Communities of Practice

Originally published on October 17, 2016

Fifth in a series of 50 Knowledge Management Components (Slide 12 in KM 102)

Communities: groups of people who share an interest, a specialty, a role, a concern, a set of problems, or a passion for a specific topic. Community members deepen their understanding by interacting on an ongoing basis, asking and answering questions, sharing their knowledge, reusing good ideas, and solving problems for one another.

Communities should be part of any KM program. Connecting people is fundamental to getting knowledge flowing, and communities are an important way of doing so.

Here are three keys for a successful community of practice:

  1. A compelling topic: The members and potential members must be passionate about the subject for collaboration, and it must be relevant to their work.
  2. A critical mass of members: You usually need at least 100 members, with 200 being a better target.
  3. A committed leader: The community leader should know the subject, have energy for stimulating collaboration, have sufficient time to devote to leadership, and then regularly spend time increasing membership, lining up speakers, hosting calls and meetings, asking and answering questions, and posting information which is useful to the members.

For more details, see Communities Manifesto: 10 Principles for Successful Communities.

Creating, building and sustaining communities

Communities are fundamental to connecting people with related interests so that they can share with one another, innovate, reuse each other’s ideas, collaborate, and learn together. Starting a community is an excellent first step in launching a KM initiative, and can be used as a building block for more elaborate functionality.

Communities enable knowledge to flow between people. Community members:

  • Share new ideas, lessons learned, proven practices, insights, and practical suggestions.
  • Innovate through brainstorming, building on each other’s ideas, and keeping informed on emerging developments.
  • Reuse solutions through asking and answering questions, applying shared insights, and retrieving posted material.
  • Collaborate through threaded discussions, conversations, and interactions.
  • Learn from other members of the community; from invited guest speakers about successes, failures, case studies, and new trends; and through mentoring.

For more details, see What are you supposed to do in a community?

Richard McDermott, an authority on communities, states that “healthy communities have a driving purpose, clear activities, a sense of accomplishment, and high management expectations. The heart of a community of practice includes peer-to-peer relationships, responsibility for stewarding a body of knowledge, membership which crosses boundaries, and room for dealing with whatever comes up.”

Communities come in two main varieties. Communities of Practice have a rich and formal set of activities, governance, and structure, and are based on common roles or specialties, typically work-related. Communities of Interest are for topics that don’t require a lot of formal structure, but need threaded discussions for collaboration and knowledge sharing, typically not work-related.

  1. Communities of Practice have members with a particular work role or expertise. These communities are focused on developing expertise, skills, and proficiency in the specialty. The motivation is to master the discipline, learn about the specialty, and solve problems together. An example of a role-based community is project management, and an example of an expertise-based community is Microsoft SharePoint.
  2. Communities of Interest are groups of people who want to learn about a particular topic, or who are passionate about one. They make no commitment to deliver something together. The motivation is to stay current on the topic and to be able to ask and answer questions about it. An example is all people who have an interest in photography.

For more details, see Types of Communities: TRAIL.

Getting Started

The first thing to do is to decide what topic you wish to address in a community. Pick a compelling topic that will be of interest to many people in your organization. The potential members must be passionate about the subject for collaboration, and it must be relevant to their work.

Before creating a new community, check to see if there is an existing community already focused on the proposed topic or on related one. For more details, see To control or not to: only you can prevent redundant communities.

If nothing similar already exists, then you can proceed to create a new one. If communities already exist in your organization, then answer the following questions.

Is your topic already covered as part of another community? If so, offer to help the leader of that community. Help can include increasing membership, booking speakers, leading calls and meetings, responding to questions, and sharing useful information.

Is there an existing community focused on a related topic? If so, approach its leader about expanding it to include your topic. This helps achieve critical mass, broadens the appeal of the community, and provides the same type of help as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Is there an old community that is inactive but could be resurrected or migrated to form the new community? If so, ask if you can take over the leadership, or harvest the membership list to start the new one. Reusing existing membership lists, community tools, and knowledge content can save time in starting a new community.

For more details, see 5 questions to answer before starting a new community.

If the answers to all of these questions are negative, then you can create a new community for the desired topic. The subsequent sections provide the steps to follow.

