Monday 22 August 2022

A story of how a CoP lost trust

 It is possible for the members of a Community of Practice to lose trust in the community as an effective support mechanism. Here's one story of how that happened.

Knowledge sharing requires trust, and this is as true in communities of practice as in face to face meetings, or one to one conversations. In face, people can trust a community of practice, even if they don't know the other members personally.

They can trust the community as being a safe place to be vulnerable and to ask and answer questions,  they can trust the community as adding value to themselves and to the organisation, and they can trust it as being a reliable place to find knowledge and to get their questions answered. 

However communities can lose the trust of their membership, and can die as a result. Here is a story of this loss of trust, from one large organisation. 
  • This community started well, with 4 or 5 questions per week from community members. 
  • The community facilitator forwarded these questions to community experts to answer, rather than sending them to the whole community and making use of the long tail of knowledge.  This may well have been a cultural issue, as her culture reveres experts, and perhaps this seemed the best approach. 
  • Often the questions themselves were broad questions, asked with very little context or explanation, making it really difficult to provide good answers. The community facilitator never "questioned the question" to find out what the real issue was - she just passed it on to the experts.
  • When the experts did answer on the community discussion forum, this lack of context meant that the answer was often vague and high-level. In a culture where experts are not questioned, nobody interrogated these vague answers to get more detail. 
  • Although sometimes the expert would answer on the forum, most of the time they answered by telephone or through a personal visit. Therefore the other community members did not see the answer, and were not even aware the question had been answered
  • Where there was a discussion around the question, it very quickly went off-topic. Again the facilitator did not play an active role in conversation management.
  • When the facilitator followed up to see if the questioner was satisfied by the answer, the answer was usually No.
  • A year later, the questions had dropped to 1 or 2 a month.

As far as the community members were aware through observing interactions on the forum, the questions seemed either to receive no answer (as the real discussion happened offline), or to receive worthless vague answers.  The users therefore lost trust in the community as a value-add mechanism, and as a way to get questions answered effectively. 

So they stopped using it.

One way to revitalise this community would be to set up a series of face to face meetings, so that the members regain trust in each other as knowledgeable individuals, then ask the members to help design ground rules for an effective online interaction. These rules would almost certainly involve 
  • asking questions of the community and not just the experts, 
  • making much more use of the facilitator to get the questions clarified, 
  • making sure the answers are posted online, 
  • probing into the details of vague answers, and 
  • keeping the discussions on topic.

Ways to build trust in CoPs are pretty well known, and this sort of discussion would ideally be held at community kick-off, so the community can be set up from the start as an effective problem-solving body, and so that the members trust that their questions will receive timely and valuable answers, at no personal risk. The facilitator is key to this. 

People need to trust communities of practice as safe places to get valuable timely answers to their questions. If this doesn't happen, trust may well be lost. 

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