Monday 14 March 2022

Why communities of practice succeed and why they fail - an interesting analysis

This blog has already published several articles about KM success factors. Here is another slant on the topic.

Communities of practice are a core component of any Knowledge Management Framework, and therefore people are very interested in why they work, and why they fail. I have already shared the following analyses:

Here is some more input to the debate - a 2008 paper from Gilbert Prost and Stefano Borzillo, called Why communities of practice succeed, and why they fail, where they use a study from a number of organisational settings to identify 10 success factors and 5 common reasons for failure.

These are listed below.

Success factors.

  1. Stick to strategic objectives. "We found evidence that setting clear and measurable objectives provides COP members with a concrete direction to follow"
  2. Divide objectives into sub-topics. "Evidence also suggests that classifying objectives into subtopics gives COP members absolute clarity regarding the goals that a COP must achieve"
  3. Form governance committees with sponsors and COP leaders. "Our findings indicate that sponsors and leaders who are active in the same functional area meet regularly to form a ‘‘governance committee” (which) discusses and assesses the overall activity of the various COPs in their specific functional area of the organization". 
  4. Have a sponsor and a COP leader who are best practice control agents. "Results also suggest that both the sponsor and the COP leader fulfill the task of controlling whether or not the COP effectively develops and shares best practices over a predetermined time".
  5. Regularly feed the COP with external expertise "Our data suggest that knowledge related to the COP’s practice is regularly imported from experts outside the COP. These experts can be from other organizations, or be part of the organization to which the COP belongs"
  6. Promote access to other intra- and interorganizational networks "Our results indicate that the COP leader promotes the access to intra- or interorganizational networks through their COP. This increases members’ active participation"
  7. The COP leader must have a driver and promoter role "Our findings show that the leader increases the COP’s attractiveness by distinctly structuring it into different sub-topics and coordinating the COP as a whole, with each sub-COP managing and indexing best practices relative to a specific part of the COP’s general practice".
  8. Overcome hierarchy-related pressures "We found evidence that within the COP’s boundaries, members are no longer regarded as being under their direct superiors’ orders...(and)... the leader reminds members that they will not be judged and/or sanctioned by their direct superiors if they make mistakes, ask na─▒ve questions, or admit that they have gaps in their knowledge".
  9. Provide the sponsor with measurable performance "The COP’s initial objectives are measured and the quantitative benefits for the organization are publicized in terms of the sponsor".
  10. Illustrate results for COP members "Our results demonstrate that COP members are encouraged to post their written experiences with a best practice on an electronic scorecard reporting system. In these ‘‘stories,” the COP members explain the entire process of how they implemented a practice in their organizational unit, how they used it, and even how they were able to improve it.

Main reasons for failure

  • Lack of a core group. "(failed CoPs) lack a group of core members actively engaged in its activities, such as regular participation in meetings, the inflow of fresh ideas, and support provided to other members on problem solving.
  • Low level of one-to-one interaction between members "These COPs lack one-to-one interaction between members (face-to-face, telephone, e-mail etc.)".
  • Rigidity of competences "Members tend to primarily trust their own competences, and are therefore less willing to integrate practices originating from other COP members into their daily work".
  • Lack of identification with the COP. "Members do not view participation in their COP as meaningful for their daily work" (ref the "I am" test)
  • Practice intangibility "Practice intangibility occurs when members fail to engage with one another in a way that allows them to illustrate the practice to make it concrete enough for other members to understand and visualize its function. The 12 unsuccessful COPs all used inappropriate tools (e.g. imprecise documentation and visual supports) to illustrate their practices".


Prost and Borzillo conclude that many of the success factors for CoPs are analogous to those for change management exercises (the clear strategic objective, the guiding coalition etc). They also offer us the following conclusions:

  • Successful COPs are well-balanced systems that oscillate between exploring new practices and exploiting existing ones. 
  • Although COPs mostly self-organize spontaneously through the needs expressed by their potential members, these structures have to be guided by strategic objectives. These objectives, which are quantitative/qualitative and operational, must be aligned with the organization’s activity and adaptable to the COP members’ specific needs. 
  • Guiding a COP successfully mainly requires the constant presence of a sponsor who must liaise between the management and the COP, and ensure that the COP sets objectives that conform to the organization’s strategy. This type of ‘‘monitored” guidance requires close and continuous cooperation between the sponsor and the COP’s leader to best manage the link between the management’s strategic area and the COP’s operational one. 
  • The sponsor should report a COP’s most efficient/effective practices and tangible results to top management to allow the network to receive resources and publicity throughout the organization. COPs’ top-down guidance also requires the management to monitor, through the sponsor, their realization of measurable targets. 
  • Successfully managed COPs also have a leader, or several leaders, who structure the network in a way that optimizes best practice transfer. Guiding a COP to success essentially requires a highly experienced and strongly coordinating leader who is able to continually keep abreast of other network members’ competencies.

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