Cultivating Communities of Practice


My colleague and friend Mamatha Srirama pointed to an interesting excerpt from the book Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. There are some interesting ideas which come from this. Some of them knowledge managers are already trying to implement. Some of these i thought needed to be discussed, which i am sharing here.

One of the things which i have written about before is about communities requiring some stimulus from outside from time to time. I have seen this in a number of communities, both within and outside organizations. Communities begin with quite a bit of energy, but this tends to taper as time goes. Something which i found in the excerpt:

Many intentional communities fall apart soon after their initial launch because they don’t have enough energy to sustain themselves. Communities, unlike teams and other structures, need to invite the interaction that makes them alive.

What this means is that the organization, read knowledge managers need to plan for specific things which need to be done to engage the members of communities from time to time, as energy seems to taper off. Interactions with ideas from outside the community are required from time to time, and this is for getting ideas from outside the community to the community, which can add impetus to the conversations happening in the community, and for giving the stimulus to the conversation as it tends to taper. If you meet a friend after a long time, you have a lot to talk about, but after a while, the conversation tends to taper, unless some stimulus comes up which either takes the conversation forward the way it was going, or changes the direction of the conversation.

Social and organizational structures, such as a community coordinator or problem-solving meetings, can precipitate the evolution of a community.

Good community design brings information from outside the community into the dialogue about what the community could achieve.

Another thing which this excerpt points out is something which we already know. This is about the structure of the community and how different people participate in the community in different ways.

The first is a small core group of people who actively participate in discussions, even debates, in the public community forum. At the next level outside this core is the active group. These members attend meetings regularly and participate occasionally in the community forums, but without the regularity or intensity of the core group. A large portion of community members are peripheral and rarely participate. Instead, they keep to the sidelines, watching the interaction of the core and active members. Indeed, the people on the sidelines often are not as passive as they seem. Like people sitting at a cafe watching the activity on the street, they gain their own insights from the discussions and put them to good use.

What is interesting about this is the understanding that passive listeners of the conversation are also contributing to the community. If we look at the community creating larger learning for the entire organization, then this is a logical extension. As i have written before, its difficult to say what inspiration or ideas come from where.

Public community events serve a ritualistic as well as a substantive purpose. Through such events, people can tangibly experience being part of the community and see who else participates.

This relates to the idea of stimulus required from time to time to build up the momentum of the conversation. This could come from outside or from within the community. This is probably the important part that knowledge managers need to play with communities.

Many of the most valuable community activities are the small, everyday interactions—informal discussions to solve a problem, or one-on-one exchanges of information about a tool, supplier, approach, or database. The real value of these exchanges may not be evident immediately. When someone shares an insight, they often don’t know how useful it was until the recipient reports how the idea was applied. The impact of applying an idea can take months to be realized. Thus, tracing the impact of a shared idea takes time and attention.

There are two things here. One is that there is no direct way to determine the value that communities are creating, at least not in the traditional way of defining value. This is because there is often no direct cause-effect relationship between what the community does and how it brings value to the organization. Two is that if a large part of the value of the community is about value coming fro, one-to-one discussions that people might have, then an important way of discovering this value could come from something which has people at the centre, like a social network. This is because it is the social network, and the things happening in the network which can actually extend the reach of the community, and also let a pattern of conversation emerge from the activities of the community, discoverable at a much wider level.

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8 Comments on “Cultivating Communities of Practice”

  1. Nimmy says:

    Thanks for this post. One thing I’d like to debate on is whether there is a way to determine the value that communities bring to the table. I believe there is. As long as the community has a clear and well-defined purpose and a good monitoring (not necessarily a measuring) mechanism exists….

  2. thoughtsandme2004 says:

    If there is a well defined purpose, Nirmala, but theres the balance between having the purpose and straitjacketing the community. If the purpose is very specific, then it may keep the community within narrow boundaries and if it is too generic then it may not be able to measure.

  3. Nimmy says:

    I would think it is possible to have the balance you speak of and still keep an eye on the value the community provides. The purpose could always be defined at the start but allowed to evolve and change as the community members discover and invent things! With experience, the community should be able to determine the dimensions of measurement or rather value and put a label to it through surveys, ideas, solutions, assets etc. As a simple example, if the purpose of the community is to simply encourage cerebral gossip, all we might have to look at are the number of discussions with a rating of 4 or above!

  4. thoughtsandme2004 says:

    Agree Nirmala, but as the purpose of the community evolves, the measurement would also need to evolve. In other words, what we are saying is that the community is charting its own course and may not be staying with the purpose which was originally thought of.

  5. Nimmy says:

    Looks like I got something wrong here 😛
    We both have similar thoughts then. I was only wanting to debate on the statement that “…there is no direct way to determine the value that communities are creating…”
    It is quite apt that with an evolving purpose, the measurement will have to evolve as well. No debates on that!
    BTW, are you working on CoPs? What has your experience been like? Are the ones you work with no more than discussion groups or do they go beyond that?

  6. thoughtsandme2004 says:

    i think if the purpose of the community is nebulous, then the measurement must be, too. and this somewhat takes away from the objectivity associated with the idea of measurement. thats why i think maybe associating the measurement to purpose may not work. more so because as the article says, a lot of valuable discussions happen 1 on 1, so they may not be included in the measurement at all. Basically, its not always feasible to build a cause-effect relationship between the community and the purpose.

    The experience i been having … communities start out with enthusiasm, but the trick is in getting them to continue with enthusiasm. And this is what i call the community paradox … while communities are meant to be self-forming, self-regulating, they usually arent, there needs to be some kind of organization stimulus. and this is probably where KM needs to play a role?

  7. Mamatha srirama says:

    Thanks. I completely agree, in an organization context when we are nuturing COPs, KM has a major role to play till the community is in an auto-pilot mode. Im yet to see any community in an auto-pilot more here in my organiztion.
    On the measurement part, while I agree to all your comments, a passing thought is, if a community can have a health check in terms of
    How active is the community maybe social network analysis can help, but this does not mean that the community is delivering value. That comes when we are able to lay our hands on the outcome (sometimes invisible). But having said that, if we say that in the “COP performing ” stage ( like the team perfomring stage, I dont know what could be the equivalent of it for COPs, also it could be sporadic in nature) , the activities that have been executed could be one measure (papers published, problems solved, new ideas ,etc). while most of the value is intangible , these could be some tangible measurements.

  8. thoughtsandme2004 says:

    agree, Mamatha. while there is some form of measurement which can be done, this would at best be an incomplete picture.

    experience with communities has been that some form of measurement can come in if you bring a certain amount of structure to the communities, but this may be taken forward to an extent where the structure could actually impede the community.

    Nirmala has an interesting point of associating the performance of the community to the purpose of the community. Though purpose may be shifting which makes it a little difficult to manage that.

    having said that, probably the stage lot of organizations are is where we are trying to get communities to take off, so this is the right time to talk about measurement.


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