Communities of Practice

Knowledge management is a key enabler for quality, and should firmly be part of our standards of practice and competencies. There is a host of practices, and one tool that should be in our toolboxes as quality professionals is the Community of Practice (COP).

What is a Community of Practice?

Wenger, Trayner, and de Laat (2011) defined a Community of Practice as a “learning partnership among people who find it useful to learn from and with each other about a particular domain. They use each other’s experience of practice as a learning resource.” Etienne Wagner is the theoretical origin of the idea of a Community of Practice, as well as a great deal of the subsequent development of the concept.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better. As such, they are a great tool for continuous improvement.

These communities can be defined by disciplines, by problems, or by situations. They can be internal or external. A group of deviation investigators who want to perform better investigations, contamination control experts sharing across sites, the list is probably endless for whenever there is a shared problem to be solved.

The idea is to enable practitioners to manage knowledge. Practitioners have a special connection with each other because they share actual experiences. They understand each other’s stories, difficulties, and insights. This allows them to learn from each other and build on each other’s expertise.

There are three fundamental characteristics of communities:

  • Domain: the area of knowledge that brings the community together, gives it its identity, and defines the key issues that members need to address. A community of practice is not just a personal network: it is about something. Its identity is defined not just by a task, as it would be for a team, but by an “area” of knowledge that needs to be explored and developed.
  • Community: the group of people for whom the domain is relevant, the quality of the relationships among members, and the definition of the boundary between the inside and the outside. A community of practice is not just a Web site or a library; it involves people who interact and who develop relationships that enable them to address problems and share knowledge.
  • Practice: the body of knowledge, methods, tools, stories, cases, documents, which members share and develop together. A community of practice is not merely a community of interest. It brings together practitioners who are involved in doing something. Over time, they accumulate practical knowledge in their domain, which makes a difference to their ability to act individually and collectively.

The combination of domain, community, and practice is what enables communities of practice to manage knowledge. Domain provides a common focus; community builds relationships that enable collective learning; and practice anchors the learning in what people do. Cultivating communities of practice requires paying attention to all three elements.

Communities of Practice are different than workgroups or project teams.

What’s the purpose?Who belongs?What holds it together?How long does it last?
Community of PracticeTo develop members’ capabilities. To build and exchange knowledgeMembers who share domain and communityCommitment from the organization. Identification with the group’s expertise. PassionAs long as there is interest in maintaining the group
Formal work groupTo deliver a product or serviceEveryone who reports to the group’s managerJob requirements and common goalsUntil the next reorganization
Project teamTo accomplish a specific taskEmployee’s assigned by managementThe project’s milestones and goalsUntil the project has been completed
Informal networkTo collect and pass on business informationFriends and business acquantaincesMutual needsAs long as people have a reason to connect
Types of organizing blocks

Establishing a Community of Practice

Sponsorship

For a Community of Practice to thrive it is crucial for the organization to provide adequate
sponsorship. Sponsorship are those leaders who sees that a community can deliver value and therefore makes sure that the community has the resources it needs to function and that its ideas and proposals find their way into the organization. While there is often one specific sponsor, it is more useful to think about the sponsorship structure that enables the communities to thrive and have an impact on the performance of the organization. This includes high-level executive sponsorship as well as the sponsorship of line managers who control the time usage of employees. The role of sponsorship includes:

  • Translating strategic imperatives into a knowledge-centric vision of the organization
  • Legitimizing the work of communities in terms of strategic priorities
  • Channeling appropriate resources to ensure sustained success
  • Giving a voice to the insights and proposals of communities so they affect the way business is conducted
  • Negotiating accountability between line operations and communities (e.g., who decides which “best practices” to adopt)

Support Structure

Communities of Practice need organizational support to function. This support includes:

  • A few explicit roles, some of which are recognized by the formal organization and resourced with dedicated time
  • Direct resources for the nurturing of the community infrastructure including meeting places, travel funds, and money for specific projects
  • Technological infrastructure that enables members to communicate regularly and to accumulate documents

It pays when you use communities of practice in a systematic way to put together a small “support team” of internal
consultants who provide logistic and process advice for communities, including coaching community leaders, educational activities to raise awareness and skills, facilitation services, communication with management, and
coordination across the various community of practices. But this is certainly not needed.

Process Owners and Communities of Practice go hand-in-hand. Often it is either the Process Owner in a governance or organizing role; or the community of practice is made up of process owners across the network.

