8 Ways You Should Be Supporting Your Communities of Practice, But Aren’t

Lauren Trees's picture

You’ve probably heard that old saying, “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” It’s hard to picture that visual in today’s era of cars and freeways, but once you do, it’s easy to imagine that the cart isn’t going anywhere when the arrangement is backward.

Today is National Backward Day: the one day of the year when it makes sense to do things backward, just for the sake of a laugh. But doing things in reverse isn’t usually a good idea—and that’s especially true when starting a new knowledge management initiative.

When making business decisions, organizations put the cart before the horse far too often—usually to their detriment. Take, for example, a firm that is so fired up about knowledge sharing that it establishes a bunch of communities of practice, only to find itself struggling to get people to participate.

Don’t get me wrong; communities of practice are a fantastic KM approach. They bring people together to share expertise, solve problems, and pursue common objectives. But a community of practice without engaged participants is not a community at all.

You might assume that if you simply build it, they will come. But APQC’s KM research reveals that why and how you build a community will have a big impact on how successful it will be.

Here are eight key findings from APQC's extensive research on communities of practice:

  1. Make sure that each community has a clear business purpose.  Best-practice organizations focus their resources on communities with defined objectives and a plan to achieve them.
  2. Design communities according to their primary business intent.  Some communities are for problem-solving, some focus on developing best practices or procedures, some steward bodies of knowledge, some foster sharing across regions, and some are all about innovation. Each community needs different processes and support depending on its purpose.
  3. Solicit active, enthusiastic community leaders. While it’s great to have the support of your organization’s senior leaders, they aren’t the ones who will keep communities active and effective over time. The most important success factor in building an engaged, sustainable community is the skill and enthusiasm of its community leader.
  4. Support communities with a combination of central and business-unit funding. Plan ahead for how you’ll provide ongoing support for your community, including funding for community leaders and coordinators, software, and content managers and systems.
  5. Link communities to the organizational structure, and seek leadership sponsors. Connecting a community to your organization’s framework provides legitimacy as well as access to management support, funding, and shared resources. At most best-practice organizations, communities are formally sponsored by a KM council, a steering committee, or business management.
  6. Promote communities and the value of participation. At some organizations, participation in communities is voluntary, whereas at others, it’s mandatory or strongly encouraged. Many organizations promote their communities through communications, rewards and recognition, and tie-ins to performance measures.
  7. Give members a say in community objectives and direction. Communities tend to be member-driven and democratic. Letting members drive their own community helps people stay engaged.
  8. Measure community health and impact. Track the return on your investment by measuring the health of your communities and their impact on both individual members and the organization as a whole.

If you’re considering launching a community, hold onto that cart and horse for a moment, and plan carefully before you invest thousands of dollars in building that infrastructure. Don’t go about it backward – even if you decide to start on National Backward Day.

Already have a community program? APQC is currently conducting new research on next-generation communities of practice, and we need your help! Please take just a few minutes to participate in our short, 14-question survey at www.apqc.org/communities2016. All participants will receive a summary of the survey results. The survey closes on February 10, so don't wait!


Anonymous's picture
I've read this piece 4 or 5 times now, and I think APQC is stuck between the creation and maintenance of CoPs and the creation and maintenance of some other KM-oriented, organizational structure(s) mandated by management. I see a number of loose or fuzzy interpretations of oft-used terms which, given that this is a piece of advisory, irk me. CoPs are first and foremost communities. They are not organizational structures unless, by some strange coincidence, organizational boundaries are congruent with the knowledge domains in which people choose to share knowledge. The role of management in determining CoP boundaries is ridiculous since, as the piece correctly states, community members need to engage; and the basis of that engagement is members' interest in a domain, and in extending it as a knowledge pool, and their personal role in that endeavor. So, when the piece argues that members should be given "a say in community objectives and direction" I say "Duh! Of course!". The piece mentions the role of leaders yet I'm sure it means 'managers'. Leaders will create CoPs without any assistance from anyone else, and draw 'members' to them. Managers can only hope to do that, and tend to rely on their positional power to 'encourage' participation... which is a failure mode. This speaks to the first 3 bullets, and I suggest that the self-selection behavior of natural domain 'leaders' will perform better, in terms of CoP performance, broadly by reversing the order of these points i.e. 3, 2 then 1. Lastly, the ROI of CoPs is entirely about the alignment of enriched knowledge in specific domains to the goals of the organization. Natural domain 'leaders' know this without being told, and their followers are likely to know this too ~ because that's why knowledge workers engage. So I have to say I find the piece a hotch-potch of ideas - maybe backed up via the received wisdom of subscription research which I think is APQC's way - but lacking the ability to understand the message behind the research results and weave it into whole cloth.
Anonymous's picture
Very inspring article, but personnaly I do not think that one needs to invest a lot of money in setting up a community of practise, one could for example use one of these online collaboration tools like Slack or Yammer etc... to share best practices, ideas, business processes, between for example different organizations.
Lauren Trees's picture

Thanks so much both of you for the thoughtful responses.

