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Building and Sustaining Communities of Practice

  • ID: 40877
  • Report
  • May 2001
  • 205 pages
  • American Productivity & Quality Center, APQC
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The study findings offer compelling evidence that communities are assuming a new role in knowledge work and KM systems. Community activities also are becoming embedded in the daily work of knowledge workers. People have always created communities, inside and outside of organizations. What is new is the emerging prominence and formality of communities of practice as boundary-spanning units in organizations, responsible for finding and sharing best practices, stewarding knowledge, and helping members work better. This new role for communities is emerging because they nurture and harness the raw material of this millennium, knowledge. This consortium study reveals that communities of practice are the next step in the evolution of the modern,
knowledge-based organization. Communities of practice are included in the budgeting and planning process, are a legitimate way to spend time, are held accountable for producing and stewarding knowledge, and are gradually assuming a formal voice in organizations. It is not surprising that communities are central to successful knowledge management initiatives.

Why are communities so important? In the modern, knowledge-based, global
organization, communities create a channel for knowledge to cross boundaries created by workflow, functions, geography, and time. Xerox service technicians share repair tips across their global Eureka network, DaimlerChrysler tech clubs share design know-how across platform teams, Ford’s best-practice replication communities facilitate adoption of proven practices across plants, and the World Bank’s thematic groups share knowledge in pursuit of the eradication of poverty around the world. These few examples reveal another feature of communities: they provide the means to move local know-how to collective information and promote standardization of practices across operations and regions.

A less tangible feature of communities is that they strengthen the social fabric of the organization, a fabric that may have been worn thin by geography and size. People share a common interest, legitimized by business
intent, and form relationships that provide social support, excitement, and personal validation. Members collaborate, use one another as sounding boards, teach each other, and strike out together to explore new subject

In this study, a distinction is made between active communities, which may have existed prior to a formal initiative, and formal communities, which are tangibly supported by their organizations. The rise of formal communities of practice (Figure 1) may reflect a sea of change in the evolution of modern management management’s desire for the flow of knowledge is greater than
the desire to control boundaries. Communities of practice may become as commonplace and unremarkable as teams are now.

Study Scope

The purpose of the study was to identify:
1. how communities of practice fit within a knowledge management strategy
2. types of communities and their characteristics
3. successful approaches to planning, initiating, and
sustaining communities
4. necessary support structures and roles for various community types
5. enablers of successful communities, including information technology and
6. how to assess the health and measure the effectiveness of communities.

The purpose of this report is to guide the successful design and implementation of communities by understanding options and critical success factors and learning from leading organizations.

Study Findings

From collaboration with sponsors and partners, through surveys and site visits,
discovered were the following overarching findings.

1. Best-practice organizations strategically select communities of practice for support based on importance to the business and business opportunities. Sponsors are less likely to have explicit criteria for community selection or to link them to the business strategy.

2. Communities can be categorized by their primary business intent:
a) to provide a forum for community members to help each other solve everyday
work problems
b) to develop and disseminate best practices, guidelines, and procedures for their members to use
c) to organize, manage, and steward a body of knowledge from which community
members can draw and
d) to innovate and create breakthrough ideas, knowledge, and practices.

Most communities serve more than one of these purposes, but one intent
usually dominates the design choices made to support a community. These
differences have significant implications for the design and preparation of
communities. For example, a technical community whose intent is to steward
and increase the body of knowledge in its discipline will have different processes than a community with the intent to simply provide help to its members. Also, most partners have more than one type of community.

3. To sustain a community, senior management is not the most important factor.
Management is instrumental in selecting communities, ensuring their link to
business opportunities, and providing resources. Once the communities are
selected, however, the most critical success factor (there are many) is the skill of the community leader. Management can hamper or kill a community strategy, but it cannot make communities thrive.

4. As evidence of the rising importance of communities in the knowledge work of
organizations, 74 percent of the partners reported that operating units rely on
communities to provide knowledge resources, and 66 percent of the partners said
that communities set standards that operating units need to follow.

5. Communities use a rich variety of media to communicate and work. The most
frequently used tool for communication is e-mail. Many also use specialized KM
community tools. E-mail appears to augment KM tools and integrate community
responsibilities into day-to-day work. However, when rating the effectiveness of media, partners still rate face-to-face interaction as most effective, followed closely by a dedicated KM tool. This mixture of applications and media increases the richness of interaction within a community, rather than replacing other media.

