Wednesday 8 January 2014

When communities of practice are not the answer

No entry by Fagerjord
No entry, a photo by Fagerjord on Flickr.
Communities of practice are a mainstay of very many Knowledge Management Frameworks.

The model of widespread communities, sharing knowledge and delivering value, interacting through social media or other collaboration technologies, is well known from companies such as ConocoPhilips, Fluor, Buckman Labs, and many more.

Yet such online communities of practice are not always the silver bullet, and there are examples where they may not add much value at all. Here are 4 such examples.

When you are trying to create a deliverable. If you are trying to create something, then maybe you need a conference, or a knowledge exchange, or a virtual team. A traditional CoP may not be the answer. And as I discussed previously, if the organisation REQUIRES something to be delivered, then an informal CoP is not the answer - you may need a community of purpose, aka Delivery network, aka Global Practice group.  Here's what John Keeble, CKO of Enterprise Oil, said.
We have had some people come to us saying they want to launch a community, and we have ended up encouraging them just to have a workshop. It is much easier to say "we had a workshop; we covered the subject and thats it", whereas if you launch a community, people expect to to have a lifecycle of at least 2 years, and you may discover that's not what you need"

When your company is too small. There is such a thing as Critical Mass in CoPs, particularly online CoPs. The advice from Mike Atkinson, Head of KM, SchlumbergerSema UK, was “If your company is smaller than 1500 people, then don’t do Communities of Practice" (although I know of successful implementations in some smaller companies). If your practitioners in any area of practice number ten or less, then forget the model of online interaction. Use telephone conferences instead, if people are geographically dispersed. Or a model of Action Learning sets, if they aren't.

If you are organised functionally. The real value of CoPs comes through bridging the silos. A CoP gives practitioners in different parts of the business the ability to interact with their peers. But what if all the practitioners are in the same part of the business? Imagine a construction firm, with many architects. Rather than the architects being dispersed around multiple offices, in this case they all sit in the Architects Department. This firm does not need to set up an Architects Community of Practice - they already have a forum for the Architects to interact.  What they need to do it improve knowledge sharing and collaboration within the department.

If people do not identify with the practice area. I blogged a while ago about the Identification test for CoPs.  This is a very powerful test. As an example, we were asked by one company to set up a Business Development Planning (BDP) “community”. BDP’s were a relatively new activity – a type of planning document that each team was asked to prepare once a year. One team had completed two of these, and was now splitting into 5 teams to deliver 5 more, and the idea was that they should form a community of practice, to support each other. The community failed to launch, for several reasons

  • They didn’t like doing the job 
  • It was not their main role
  • They wanted to get it over with ASAP and move onto something else, not stick around and discuss it
  • They were all contractors, and their loyalties largely lay outside the firm anyway.
  • As a result, they did not "identify" with being Business Development Planners
They didn't need a CoP - they needed some good online guidance. A Knowledge Asset on BDPs would have been far more valuable.

SO before you launch into online CoPs, just stop and think for a moment. There are cases where this will not work, and where some other Knowledge Management mechanism may yield far greater value.

(And here is a cautionary tale of a CoP that failed on most of these criteria)

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