Tuesday, 24 July 2012

You never stop being a learner, but you can start being a sharer

Let's look at patterns of behaviour in a Community of Practice forum, or discussion area.

  • When an employee is very new to an organisation or to a topic, they are usually quite quiet in a community forum. They are still learning the basics, which they get from training, from the community knowledge base, and they spend 100% of their community time watching and reading community discussion. They don't tend to ask questions on the forum - their questions are still fairly basic, and if they do ask, the answer is usually a version of "read the manual".
  • After a while, and maybe quite quickly in some cases, the employee starts to face problems and issues that are not in the manual. That's when they start to ask questions of the Community, and begin to use the Community members themselves as a resource. They move from 100% lurking and reading, to (over time) 100% asking.
  • After a bit more time, the employees begin to find that they themselves can answer the questions of others. This can happen relatively quickly as well - I remember interviewing one guy who was less than 2 years into the company, and a question came up on the community forum which was related to a special study he had just completed.  He answered this successfully, and reported how pleased he was to be able to "feed something back" to the CoP.
  • The more experienced members may take on a leadership role in the CoP, as core team members, or as subject matter experts, with accountability for teaching and for owning some of the Knowledge Assets of the Community. 
However a good expert never stops learning. Only last week I saw, in a busy community forum, an expert asking for feedback, comments and advice on a document she had produced. Even the most advanced expert should spend some time asking, some time answering, and some time teaching.

Now lets map some demographics onto the diagram above. 

Imagine a far-eastern company, with many many young staff, and few experts. Here the bulk of the staff will be in the Red area in the diagram, with a few in the other segments. This CoP will act more like a Teaching CoP, with relatively little discussion and quite a lot of publishing.

Imagine a western engineering company, loaded with baby-boomers. Here a large proportion of the staff are in the blue, yellow and green segments. The bulk of community activity will be about discussion and dialogue, rather than about publishing and reading. 

As always, it's more complicated than any simple model will allow, and there is no "one size fits all" approach, but different communities of practice may operate in different ways in different settings, largely driven by the experience profile of the community members. 

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