6. Organizations provide significant support resources to communities in the form of content managers and systems, community coordinators, and information technology applications. Models for support and funding vary, as does the amount and nature of support resources required by each community type. All depend on some central resources, especially at the beginning for consulting, training, and content management. Business units typically underwrite the costs for their participants’ time and for leader and SME participation. Once communities are wellestablished, the business units usually underwrite the central costs through direct billing or overhead allocation. Communities are included in the budgeting and planning process as a regular feature.

7. To become institutionalized, communities need to have a link to the formal
organization. Although communities of practice tend to be boundary-spanning
entities, their support structures tend to be tightly linked to and integrated with the formal organizational structure. This provides legitimacy and a connection to management support, funding, and shared resources. All but two of the partners have formal sponsorship by a KM council, steering committee, or business management 84 percent of sponsors did not.

8. Membership requirements vary greatly across partner organizations, from voluntary to strongly encouraged to mandatory.

9. Communities tend to be more member-driven and democratic than the formal
organizational structure. In Schlumberger, communities elect their leaders through formal balloting processes. In Xerox, one community rebelled against excessive management oversight and demanded that it be allowed to self-manage and only be accountable for results.

10. There are two major categories of community measurement: assessing
health and measuring impact. Appropriate measures are a direct reflection of
community type. Partners that achieve desired results from their communities
have either institutionalized them or are expanding them.

Benchmarking Methodology

The benchmarking methodology was developed in 1993 and serves as one of the premier methods for successful benchmarking in the world. It is an extremely powerful tool for identifying best and innovative practices and for facilitating the actual transfer of those practices. The methodology is described below.

Benchmarking Model: The Four-Phased Methodology

Phase 1: Plan
The planning phase of the study began in the early spring of 2000. During that period, an expert panel identified organizations that were believed to have demonstrated excellence in one or more of four focus areas. This list was expanded to include input from secondary research sources. Each identified organization was invited to participate in a screening process. Based on the results of the screening process, as well as company capacity or willingness to participate in the study, the final list of 12 partners was developed. A kickoff meeting was held in August 2000, during which the sponsors refined the study scope, gave input on the data collection tools, and indicated their preferences for site visits to partner organizations. Finalizing the data collection tools and piloting them within the sponsor group concluded the planning phase.

Phase 2: Collect
Two tools were used to collect information for this study.
1. Detailed Questionnaire-quantitative questions designed to collect objective,
quantitative data across all participating organizations
2. Site Visit Guide-qualitative questions that parallel the areas of inquiry in the detailed questionnaire, which serves as the structured discussion framework for all site visits All partners and 25 of the 40 sponsors completed the detailed questionnaire. Additionally, six partner organizations (Ford Motor Company, Schlumberger, Xerox, DaimlerChrysler AG, Cap Gemini Ernst and Young, and The World Bank) were selected to host day-long site visits attended by sponsors and members of the study team. The Apqc study team prepared written reports (partner portfolio) of each site visit and submitted them to the partner organizations for approval or clarification.

Phase 3: Analyze
The subject matter experts and Apqc analyzed the quantitative and qualitative
information gained from the data collection tools. The analysis concentrated on
examining the challenges organizations face in planning, creating, sustaining, and measuring communities of practice. The analysis of the data and case examples based on the site visits are contained in this report.

Phase 4: Adapt
Adaptation and improvement stemming from the best practices identified during
a multiclient benchmarking study occur after the sponsor organizations apply key findings to their own operations. Apqc staff members are available to help sponsors create action plans appropriate for their organizations based on the study.
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4 Sponsor and Partner Organizations<BR><BR>A listing of the sponsor organizations in this study,<BR>as well as the best-practice (“partner”) organizations<BR>that were benchmarked for their innovation and<BR>advancement in building and sustaining communities<BR>of practice.<BR><BR>6 Executive Summary<BR><BR>A bird’s-eye view of the study, presenting the key<BR>findings discovered and the methodology used<BR>throughout the course of the study. The findings<BR>are explored in detail in following sections.<BR><BR>15 Findings<BR><BR>An in-depth look at the findings of this study.<BR>The findings are supported by quantitative data and<BR>qualitative examples of practices employed by the<BR>partner organizations.<BR><BR>127 Partner Organization Case Studies<BR><BR>Background information on the partner organizations,<BR>as well as their innovative communities<BR>of practice.
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