Wednesday 10 August 2016

The community of practice identity test

There is a fairly simple identity test for knowing whether any given community of practice, is likely to be successful; and that is whether potential members will self-identify with the topic.

Membership of a community of practice is driven by passion, and the members are passionate about the practice area. They self-identify as practitioners.

The self-identity test.

Members of successful and powerful community of practice feel an identification with the community, and an identification with, and loyalty to, other community members. For example, I am a member of several knowledge management communities of practice, because I am a knowledge management professional. At BP, I was a member of the geologists community of practice, because I was a geologist. Project Management communities are for project managers, maintenance inspection communities are for maintenance inspectors, Copier Repair communities are for people who are copier repair technicians.

"I am a knowledge management professional", "I am a geologist", "I am a copier repair technician" - that's the self-identity test for a community of practice - the "I Am" test. A community of practice for topic X will work, if there is a group of people who say "I am an X professional" - if they self-identify with the topic. And if they self-identify with the topic, they identify with each other, with the topic as the magnet and the glue that pulls and sticks them together.

Here's a negative example.

A while ago we worked with a company that wanted to introduce a community of practice to cover the topic of annual returns. This was a chore than needed to be done once a year, and people were not very good at it. "We want you to help us launch this community" the company said. "We don't think it will work", we said.  "We still want to try it" said the client, and the client is always right, so we launched the community of practice.

It failed. After a brief period of life, it just died away.

That's because none of the members would say "I am an annual returns professional". They were engineering team leaders, project managers, professionals in their own topic, but annual returns was a chore that they did not identify with. Instead, what they needed was a simple how-to guide - a checklist and an FAQ - that would walk them through the annual chore. Not a community of practice, but a knowledge asset.

So if you are contemplating whether a community of practice is the right solution for your company, remember the self-identity test - the "I Am" test.  If people can say "I am .." to the community topic, then the community has passed the identity test and is very likely to succeed.

Because "I Am" plus Community equals "We Are" - and that is powerful.

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