Communities of Practice: 3 Critical Success Factors

How to benefit from your colleagues online through Communities of Practice (CoP)? José Loeffen, Consultant on Innovation Knowledge management, Competence management and Communities of Practice (CoP), identifies 3 essential attention clusters to make this type of knowledge management a success.

Online Communities of Practice are crucial in connecting practitioners and experts worldwide and helping them to further develop their domain of expertise. When developing an online Community of Practice there are 3 attention clusters essential for success: Focus, Connect and Share & Re-use. Good governance and moderation are needed to stay alert in each of these clusters.

Why online Communities of Practice?

IT helps to share information worldwide

Innovation depends on sharing knowledge and expertise. In today’s world, this sharing needs to be worldwide. It’s therefore that corporate companies rely heavily on IT when it comes to knowledge management and connecting people to share their knowledge.

Communities of Practice make you feel part of a team

Most people will start on the internet to find fast fixes to close a knowledge gap, e.g. on web pages, youtube-like videos or online training courses. If that doesn’t help, they will turn to one-on-one communication with colleagues: be it face-to-face or via email and Skype.

People connecting one-one and people connecting one-to-many

In innovative environments, however, it is people connecting in (virtual) teams that make the leap forward. It’s the communication within these teams that have trouble finding its IT solution:

How to share information with – and within – a group 100 to over 1000 colleagues?

Here we are still struggling with information stored on Shared Drives and SharePoints that are unsuitable for finding relevant information.

Communities of Practice can support knowledge management & development among geographically dispersed people

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are meant to connect virtual teams with a better-suited system to share their knowledge and expertise. They aim to provide the opportunity to share knowledge between colleagues in the total spectrum from “explicit”, textbook-like, knowledge to “tacit” knowledge that can only be exchanged by peers in direct contact.

As every system, there are factors that need serious attention to be successful. There are 3 clusters that are at the heart of success: Focus, Connect and Share & Re-use.


Community of Practice attention cluster 1:


1.1 A clear and shared goal

To make sure people can find each other in an online community, a clear scope and a shared overall goal are paramount. If there’s no clear goal, no one will join the community. If there’s no clear scope, conversations may end up explain the universe, instead of solving the problem at hand.

1.2 Relevancy for the job at hand

The information in the community needs to be relevant to the daily job. So not too much overall superficial remarks, but straight to the point. This is the stumbling block for communities that rely solely on chats and posts.

If there’s no knowledge management repository to structure the knowledge that is exchanged, the information will be hidden under a lot of superficial talk. Examples of this are posts of people who “enjoyed being at xxx meeting, and happy to have reached success xxx”.

So for CoPs, you need to return to their area of interest over and over again, and make sure that learnings derived from the information exchange

1.3 WIIFM?

If you want communities to play a role in the development of new knowledge, you will also need to pay specific attention to the WIIFM: What’s In It For Me. As in any group of people, people have different reasons to join, and different reasons to become really active in a community. So in building the community, there has to be something for them.

This is where good governance is needed: the CoP needs to be embedded in a clear structure: a sponsor that emphasizes the importance, supervisors that encourage and explicitly prize active participation, and last but not least: making sure that colleagues can and do share their appreciation for good contributions.

A  CoP needs to be embedded in a context where contribution to the knowledge is explicitly valued. This is a combination of good governance of the CoP site, good recognition from superiors and peers.


Community of Practice attention cluster 2:


2.1 Finding experts and peers

The old-fashioned Rolodex was a personal database of people to connect to. As roles of people frequently change, it is a tedious task to keep your connection list up to date. In a Community of Practice, you can share the burden and make use of other people’s effort to get the right database of experts and other people to contact. An expert finder may help you to get to the right person in 3 clicks, instead of a lot of phone calls.

2.2 A mindset to share

People work best in small, co-located groups. That’s because such a group is the trust basis one needs to share successes, failures and learnings. You can look people in the eye to make sure they do not misuse the knowledge you share with them.

One of the big challenges in building online Communities of Practice for big groups is that it takes substantial effort to build a mindset where people are happy to share their expertise and also are inclined to ask for help. They need to feel they really can connect on a personal basis.

That is where community moderators have an important role in the community: they need to make sure that people are heard and understood: if you ask a question or share an interesting thought, someone needs to be on the other side of the line to react to that in a relevant way.


Community of Practice attention cluster 3:

Share & Re-use


3.1 Structured information

Information available in a clear context with a clear structure is likely to be shared and re-used. A first challenge is to model the information types you want to share.  This can start with a simple menu structure, but may also require the adoption of a taxonomy for the total domain at hand. Such a taxonomy will make the information accessible and searchable.

3.2 Translating expertise into knowledge that can be shared

A second challenge is to tap into personal databases for knowledge (e.g. presentations, an overview of experts to connect to, interesting e-links), to retrieve relevant information and make it accessible to others. There’s also often no accessible place to store the information. And who will be the owner of the information once it is shared with others?

Once the information is available, then the next step is to translate expertise into re-usable packages and keeping those packages up-to-date. This is an often ungrateful task. So many initiatives to start sharing information end in orphaned repositories full of impenetrable data.

A CoP, therefore, needs to be part of a total knowledge management system that drives the translation from tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge and provides the tools to do so.

Managing the knowledge cycle

The success of a community of practice requires the establishment of proper governance, making sure that Focus, Connect and Share & Re-use get the right attention, driving practical success and keeping it up to date through the support of active moderation.

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