the norm in most offices, social networking-style technologies are quickly becoming a very real possibility for even the most conservative public sector organizations.

CoPs build on existing formal content tools such as portals, learning management systems, document management, content management, and knowledge management, as well as team and productivity tools. They enable organizations to add a new dimension-the informal organization.

In most organizations, information-flow follows management channels, relying on formal processes for validation, codification, and dissemination of data. While these processes are critical in many situations, these processes can also take years, slowing and sometimes stopping enterprise-wide knowledge transfer. CoPs break this bottleneck by relying on user validation to determine the value. Enterprise-wide knowledge transfer can now occur in days.

In addition to creating a new flow of information, CoPs offer a way for peers to not only consult learning materials from the institution, but combine information with learning materials they create and share among themselves. Common elements include forums for questions and answers, and professional networking where peers, mentors, and subject matter experts are connected and consulted to solve problems.

The peer-to-peer environment fosters employees' natural trust in advice from someone in their situation. It also encourages emotional as well as instructional support. And because users tend to seek information to solve immediate problems, there is enormous benefit in the information being available almost immediately. A CoP replaces the one-way flow of information that is typical of corporate training programs and replaces them with fluid, multi-pronged conversations.

Successful communities are built partially on actual community process and structure, and paritially around the actual technology platform which underpins the system. In planning and building a community, there are multiple factors to consider on both sides of the equation and a number of established best practices from which to draw.

Sense of Purpose

On the process side, there should be a focus on setting short- and long-term goals for the community. Make sure there's a plan in place that anticipates many of the common issues involved with the set up and maintenance of any community. One of the keys to a successful community is ensuring that they are built around a specific purpose, vision, or mandate. Communities by their very nature need a unique identity and rallying point, so that benefits of participation are clear. For example, this could be a horizontal leadership development community among managers from across the organization, or a community built for a specific division. The key here is that the community is defined and there's common ground on which to build the community.

When rolling out a community, organizations need to take the time to identify and train "leaders" who will act as guides to the community. Community leadership is one of the biggest indicators of a community's success. No one has a degree in community leadership, so it is unrealistic to expect your community leaders take on this role without proper training on facilitating engaging forums, guidance on managing people and making decisions within the community, and techniques for improving communication.

In addition to leaders, all members need resources in the form of training, tutorials or demonstrations so they can take full advantage of the community. Simply building the community isn't enough, organizations need a plan from day one to train employees and then build enthusiasm to attract and engage members.

And be sure to have a plan for the community which covers how you will continue to build on the launch to recruit and train new leaders, attract new members, and roll out new communities. A community is a work in progress which requires an ongoing commitment.

Technically Speaking

For many organizations, technology has proven to be a stumbling block when it comes to setting up a CoP. With the broad range of enterprise software systems offering some collaboration or learning functionality, enterprises often look to implement a community based on these systems, though they are designed primarily for purposes other than communities. In an effort to leverage existing systems or cut costs, organizations actually find they require significant customization and end up with limited functionality.

There are many technology platforms built specifically for communities of practice, so there's no need to reinvent the wheel when implimenting a community. By adopting a community-specfic solution, best practices and key performance drivers of community success should be built in. However, the goal should be not to totally ignore existing technology, but to leverage it. Close integration between productivity, collaboration, portal, and community solutions enables the organization to streamline infrastructure and offer workers access to existing applications such as email.

Participation is the lynchpin of a community's success, any solution needs to be intuitive and easy to use for even non-technical workers. Look for features that mirror existing user behaviors so users can feel comfortable from the first time they log-in to the community. And also keep in mind that your leaders may be non-technical. Any solution should be easy to administer so leaders can focus their valuable time on driving participation and value for the community, not mastering new software features.

Technology is constantly changing, so any community platform needs to adapt to new trends and techniques as well. Web 2.0 is completely changing how we interact online and quickly shifting into the business world. New communities should include social networking features such as advanced ranking and filtering features to get the most out of member activity and create ongoing value for the organization.


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