Thursday, 19 January 2017

Communities of practice - wild gardens, or market gardens?

What sort of garden is your community of practice?

Barnsley House kitchen garden,
from wikimedia commons
One of my stock sayings is that if knowledge is organic, KM is gardening.

This recognises that knowledge is not a uniform commodity than can be counted out like money, but also recognises that looking after knowledge is hard work.  However even within the topic of gardening there is a range of approaches, and we can see that also in KM terms when it comes to how we work with communities of practice.

There really are two approaches to “community gardening”, and we can call them "select and support" versus "seed and promote".

The first - "select and support" - is a bottom up approach. It sets the conditions for community growth, lets communities emerge spontaneously, and then selects and supports the ones that are felt to be strategic. Its like preparing a flower bed, allowing flowers to appear, then thinning out the ones you don’t want and watering the ones you do want. You get a wildflower garden if you are lucky, or a bramble patch if you aren't.

The second approach - "seed and promote" - is more of a top down approach. Here you deliberately seed communities on key topics. Here you plant the things you want to grow – the gardenias and the hollyhocks, or the carrots and the pumpkins.

Each approach has its merits and demerits

The "select and support" approach makes use of existing networks and existing energy. As a manager or network champion, you will be "pushing on an open door". Payback will be rapid, as there will be very little start-up time and cost. The communities will spring up. However there may be no existing communities which cover the most crucial and strategic topics, and many of the communities that do emerge may have relatively limited business benefit.

The "seed and promote" approach allows you to set up communities to cover the three areas of

  • Strategic Competencies (crucial to competitive success),
  • New competencies (crucial to growth and new direction), and
  • Core competencies (crucial to income and market share).

However payback may take longer, as you need to climb the start-up curve, and it may be hard work generating enthusiasm and energy among prospective community members. These communities will take more work, just as creating a vegetable plot full of prize-winning vegetables takes more work.

But the results may, in the long term, be more valuable to the organisation.


Mike McHugh said...

If you start with the idea that people in an organization all contribute to an organization, it follows that the better they do their work. Of course, I assume that other management disciplines have already retired all non-productive functions and their employees.

So I deduce that everyone's work is valuable and to be respected. Your post implies that you take a different point of view, likening some employees (and their interest in knowledge sharing and improvement) as weeds... and, while I respect you guys, I find your post distasteful.

Given that CoP participation requires individual interest and the commitment of energy, I would regard the 'bottom up' approach as a very good indicator of employee engagement. On the other hand, a top-down approach could easily spell management over-reach and/or knowledge conscription... and I'm sure you're wise enough NOT to advocate that.

So, while the 'wild garden' and 'market garden' is a cute analogy, I find it too coarse and indiscriminate to be useful. I think that community leadership is key to moving from the 'shaggy' to the 'orderly'. You might be confusing CoPs with other types if organizational groupings in which knowledge sharing needs to be imposed (as if) and, if that is the case, then somewhat different dynamics will prevail ~ less conducive to participation and sharing.

Nick Milton said...

I am sorry you fnd the post distasteful Mike. It was not meant to be insulting.

Andreas Sher said...

@Mike McHugh I think you misunderstand a little, it is not that the employees are weeds, but that we as community members sometimes "sow tares among the wheat". I have seen an unmanaged community (based on a Yammer experiment) that quickly got out of hand with posts about the iPhone 6 vs Android debate. Although it generated a lot of energy, the original goal of inter-departmental information sharing was somewhat forgotten. A little guidance would have kept things on focus. Not control of what is said, but just recommending people stay on topic and encouraging technical information sharing. It does take some subtly and finess to get it right!

Mike McHugh said...

@Andreas: No, I don't think I misunderstand a little - or even at all. I do understand the situation you describe, and it sound very much like a technology platform which enables people to post what they want. That simply isn't a CoP.

As I said in my earlier post, leadership is a key component of a CoP; and I would advocate that community members volunteer to participate within the bounds of their agreed domain. The example you mention implies a free-for-all, and I can't see that as being any form of KM. Or, perhaps, your community domain was 'smartphones'.

Nick Milton said...

That's sort of the point, Mike. The "free for all" approach is the wild garden, full of weeds. The managed approach, with agreed domains and leadershuip, is the "market garden".

Joan D said...

I'm a gardener. So this was easy for me to translate to usefulness of this to CoP. My garden uses both approaches, I let many self-seeded plants spring up randomly. I also do a clean fresh plot.

As I've supported and grown CoPs, using both methods. It depends what you've got when you start. If the "wild" garden has potential (tilled soil or valuable plants), it is much easier to start with the potential in the wild approach. Both take work though, the wild approach needs just as much direction, and sometimes more expertise, as the managed site does. Once either of these get going, it's a lot of fun to work with. The point is to get the CoP started.

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