Recognition Structure

Communities of Practice allows its participants to build reputation, a crucial asset in the knowledge economy. Such reputation building depends on both peer and organizational recognition.

  • Peer recognition: community-based feedback and acknowledgement mechanisms that celebrate community participation
  • Organizational recognition: rubric in performance appraisal for community contributions and career paths for people who take on community leadership

Subject Matter Experts Role in Knowledge Management – a Competency Approach

A Subject Matter Experts (SME) is a fascinating creature, both those within an organization and those considered a SME outside their organization – for example by a professional society.

A SME is engaged in knowledge management activities, what we want is for those activities to be a explicit and systematic management of the processes of creating, gathering, validating, categorizing, archiving, disseminating, leveraging, and using knowledge – whether for improving the organization and the individuals in it or the broader profession.

The thing is, this is another skill set for most SMEs. There will be SMEs out there who can do this from practice, but we need to be more deliberate in providing the skills. To provide the skills we must understand what we need to teach, which is where a competency model is valuable.

For the purpose of this post I’ll use the same three levels the ASQ Human Development and Leadership technical community uses for their competency framework:

  • Basic: Possesses general, conceptual knowledge or awareness of this concept OR a limited ability to perform this skill. Needs reference materials to complete tasks related to this concept.
  • Intermediate: Able to apply knowledge of this concept in work OR can perform this skill consistently with minimal guidance.
  • Advanced:  Provides expert advice and make sound judgments using knowledge of this concept OR provides consultation and leadership to others using this skill. Can foster greater understanding of this concept among colleagues and stakeholders.
CompetencyLevel to build towards
Knowledge of principles of knowledge management, for example conceptualizing, managing, preserving, and/or maintaining organizational knowledge.Advanced
Knowledge of methods and techniques for capturing and codifying knowledge, for example storytelling, data mining, cognitive mapping, decision trees, and/or knowledge taxonomies.Advanced
Knowledge of methods and techniques for disseminating and/or sharing knowledge across individuals, groups, and organizations.Advanced
Skill in designing and implementing knowledge management strategy.Intermediate
Skill in identifying the quality, authenticity, accuracy, impartiality, and/or relevance of information from various sources, for example databases, print and online media, speeches and presentations, and observations.Advanced
Skill in organizing and synthesizing information from multiple sources, for example databases, print and online media, speeches and presentations, and observations.Advanced
Skill in curating instructional content, tools, and resources, for example researching, evaluating, selecting, and/or assembling publicly available online courseware.Basic
Skill in identifying the type and amount of information needed to support the development of others in the topic.Advanced
Skill in developing, managing, facilitating, and/or supporting knowledge networks and communities of practiceAdvanced

We need to recognize that not every SME will get to this level, or have the time to consistently apply it. This is why it is important to have knowledge management experts to support, nurture and step in where needed to assist.

Building the Risk Team

Good risk assessments are a team effort. If done right this is a key way to reduce subjectivity and it recognizes that none of us know everything.

An effective risk team:

One of the core jobs of a process owner in risk assessment is assembling this team and ensuring they have the space to do their job. They are often called the champion or sponsor for good reason.

It is important to keep in mind that membership of this team will change, gaining and losing members and bringing on people for specific subsections, depending on the scale and scope of the risk assessment.

The more complex the scope and the more involved the assessment tool, the more important it is to have a facilitator to drive the process. This allows someone to focus on the process of the risk assessment, and the reduction of subjectivity.

Risk Management is our Ability to Anticipate

Risk assessment is a pillar of the quality system because it gives us the ability to anticipate in a consistent manner. It is built on some fundamental criteria:

CriteriaAsksEnsure
ExpertiseWhat sort of expertise is relied upon to look into the futureDiversity in expertise. Drive out subjectivity
FrequencyHow often are future threats and opportunities assessed?Living risk assessments, cycles of review.
CommunicationHow are the expectations of future events communicated or shared within the system?Risk register. Knowledge management. Continuous improvement. Management review
StrategyWhat is the model of the futureSensemaking
Time horizonHow far ahead does the system look ahead? Is the time horizon different for different organization areas?System building
Acceptability of RisksWhich risks are considered acceptable and which unacceptable? On which basis?Controls
CultureIs risk awareness part of the organizational culture?Risk-based-thinking. Mindset
Anticipation Criteria to apply to Risk Management