Thursday, 24 October 2013


Knowledge communities, or learner communities?


Free Stock Learner Drivers Not every organisational context is the same, therefore not every Knowledge Management solution is the same. That's a fact of life, and it even applies to such tried-and-tested KM components as the Community of Practice.

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.

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.

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