Select a Community Leader

You need committed leaders for communities. Community leaders should know the subject in depth, have energy for stimulating collaboration among the members, and be able to devote sufficient time to leadership activities. These activities include regularly spending time increasing membership, lining up speakers, hosting calls and meetings, asking and answering questions, and posting information which is useful to the members.

For more details, see How to be a great community manager.

Build Community Membership

The community will need a critical mass of members. You usually need at least 100 members, with 200 being a better target.

A community benefits from a broad range of perspectives. If it has only a small number of like-minded members, it is unlikely that innovative ideas, lively debates, and breakthrough thinking will result.

Only 10% or fewer of the members will usually be active in discussions and presentations. In small communities, only a handful of people will speak up, and that will not usually sustain momentum.

The larger the membership, the more likely that any question posed to the community will be answered. By including as much of the available expertise as possible in the community, its ability to respond increases accordingly.

Increasing the size of a community yields more potential speakers at community events and conference calls. It results in greater leverage, since for the same effort, more people realize the benefits. And it helps more people to become comfortable in the community model, which can lead them to join other communities, recruit new members, and launch related communities of interest. For more details, see Does Size Matter in Communities?

To build membership, try to take advantage of existing networks. Is there an existing team that could become the core of a new community? For example, is there a team whose mission aligns with the topic for the new community? If so, these can be the initial members.

Is there an existing distribution list of people interested in the topic? If so, use that list to invite people to join your community. You can also use this list to add subscribers to a threaded discussion. Send a message to the members when you have done this, explaining why this was done, the benefits of the community, and how to unsubscribe if they don’t want to belong. After adding these new members, be sure that some useful posts are made to demonstrate the value of remaining subscribed to the threaded discussion.

Skills inventories and expertise locators can be mined to find potential members. Look for people who have declared a specialty, expertise, or an interest in the topic, and invite them to join the community or subscribe them to the threaded discussion.

If you are conducting user surveys about other aspects of the knowledge management initiative, you can include questions about topics of interest and communities which users would like to join. Use the results of such surveys to invite members to join associated communities.

Social Network Analysis can be used to identify people who are linked but who may not be part of a formal community. These people can be invited join the community or subscribed to the threaded discussion.

After new members are added to the community, you should periodically ask them to help recruit others. Potential members can be invited to attend events to see if they would like to join, subscribe to the threaded discussion, or review community content for possible use.

Publicize the Community

Once your community is established, publicize its existence to help recruit new members. This is an ongoing requirement, because new people will join the organization and need to be informed for the first time, and other people need repeated communications for your message to reach them and to sink in.

Write and submit articles to existing newsletters that reach your target audience. Provide a concise description of the community, including its purpose, benefits, events, and tools. Supply an easy-to-use link to follow for more information and to join the community.

Solicit success stories of how the community has helped its members and the organization to achieve their goals. Publicize these stories within the community and through articles in various publications and web sites.

Use existing networks to inform possible members about your community. Distribution lists, expertise locators, and other communities can be used to contact potential members through email to make them aware of the community and how to join. Or you can speak at a meeting or on a conference call to solicit new members.

Send a one-time broadcast message to the entire population containing your target audience. Make sure your message is brief, compelling, and visually appealing. Include links to key community sites and for becoming a new member.

Request that a link to your community be added on all relevant web sites. Examples include the intranet home page for your organization, other community sites, master community directories, related links pages, and other intranet pages related to the community topic. The provided link should go to a page which quickly grabs the interest of the user, shows them the available resources, succinctly describes the benefits, and makes it easy to join the community.

Offer an incentive to join the community. For example, a member will be chosen at random to receive a book about the community topic. Or the 100th member will receive an MP3 player to use to subscribe to the community’s podcast. Or everyone who joins receives a complimentary subscription to a relevant industry periodical. You can also recognize existing community members who recruit the most new members.

Try all of these tactics, and keep track of which ones yield the best results. Periodically repeat each one.

Keep the Community Active

Many communities fail because after the effort to create them wanes, there is limited effort devoted to sustaining activity. Help the community thrive by regularly using a variety of interventions. For more details, see 10 Tips for Leading Communities.

Hold a regular conference call with a scheduled speaker. The community can decide the desired frequency, but it should be often enough to keep the event in the minds of the members. Speakers can be from within or outside the community. Member speakers can share their experiences and insights. External speakers can be thought leaders, members of other organizations with diverse perspectives, or experts on topics of interest. Speakers can give presentations, lead discussions, or demonstrate concepts. Topics can include proven practices, success stories, lessons learned from failure, emerging concepts, controversial ideas, tips, techniques, insights, and methods.

