Why KM Communities of Practice Need More than Sharing to Be Worthwhile

Carla O'Dell's picture

As those of us who practice knowledge management (KM) intuitively believe, the easy flow of ideas can make groups more productive and creative. Now we have data to support it.  For my Big Thinkers, Big Ideas series, I interviewed Alex Pentland, head of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the MIT Media Lab and keynote speaker on May 1, 2015 at APQC’s KM Conference.  He and his team have collected data, using RFID badges, on hundreds of thousands of interactions between people in companies and governments. They have found that the greater the flow of ideas within a group, the more productive it is.  That makes sense, right? Sharing good ideas and best practices rapidly, as well as harvesting the best ideas from a diverse group of people, should lead to improvement if the conditions are right.

However, Pentland and his team made another intriguing finding: the most productive groups are not necessarily the most creative.  Creative groups are ones in which the members are exposed to a wide variety of ideas from outside the group, and then bring those ideas back to the group to be vetted and combined in new ways. In his book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science, Pentland explains the conditions that need to be present for productivity and creativity to flourish in groups, organizations, and cities.

Think of the implications for how we design our knowledge sharing networks and communities of practice.  Not only is vibrant sharing within a community important to promote productivity, having connections across communities is also vital for creativity.

Below is an excerpt from my interview with Alex.

Carla: In your book you talk about the role of engagement and exploration on idea flow, productivity and creativity. Could you talk about the relevance of these ideas for companies?

Alex: One of the key ways to build an organization that’s productive and innovative is getting everybody on the same page. Are people working together to work out ideas? One way you can measure that is to examine the likelihood of people actually talking to each other that are in the same work group. Engagement—much more than personality type, IQ, years on the job, or other things like that—is a big factor in productivity,

Within organizations, “exploration” is harvesting ideas from outside the work group. If the work group just talks to itself, pretty soon it becomes stuck in a rut. You need to bring things in from outside. Interestingly, in most corporations, that’s sort of against the rules. There’s an org chart and you’re supposed to communicate up or to the left or whatever, but we regularly find that the most innovative people are the ones who ignore that org chart. The most innovative groups are those that have lots of people bringing in different perspectives to share with the group. To get the right set of ideas into everybody’s heads, you’ve got to have everybody in the loop, and you have to bring in new ideas all the time.

Carla: One way organizations accomplish this is through communities of practice. Communities create a legitimate way to cross boundaries—the formal, departmental boundaries still exist, but they’re not relevant when you’re in the community talking about ideas and knowledge.

Alex: Managers and leaders really need to understand that communities of practice need to cut across silos and boxes in order to really be innovative.

Read more of my interview with Alex Pentland.     For a continuation of my blog interview with Alex, stay tuned to the APQC blog for part two, and come to the KM conference.

To subscribe to the Big Thinkers, Big Ideas podcast on Itunes click here.

You can connect with me on Twitter @odell_carla and Alex Pentland @alex_pentland.



Anonymous's picture
Orthodoxy drives orthodoxy!
Carla O'Dell's picture

So true. We surround ourselves with people who think like us and ostracize those who don't. Not a pretty side of human nature and a formula for staleness. We can overcome this by interacting widely and with respect and curiosity all the time.