Friday 11 May 2012

Top 10 success factors for Communities of practice

CoP Launch, Middle East
What factors make a Community of Practice successful? What can you do to help develop a lively, open, asking-and-sharing CoP that adds real business value?

These nine success factors come from a study by the Warwick Business School and the UK Knowledge and Innovation Network (of which I am an associate), which was based on a major survey of CoPs in many companies. I have added my own commentary and elaboration on each factor, and added a tenth.

(1) Provide significant funding for face-to-face events. CoPs are based on relationships and trust, and relationships and trust are cemented through meeting. The core team of the CoP, and as many extended CoP members as possible, should meet; once at Community Launch, and then on a regular basis (ideally annually)

(2) Ensure community activities address business issues. This is the Number 2 factor from Warwick, but for me would be the number one factor. I know you can set up CoPs for sharing recipes, for Bike groups, for Wine Appreciation, but people are professionals - they know that work-time is for work things, and they are much more likely to devote serious attention to business-centred CoPs. By all means start with a social focus for your CoPs, but transition over time to a business focus once the "community experience" has been introduced..

(3) Provide CoP leader training. CoP leader, or CoP facilitator, is a key role, and it requires skills and awareness.

(4) Ensure CoP leaders are given sufficient time for their role. "Sufficient time" depends on the size of the CoP. Over about 600 - 100 members, this becomes a full time role (see stats)

(5) Ensure high levels of sponsor expectation. Expectation, not management. CoPs must self manage, but the expectations can be set by the sponsor. This 5th success factor is contrary to some KM lore - that any Management influence will kill a CoP. However this is not what the Warwick/KIN survey found. They found that an engaged, supportive sponsor with high levels of expectation is a condition of CoP success.

(6) Engage members in developing good practice. That's primary purpose #1 of a CoP - for the members to exchange practice knowledge, and look for ideas and solutions that will improve their own practice. It doesn't initially have to be codified into Best Practice, but that CoP will probably move in that direction over time.

(7) Improve the usefulness of Community Tools provided. They need to be useful, sure, but they also need to be Usable and Used. Which is not the same as "high tec" or "functionality rich".

(8) Ensure there are clearly stated goals. These come from the Community Charter - they are set by the members. They are influenced by the Sponsor expectation, but the goals are set by the community itself. These can be concrete goals - I know of many CoPs who have said the equivalent of "You know, if we all worked together, I bet we could shave 20% off the cost of this activity. Let's go for it!".

(9) Promote CoPs ability to help employee’s solve daily work challenges. That's also primary purpose #1 of a CoP - for the members to get solutions to their problems. That's the WIIFM for the members (the "What's in it for me"). Without number 9, your CoP will wither and die as the members move away. Without a WIIFM, a CoP becomes a drain on time; with a WIIFM, a CoP is a time-saver.

10). This one was not in the Warwick list, but for me is important. Create a sense of Identity - of belonging. CoPs work  in the long term through loyalty and belonging; a sense of belonging to a professional group, and a loyalty to your fellow practitioners that will drive you to answer their questions, share your knowledge, and trust their answers.

You note I have not put "social" as a factor - social is important, but is an output rather than an input. If the sense of identity is there, the leader is well chosen and trained, and the tools are good, then social relationships and trust will emerge and will support the business-focused nature of a successful Community of Practice.


Bev Wenger-Trayner said...

Thanks for publishing these, Nick.

If you really want to see a CoP adding business value, then it has to be seen as something that is developing the strategic capability of the business. Whoever is promoting communities of practice - or social learning - needs to be sitting at the strategic table, not just on the operational one.

That would be my number one.

Nick Milton said...

I think that's right, Bev, and that's almost like a higher level over-riding principle. The corollary to that is that the sponsors of individual CoPs also have to be sitting at the strategic table for their own disiplines. So the sponsor of an Engineering CoP should be the Chrief Engineer, or someone similar sitting at the table that discusses strategic engineering issues.

Unknown said...

Thanks Nick for a very accessible summary. I'm also trying to find anyone or a group who has successfully set up a CoP across an industry not just within one company. I imagine this would be more difficult, as people across an industry are competitors, as well as having the potential to raise the whole industries game by sharing learning. I worked for ICI many years ago when Shell was a major competitor in some markets. None the less I went on two Shell courses on organisation development. The different perspectives people from the two companies had enhanced everybody's learning. So knowledge sharing between competitors is possible.

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