In terms of the first comment: I’m not sure that I fully understand some of the critiques you’re making, but I will do my best to address your points. If I’ve misinterpreted anything, please reply back and clarify.

  • I’m not sure what about the post gave the impression that I think CoPs are organizational structures. Most communities we look at in our research are intended to cross traditional boundaries (e.g., between functions or business units), and in most cases membership is open to any employee with an interest in a topic or discipline. However, that is different from saying that communities should be entirely organic and self-forming (which I think is what you’re suggesting). Although some organizations have success with this strategy, many of our members find that CoPs are more sustainable and create more value when they have some strategy and governance around them, including a charter, objectives, leaders/core teams, annual health checks, etc. These types of communities tend to be more focused, and you can assign them specific cross-functional business challenges to tackle, bodies of knowledge to steward, innovation tasks etc. So in short, you’re describing one kind of CoP, but certainly not the only kind. And while member interests are certainly a driving force in the direction of such communities, they are not the only factor.
  • I’m a little confused about your comments on leaders vs. managers. What the piece primarily refers to are “community leaders” – which, in the type of community described above, are usually volunteer or assigned positions responsible for keeping the community on track, planning meetings/webinars, ensuring that questions posted to the community receive timely answers, managing community content, etc. This role might be assumed by a subject matter expert or someone less experienced, but it is not related to the organizational hierarchy in any way. Our research does suggest that having an engaged, enthusiastic leader (whether volunteer, elected, or assigned) is the #1 critical success factor for purpose-driven communities.
  • While I agree with you about the true ROI for communities, it can be difficult to “prove,” and in some organizations, KM leaders are required to demonstrate tangible ROI in order to receive sustained support for their community programs. In these cases, we recommend measuring community activities and correlating them with relevant business outcome measures. For example, if a community is designed to facilitate the sharing of best-known methods among several locations, it would make sense to measure whether that’s occurring, whether the methods being shared are actually implemented at the other locations, and what impact they are having on quality, cycle time, etc.

To the second comment: You’re right that many organizations get a lot of value out of tools like Slack and Yammer, and that you usually can put such tools in place with a minimal investment (although getting people to actually use them may require a more defined strategy and communication plan). However, what our research shows is that purposed-based communities of practice –ones with defined objectives and designated leaders—can generate different, and in many cases more, value than self-governed ad hoc enterprise social networks. Obviously, the success of each strategy depends on the organization in question and its underlying culture. But I assure you that we’ve studied organizations that have tried both, and they do not generate equivalent results.

Lauren Trees, KM Knowledge Specialist, APQC

Anonymous's picture
Hi Lauren, Thanks for your response. If you've attended a workshop where the participants include a mix of 'grades', you'll know what happens when a 'boss' attends compared to the situation when a 'boss' does not. It's a case of 'when the cat's away, the mice will play'... and I don't regard 'play' as a bad thing. In the context of knowledge sharing and sparking new thoughts, it's a very, very good thing. That's my beef with top-down driven CoPs. Where you say "CoPs are more sustainable and create more value when they have some strategy and governance around them, including a charter, objectives, leaders/core teams, annual health checks, etc..." I completely agree with that (with one exception: I'd differentiate 'leaders' and 'core teams'), but I don't agree that CoPs need to be imposed, and I don't agree that my remarks about CoPs are inconsistent with these good practices. My comment about 'leaders' is to defend against the corruption of the term 'leader' with what I prefer to call 'managers' or 'bosses' (people who are assigned positional power), and with what you describe - which is an administrator. Where I use the term 'leader' I mean someone with the natural ability to lead and bring others along with him/her. In that sense, the establishment of a CoP by a leader, and the injection of enthusiasm, and the likelihood of 'success', are natural outcomes for a genuine leader interested in KM.