Wednesday 20 April 2016

How communities of practice evolve

As a knowledge topic evolves, so do the communities that sustain it.

Knowledge evolves. It starts as something new, and ends up as something "everybody knows". Understanding the nature of this evolution, and managing the changes from one stage to the next, is important to the long term success of Knowledge management.

The diagram here is one that we use to characterise knowledge topics. It suggests that the way you manage knowledge changes depending on a) its maturity and b) how widespread that knowledge is. I give an example of this in the blog post on Lewis and Clarke; how the knowledge of how to cross the USA started as an unknown, and became something you can download to your smartphone. 

Assuming the knowledge is core to your organisation, it passes through three phases

Strategic competence. These are areas of new evolving knowledge which the company thinks will be very important in the future, but which currently they still have a lot to learn about. The KM focus for strategic knowledge is on experimentation and knowledge capture from pilot programs. As more and more knowledge is gained on the topic, it moves from the Strategic Competence box into the next box, Competitive Competence.

Competitive competence. These are areas of still-evolving knowledge that the company knows a lot about. This knowledge may well give you a competitive advantage.  The KM focus for competitive competence is on the development of best practice through communities of practice. As more and more best practice is gained, the knowledge will mature until the topic area moves into the third box, that of Core Competence.

Core competence. These are areas of established knowledge that the company knows a lot about. This knowledge is likely to be core to their existing business, and needs to be managed well if the business is to perform efficiently and effectively. The KM focus for core competence is on the development, application and refinement of standard, and building robust reference material.

The communities of practice that create, service, refine and use this knowledge will also evolve.

We can think of three types of community, as shown in the figure below. 

Communities of purpose are (often small) groups of peer-recognised strong performers who have an ability to influence change, can share knowledge with and learn from others, and be committed to achieving a common knowledge-related purpose.  They are learning communities, and play a strong role in developing Strategic competence.

Communities of practice are larger groups of practitioners who have a common role/activities and the motivation to share experiences, insights, knowledge, best practices and solutions to common problems. They are focused on enhancing their professional capabilities and in the process, strengthening the organisation. These "best practice" communities play a strong role in the Competitive Competence area.

Communities of interest are groups of people who come together based on a common interest in a specific topic or issue. The level of interest may range from passing to intense and membership may be fixed or transient as people, issues, and events evolve. However the members are mostly users of knowledge rather than sources of knowledge.  They are like user groups, and play strong role in the Core Competence area.

It would be wrong to suggest that there is a one-on-one mapping between the three types of community and the three types of knowledge. Indeed, more than one type of community can exist on a given topic, with a community of purpose forming the core steering group for a community of practice, which itself is open to interested parties. However there is a general relationship between the knowledge maturity and the community type, as shown below.

  • For strategic competence, the user base is relatively small, and knowledge is evolving rapidly. The small number of knowledge creators can form a community of purpose. 
  • For competitive competence, the user base is much larger, and will be too large to form a single group focused on communal delivery. However the knowledge topic is still evolving, and the knowledge users are also knowledge suppliers, and so need to be linked into a community of practice. 
  • For core competence, there will still be a large base of knowledge users, but the topic is far more static, and the focus is more on provision of knowledge resource to the user base, rather than on learning from the user base. A community of interest is more appropriate.

The key here is recognising the evolution of the knowledge and the evolution of the community, and managing the transition between the community types.  If the transition is not managed, then either the community structures are inappropriate (the tools unused, the members frustrated, the knowledge blocked), or the community disbands, leaving the knowledge unmanaged.

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