Make it easy for people to attend the calls, and minimize time wasted due to technology challenges. For more details, see Low-Tech Webinars are the Most Reliable. Record the calls and post the recordings so that they are available to those unable to attend, and for future reference. For more details, see Recording Conference Calls on a Budget by Andrew Gent.

Hold periodic events such as face-to-face meetings and training sessions. Meeting in person at least occasionally is essential to building trust. Members who have met, socialized, and learned about each other’s personal interests will have a much easier time collaborating thereafter. Spending more time together than is available on recurring conference calls allows for deeper learning to occur.

Post at least once a week to the community’s threaded discussion. Include a summary of a community event, a useful link, or a thought-provoking topic to stimulate discussion. By doing this, you will keep the community in the top of mind of the members. To those browsing the community tools to see if they wish to join, frequent posts serve as an indicator of community health. And some members will typically respond to your posts and useful discussions will ensue.

Look for relevant discussions that are taking place in email exchanges, public distribution lists, or outside of your organization. Then redirect those discussions to your threaded discussion, copy or link to the key points, or summarize the highlights. By drawing these external discussions into your community, you will provide useful insights, demonstrate the value of membership, and possibly attract new members.

Regularly suggest to those with questions or interest in your topic that they join your community and use its tools. These people may surface in multiple ways. They may send you a question or call you with a problem. Or they might contact the knowledge assistants looking for help. Or someone who knows of your expertise in the topic may refer someone else to you, either by forwarding an email message or by providing your name and phone number. However the question or interest is identified, it represents an excellent opportunity to make the initiator aware of the community and use the community to respond. This builds credibility, adds new members, and creates value for the organization.

As already mentioned, only 10% or fewer of the members will usually be active in discussions and presentations. The other 90% are often referred to as lurkers. Lurking is okay, because it allows those members who are new, inexperienced, or shy to learn from the more active members. Lurkers play an important role in communities as the beneficiaries of much of what is being discussed by others. They can benefit from seeing how others solved problems, listening to speakers, and reading posted materials. So while active members are essential to a community’s success, so are silent ones. For more details, see 90–9–1 Rule of Thumb: Fact or Fiction?

Send out a regular newsletter to stay in communication with members. Remind members about upcoming calls, and summarize recent calls. Link to key information, reusing content already contributed to the community. Call attention to recent discussion board threads, blog posts of interest, and recently-edited wiki pages. For more details, see All the news that fits: Tips for good newsletters.

Provide Community Tools

To enable the community to collaborate, offer one or more tools for members to use. People make up the community, and tools support collaboration among the members.

For more details, see Community of Practice Tools: e-SCENT-ials.

Sustain the Community

After a community has been created and developed, it must be nurtured carefully so that it doesn’t stagnate or die. Here are some practical tips for how to sustain communities.

Don’t let a few members dominate. Encourage lurkers when they surface with an occasional post. Invite a variety of members to speak during calls and meetings. Publicize contributions from all members.

Avoid parochialism. Local organizations tend to think of creating local communities and sharing within them, but are reluctant to expand to a global community. Encourage communities to be broader and to include other countries, other parts of the organization, customers, partners, and former employees. This may be hard to sell, even though wider membership will probably make the communities more successful by supplying more answers to questions, additional perspectives, and more varied experience.

Meet in person, either in a periodic community meeting, or as part of another meeting or training session. Colleagues who see each other regularly are more likely to ask one another for help and to trust one another enough to share documents and other content. Someone who works in the cube next another person will be likely to visit that colleague to ask for help, to bounce ideas off them, or to ask if they have a document that they can use. They are much less likely to post to a threaded discussion or to contact someone they don’t know personally. Face-to-face meetings help overcome this challenge by introducing members to one another.

Aim for a variety of speakers, topics, and activities. In community events, don’t always have a presentation. Sometimes schedule a field trip, a discussion, or a social event. Invite outside speakers who hold the attention of the audience. Introduce new topics into threaded discussions. Inject humor and levity to keep things light.

