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.

Microfeedback for Adjusting Behaviors

Previously I’ve talked about defining the values and behavior associated with quality culture. Once you’ve established these behaviors, a key way to make them happen is through microfeedback, a skill each quality professional, supervisor, and leader in your organization should be trained on.

We are all familiar with the traditional feedback loop: you receive feedback, reflect on it, make a plan, and then take action. This means feedback is given after a series of actions have taken place. Feedback addresses a few key observations for future improvements. In a situation when actions and sequences are quite complicated and interdependent, feedback can fail to provide useful insights to improve performance. Micro-feedback potentially can be leveraged to prevent critical mistakes and mitigate risks, which makes it a great way to build culture and drive performance.

Micro-feedback is a specific and just-in-time dose of information or insights that can reduce gaps between the desired behavioral goals and reality. Think of it as a microscope used to evaluate an individuals comprehension and behavior and prescribe micro-interventions to adjust performance and prevent mistakes.

Microfeedback, provided during the activity observed, is a fundamental aspect of the Gemba walk. These small tweaks can be adapted, and utilized to provide timely insights and easy-to-accomplish learning objectives, to drive deep clarity and stay motivated to modify their performance

Where and when the microfeedback happens is key:

1. Taskbased microfeedback focuses corrective or suggestive insights on the content of a task. To provide higher impact focus micro-feedback on the correct actions rather than incorrect performance. For example “Report this issue as an incident…”

2. Process-based micro-feedback focuses on the learning processes and works best to foster critical thinking in a complex environment. For example, “This issue can be further processed based on the decision tree strategies we talked about earlier.”

3. Self-regulation-based micro-feedback focuses on giving suggestive or directive insights helping individuals to better manage and regulate their own learning. For example, “Pause once you have completed the task and ask yourself a set of questions following the 5W2H formula.”

For microfeedback to be truly successful it needs to be in the context of a training program, where clear behavorial goals has been set. This training program should include a specific track for managers that allows them to provide microfeedback to close the gap between where the learner is and where the learner aims to be. This training will provide specific cues or reinforcement toward a well-understood task and focus on levels of task, process, or self-regulation.

During change management, provide positive micro-feedback on correct, rather than incorrect, performance. This can be very valuable as you think about sustainability of the change.

Leveraged sucessful, but well trained observers and peers, microfeedback will provide incremental and timely adjustments to drive behavior.

The Epistemic Interactions of Knowledge Management

The first four phases of knowledge management are all about identifying and creating meaning and then making that meaning usable. Knowledge management is a set of epistemic actions, creating knowledge through interaction. This interaction is a way of creating a partnership between what happens in the head with everything in the world – Work-as-Imagined and Work-as-Done.

There are really four themes to a set of epistemic actions:

  • Foraging: Locating resources that will lead to understanding
  • Tuning: Adjusting resources to align with desired understanding
  • Externalizing: Moving resources out of the head and into the world
  • Constructing: Forming new knowledge structures in the world

These epistemic actions are all about moving from Work-as-Imagined through Work-as-Prescribed to enable Work-as-Done.

Knowledge Management is really about the embodiment of information, knowledge, and even wisdom through these epistemic actions to apply change upon the world.

Four Themes Mapped to Firts 4 Phases of Knowledge Management

Theme

Epistemic Interaction

Means

Foraging

Locating resources that will lead to understanding

Searching

 

Searching happens when you need information and believe it exists somewhere.

Searching depends on how we articulate or information needs.

Probing

 

“Tell me more.” Probing happens when the information you have isn’t quite enough. You are probing when you take the next step, move to the next level, and obtain more salient specifics. Probing is about drilling down and saying “show, explain, and reveal more about this.”

We can probe to reveal new patterns, structures and relationships. It brings to light new information that helps us to reconsider what we already know.

Animating

 

Animating is when we initiate and control motion in an information source. It includes learning-by-doing.

Collecting

Collecting is how we gather foraged information and tuck it away for future use.

Tuning

Adjusting resources to align with desired understanding

Collecting

 

Cloning

 

Cloning lets us take information from one situation and use it in another.

Cutting

 

Cutting is the way we say “this matters”, that “I need this part, but not the rest.”

Filtering

Filtering reduces complexity by reducing clutter to expose salient details.

Externalizing

Moving resources out of the head and into the world

Annotating

 

Annotating is how we add context to information. How we adapt and modify the information to the needed context.

Linking

Connecting bits of information together. Forming conceptual maps.

Generating

Introducing new knowledge into the world.

Chunking

Grouping idenpendent yet related information together.

Constructing

Forming new knowledge structures in the world

Chunking

 

Composing

Producing a new, separate structure from the information that has its own meaning and purpose.

Fragmenting

Taking information and breaking it apart into usable components.

Rearranging

The art of creating meaningful order.

Repicturing

Changing the way the information is represented to create understanding.