Knowledge Sharing Communities

I have been working in KM for over 23 years and Communities (typically Communities of Practice, though variations are possible) are still amongst my favourite aspects of a learning organisation.

They are quite hard to start up and sustain in a good way, but when they work well they add so much value for both individuals and the organisations in which they work. In simple terms, Communities allow peer practitioners within an organisation to find each other, connect, ask for help and offer advice.

In these difficult times, as organisations adapt to the challenges from Covid 19, the potential for effective Communities made up of individuals working remotely from their colleagues is huge. What does this mean in practice?

The Power and Challenge from Communities

As with all aspects of KM, we need support for Communities from business leadership.

I recall meeting a leadership team at an organisation and they had been experimenting with Communities for a while. When asked why he liked them, the business’s regional manager’s face lit up and he said with some passion something along the lines of, “who in my position wouldn’t want Communities in their organisation? They connect up people with similar roles and challenges so that people learn from each other, silos are broken down and insights & innovation are increased – I love them!”

Then I asked him how well their Communities were actually going, and his face noticeably fell and darkened (I remember thinking this isn’t a guy who should play poker!). His response was, “Some are really working well, but many are limping along and a few have died altogether.”

Why is this? Why is it the case that something so obviously a good idea doesn’t naturally work well everywhere?

There are various lists of critical success factors for Communities available out there, so I won’t simply re-list any of those, but I thought I’d share a few insights and stories from things I have learned. Any comments most welcome, I find I never stop learning in this topic as with all of KM.

Which Communities?

It’s important to think about “Managing the Right Communities” before “Managing the Communities Right”. Sometimes organisations jump straight into the Communities that already exist or assume should be there and set about trying to make them run better.

But are they the right Communities? Ie, are they the ones that the organisation should be prioritising giving the knowledge needs for today and looking ahead?

This is where a structured KM Plan for the organisation (and its major functions) can help because, amongst other things, it helps to clarify which Communities are needed to support business need. I recall an organisation that established KM Plans and a Functional KM Manager telling me that though they had some Communities in place, they had realised they were missing three key ones which needed to be implemented. Similarly, one Community could be allowed to die – and it had been struggling with low energy levels in any case.

In simple terms, as starting point, a Community is needed for each major / main discipline within the organisation. But, as usual, conversations are needed with the business to ensure the right ones are identified and priorities assigned to them. Community Sponsors, Leaders and Facilitators are also needed to establish the Communities and clarify how they can meet business needs and objectives.

IT as a Community Enabler - not “the main thing”

Communities are not primarily about the IT platform that supports them. Sometimes, organisations imagine that simply providing a good platform will get staff members spontaneously connecting and sharing.

An IT services company once told me they had tried to start up a certain Community three times but each time it had failed in the concept stage because, as they were so passionate about the topic themselves, they would get into talking about bits and bytes and other technical aspects of the platform – they just couldn’t help themselves. The result was many individuals continuing to work in silos across numerous sites.

We set up a meeting with a new approach - in the first 90 minutes of the Community planning meeting they weren’t allowed to talk about the platform at all. Instead we talked about the business need for the Community, its charter / terms of reference, anticipated benefits, key Community roles and how it was going to operate.

At the end of the 90 minutes we had anticipated a desire to get back into talking about the platform again but this wasn’t the case, they wanted to stay focused on the above-mentioned aspects for quite a while longer.

The Community eventually started using a defined launch event and it worked properly for the first time – individuals who had been working in isolation beforehand came together, understood the value of connecting & sharing what they knew (and how the platform could enable them) - and the Community took off.

A Rare Sort of Challenge

I was working in the Humanitarian Aid sector some years ago and we were setting up a Community across various countries, including some individuals working in risky environments. I remember speaking to one individual in a certain country who said he very much wanted to take part but he could only do this by sat-phone and during the hours of darkness. I asked why and his reply was, “I’m in a war zone, I only risk getting my phone out at night - during daylight hours it’s hidden under my floor.”

That brought home that the challenges most of us face in usual circumstances are not so hard..! It also told me that he saw the power of connecting and sharing knowledge with peers, it was worth the risk in his view.

The Risk from Departing Individuals

A last thought for now – we know that when a key individual departs an organisation (eg for retirement), this represents a risk, and Individual Knowledge Transfer (IKT) can be performed to help mitigate this risk.

It also helps if the individual belongs to a Community – this of course means that when they leave, the Community still remains which obviously helps reduce the risk. Indeed, the Community can play a key part in the IKT planning and delivery. Occasionally, the departure of a key individual even leads to the formation of a new Community if there wasn’t one before.

In closing, knowledge sharing Communities are immensely powerful in maintaining a learning organisation, strengthening corporate memory and increasing staff fulfilment, performance and innovation. They form part of a wider KM System that is about instilling Knowledge Flow in a professional manner.