Add an ask the expert process for the community. A specific way to use threaded discussions effectively is to ensure posted questions are answered. This is a service level agreement associated with threaded discussions that guarantees that if you post a question, you will get a response within 48 hours. That response could be the answer to your question (the preferred result), or it could be that the community is working on it and they’ll get back to you later with the answer. Or in some cases, it might be that the community doesn’t think it can answer that question. But at least you’ll get an answer within a specified time and you’ll know whether you need to seek a different avenue.

Finally, some communities need to be allowed to die. If a community has failed to build its membership, no longer has active members, or no longer has a viable purpose, the right thing to do is to retire it. Move on to another topic of greater relevance and currency which can attract new members who are passionate about it.

For more details, see Community Goals and Measurements.

Require Community Participation

As part of the individual KM goals defined for employees, one which you may wish to include is to require everyone to belong to at least one community. A very simple way for a KM program to succeed is if every employee joins and is active in at least one community. Here is what you can communicate to those who are given this goal to let them know exactly what is expected:

One of the performance goals for all employees is to be an active member of at least one community of practice. To get started, visit the community directory web site to find the community or communities that match your job. If you have a particular specialty, join the community for that specialty. If you have both a specialty and a role, for example, a storage sales rep, you may wish to join both the storage community and the sales rep community. If you have multiple roles, then join multiple communities. And if you have other topics of interest, join those communities as well.
When you subscribe to the community’s threaded discussion, you’ll be in touch with other people in the same specialty so you can start finding out more about things that are of interest to you and the role that you play. And you’ll also have a place where you can ask questions, share your insights, and collaborate with your peers.
Being an active community member means not just subscribing to the threaded discussion, which is easy to do, but also regularly thinking about things that you’ve learned which you think others could benefit from knowing, and then taking a moment to post to that community and share that insight. That could take just a few minutes because it’s as easy as creating a simple email message, writing a few comments, and hitting send. By doing that, your peers will benefit from what you shared. Your comments will get entered into the archives, so others who come later to the community can read and benefit from them. By collaborating with your colleagues, you will learn more about your specialty, be able to resolve problems, and earn respect for your expertise.

Include a link to the community directory and to additional documentation. Then send the message to the target audience and post it to the KM program’s web site.

For more details, see How to motivate knowledge sharing using gamification, goals, recognition, and rewards.

Summary

Most KM programs include communities as a fundamental component. Some programs are built entirely around them. Because communities connect people to each other and enable knowledge to flow between them, they are a powerful enabler of knowledge sharing.

Resources

  1. Posts about communities of practice
  2. 100 Questions & Answers on Collaboration & Communities
  3. Communities Manifesto: 10 Principles for Successful Communities
  4. 10 Tips for Leading Communities
  5. 90–9–1 Rule of Thumb: Fact or Fiction?
  6. Community of Practice Tools: e-SCENT-ials
  7. Community Managers Survey
  8. Email is the Holy Grail for Threaded Discussions
  9. Webinars, Conference Calls, Videos, Podcasts, and Recordings
  10. 10 Tips for Successful Face-to-Face Meetings
  11. What’s your community’s culture?
  12. Communities: Using local chapters and engaging millennials
  13. A dozen community management communities
  14. Community Goals and Measurements
  15. Types of Communities: TRAIL
  16. How to Be a Great Community Manager
  17. Community of Practice: A Real Life Story
  18. Trust me, I’m a community evangelist
  19. Why won’t people ask questions in the open?
  20. The Sound of Silence
  21. Open the gates and tear down the walls; moving from “need to know” to “need to share”
  22. 5 questions to answer before starting a new community
  23. To control or not to: only you can prevent redundant communities
  24. What are you supposed to do in a community?
  25. Online Community & ESN Platforms
  26. Community Managers: What’s Needed?
  27. Does Size Matter in Communities?
  28. Introduction to Communities of Practice by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner
  29. Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier by Etienne Wenger and William M. Snyder
  30. Communities for knowledge management by Steve Denning
  31. 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Communities of Practice by Richard McDermott
  32. A bibliography on communities of practice by CPsquare and com-prac
  33. Communities of Practice Resources by Fred Nickols
  34. Caterpillar Communities of Practice: Knowledge is Power by Sue Todd
  35. The Camelot of Collaboration — the case of VAX Notes (PDF) by Patti Anklam
  36. Community of Practice Metrics and Membership by Lee Romero

Books