Communities of Practice

Etienne Wenger and Bill Snyder

A hundred of us are tuned in on Saba Live (AKA Placeware), listening to these two champions of communities of practice (CoP). This month's installment of Saba's Human Capital Live!, hosted by Saba CLO Brooke Manville. I found this quite worthwhile.

We're talking about professionals. One definition of professional is "active member of a professional community of practice." Brooke: "In the knowledge economy, learning is doing." Trust is required to make CoPs function, but this isn't honesty so much as authenticity in relationships -- being reliable, making a contribution, and upholding community standards.

There's "more."

Looking at how communities spread and grow, small groups connect with others through people whose role is linking them. (Think of the people Malcolm Gladwell calls "connectors" in The Tipping Point. Think of communities as the informal learning objects of larger professional organizations. You can string them together into meta-communities, i.e. communities of communities.

This isn't so much a matter of technology, for communities can work with video conferencing, application sharing, listservs, websites, and the standard bag of Internet tricks. The telephone. Rhythm and ritual are key to keeping a community strong. The technoogy can be simple but the social aspects can be quite complex.

CoP is the formal organization recognizing that the informal organization exists. The formal organization should nurture and listen to the CoP, not try to control them. (I wonder how many traditional organizations will be able to facilitate CoP without unduly messing with them.) 2/3 of the participants just surveyed don't recognize community participation in indvidual performance reveiws.

CoP is knowledge up; KM is knowledge down. Experience validates the CoP.

Johnson & Johnson has maybe a hundred CoP. They look at how well they support their communities. Sponsorhsip, resrouces, barriers down, cultural issues, and technology. This is sort of an audit of CoP.

The "Tech Clubs" at Chrysler evolved into more strategic entities. In time, the Clubs helped Daimler and Chrysler come together as one organization.

What are the incentives that make a robust community work? In the SafeCities program, showing up at the teleconferences was the ticket of admission. F2F meetings reinforced the social context. These people are practitioners. They are accountable for improving their craft.

Strategic knowledge management cycle. You must identify the domains of knowledge that are critical to your strategy, find the communities, tie the learning to achieving results, and feeding the knowledge back into the business strategy. Brooke: Does the strategy feed the domain, or is it the other way around?

Metrics? Sometimes there's simply an intuitive belief that this is what to do. At Xerox, they calculate how much value is added. At HP, where they collect stories, they let the community tells its stories. At Shell, they tell the story of revitalizing a dry well -- the benefits pay for the donuts and travel forty times over. You need the stories to generate the numbers. The results come back on the job. If you save a few weeks, you can put a number on that.

Critical success factors: Domains energize core group: Executive sponsorship from client organizations. Enough support but not too much.

CPsquare is a CoP on CoP, a meta-community. (This strikes me as a community of prospects for Etienne and Bill.)

The CoP story has a familiar ring. Deja vu. You see, at Princeton, I majored in Sociology. Our topic was culture. CoP and traditional cultures have much in common. A "Tech Club" at Chrysler has parallels to a camp of Trobrian Islanders. Sociologists in my department were more interested in aberrations than normalcy. Crimilnology (AKA "Sluts and Nuts") was extremely popular. We spent a lot of time looking into the dysfunctions of Soviet society (which included an entire underground economy to circumvent the failings of official society.) Russia would have ground to a half without the role of tolkach, the fellow who bartered under the table and off the record to swap carrots for tractor parts and so on. Food for thought: CoP as small group psychology in a wired world.

Brooke Manville, Saba's Chief Learning Officer, has conducted a dozen of these one-hour sessions, including Peter Cappelli on Next Generation Employee Development, Jon Katzenbach on Motivation and Performance, Doug Smith on Value and Values, Laurie Bassi and Karen McGraw on Measuring Human Capital Capacity, Marcia Conner on Informal Learning, Tom Davenport on Baking Knowledge into Work, and Clark Quinn and yours truly on Applied Meta-Learning. On November 7, Wayne Hodgins will speak on New Process Models for Enhanced Productivity.

Archived presentations are available on Saba's website.

I don't have the patience for much of what passes for eLearning, but Human Capital Live has always justified investing an hour of my time. Check it out.

A tech note: With Placeware, you see slides on the web in your browser; the sound comes from a toll-free telephone call. This provides a measure of redundancy. Thank goodness. My browser dumped me -- I could see the frame around the content, but not the content itself. The speaker phone kept me informed while I fired up my laptop to look at the slides.

Why does Jay bother to document stuff like this? It helps me learn. And it's my contribution to the eLearning Community of Practice.

Posted by Jay Cross at October 10, 2002 09:11 AM | TrackBack

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