As professionals in an organization acquire knowledge and experience, they share this knowledge among themselves in informal communities of practice (CoPs). In large international organizations with geographically dispersed professionals, such organic, informal CoPs aren’t possible; however, research shows top management-initiated, deliberately structured intentional communities of practice (ICoP) can fulfil the same function of distributing knowledge throughout the organization.
Professionals in an organization — technical experts in a service organization, for example — will acquire best practices, solutions, resources, ideas and other knowledge as they develop responses to the needs of their clients. In organizations where professionals work in a single location, the professionals will gather regularly to discuss what they have learned about and from their work. These informal ‘communities of practice’ have many benefits. Professionals learn from each other about innovative solutions and best practices for the challenges they face. There is also the psychological benefit of belonging to a group who share their experiences, goals and perspectives.
Participants in these informal CoPs have conversations, not meetings. There is no agenda, introductory comments or the other formal structures of meetings. Mutual knowledge of jargon and subject allows shortcuts to communication; for example, it takes little time to set up the problem. Shared stories and inside jokes help to make the exchange informal and open. A key feature of these CoPs is that they are formed organically: the professionals decide among themselves to connect and the discussions naturally evolve into more regular meetings.
Over time, the knowledge exchanged in the CoPs also evolve; participants first benefit from knowing what (awareness of best practices and developments in their professions) and knowing who (interacting with professional peers), then quickly start knowing how (acquiring new knowledge and skills to apply to the job). Eventually, through the discussions and exchanges, participants also start knowing why, gaining a clearer picture of where the organization is going and why.
What happens, however, when a company’s professionals are dispersed around the globe? Communities of practices grow organically — a group of professionals informally drawn together by their similar backgrounds, training, experience and responsibilities. Such organically grown groups are not possible among individuals separated by thousands of miles and different time zones. Is it possible for executives to intentionally create communities of practice in their organizations, and still retain the informality and openness required for the rapid exchange of knowledge?
A two-year study at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services (HP-ES) reveals that intentional communities of practice (ICoPs) can be just as effective as organically developed local CoPs. As the name indicates, the launch of intentional communities of practice is dramatically different: ICoPs are management-driven top-down initiatives in which top managers establish a mandate for the CoP that is laid out in a mission statement, and set specific rules for the meetings, which are managed and facilitated by a ‘convener’ and a core team.
Despite the top-down ‘push’ nature of ICoPs, the researchers at HP-ES observed that the hosted events with structured agendas quickly expanded into open and less structured meetings. Eventually, the convener and the core team were able to step back from their roles, and the ICoPs adopted the more peer-to-peer congenial style of traditional CoPs — except that the exchanges were taking place through LinkedIn and other Internet-based communication.
And when compared with traditional CoPs, the ICoPs at Hewlett Packard yielded impressive results, beginning with extensive knowledge sharing, distribution of best practices, and coordinated innovative solutions for clients across dispersed project management teams. Tangible outcomes included a new service catalogue that listed the entire range of project management services offered by the company, and a quick start methodology for project management teams. A more intangible but equally important outcome was a greater sense of connection and belonging for the dispersed technical professionals.
While it may be difficult to directly measure the financial benefit of communities of practice, it is clear that the organizational learning and team environment that comes from technical professionals meeting regularly to exchange ideas and innovative practices and techniques can only improve the performance of the company. (Interestingly, corporate executives surveyed at the end of the HP-ES study emphasized how its ICoP helped dissemination of innovative practices while operational executives emphasized the improvement of existing practices.)
The challenge for a large corporation with dispersed technical professionals is how to harness the power and economies of scale of these communities. Some argue that a top-down managed intervention would destroy the informality and openness of organic communities of practice, but this research proves otherwise.
For an intentional community of practice to be successful, however, management should follow some important guidelines:
Intentionally Creating a Community of Practice to Connect Dispersed Technical Professionals. Liz Lee-Kelley, Neil Turner & John Ward. Research Technology Management (March-April 2014).
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