Remember ‘communities of practice’?

'As I said yesterday, our goal with XNet is to stretch and elevate our thinking, and to grow and promote a community of thought leaders. The "X" in Xnet represents the unknown, the uncertain, the open-ended, "the space between the question and the answer when everything is possible," to borrow a beautiful line from one of you. Moreover, the "X" marks the intersections, the zones of friction, the counter-intuitive. Most importantly, it stands for the reach into the organization, the ripples that this effort should ideally create beyond this group, ultimately connecting our convictions, point-of-views, and ideas, as individuals and as firm, with the outside world.'

Stirring words there and right on for a business, one of whose '3-year goals' is to 'become a network organization' with the intention that the network will 'generate more ideas leveraging the total firm network' in order to 'augment the firm's quest for value creation'.

So now we've attended the workshop, we've had the call to action follow up message, and we know that
'Our goal for yesterday was to ignite the spirit for this initiative, build "muscle," and spark first conversations. The next step is to spread the word within the firm and include more voices in this effort.'

Yes and (to borrow from improv ) we can do this by building on the experiences of deliberately trying to generate 'communities of practice' the phrase coined by researchers Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the mid-late 1990s to describe a pre-digital (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) form of social network whose participants 'share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better.'

The idea of a community of practice is very attractive: a highly functioning community developing knowledge is a valuable asset to an organization. (Which is why the company I am working with is interested in the notion). In a readable Wikipedia style article published in 2003) author Mark Smith notes that 'Lesser and Storck (2001) … argue that the social capital resident in communities of practice leads to behavioural change-—'change that results in greater knowledge sharing, which in turn positively influences business performance'. Attention to communities of practice could, thus enhance organizational effectiveness and profitability.'

Having read this I turned to the actual Lesser and Storck article (thank goodness I have a moderately effective file retrieval system but I see it's also available online) and got the whole flashback to the phrase 'social capital' defined as "the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit." L & S explain social capital 'in terms of three primary dimensions:

  • There must be a series of connections that individuals have to others. In other words, individuals must perceive themselves to be part of a network (the structural dimension).
  • A sense of trust must be developed across these connections (one aspect of the relational dimension).
  • The members of the network must have a common interest or share a common understanding of issues facing the organization (the cognitive dimension).

They (L & S) then argue that 'These conditions apply quite aptly to communities of practice. Thus, our hypothesis is that the vehicle through which communities are able to influence organizational performance is the development and maintenance of social capital among community members. By developing connections among practitioners who may or may not be colocated, fostering relationships that build a sense of trust and mutual obligation, and creating a common language and context that can be shared by community members, communities of practice serve as generators for social capital. This social capital, in turn, creates an environment in which business performance is positively impacted.'

This all sounds good but in practice is incredibly difficult to achieve. I was at British Airways in 2001 when, following the trend, or perhaps fad, we were establishing some CoPs (as they were called). What we found – along with many other companies on a similar path that where these communities of practice came unstuck was on managing the tension of being an informal and relatively unstructured community tasked with a formal output – value creation of some sort. Our experience was commonly shared by other organizations and thus there followed more research centered on how to maintain a value-add community. Briefly community is commonly defined as members having:

  • Feelings of membership: feelings of belonging to, and identifying with, the community.
  • Feelings of influence: feelings of having influence on, and being influenced by, the community.
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: feelings of being supported by others in the community while also supporting them.
  • Shared emotional connection: feelings of relationships, shared history, and a "spirit" of community.

Generating these feelings takes work and we had only one CoP success in establishing ODiN (the Organizational Development Innovation Network) that is still going strong 10+ years later – though now outside the aegis of BA. What keeps it going are some obvious characteristics:

  • A strong, interested, and effective convener. He is unpaid for the work – which is not inconsiderable – and is a role model of dedication and commitment. (Thank you Chris).
  • Regular (six weekly) face to face meetings on a specific topic often presented by one of the members
  • Access to a closed, well-constructed, organized and regularly updated website for interaction and information
  • Some specific guidelines and protocols that members must follow
  • Members' interest in developing their skills by learning from each other – the value add to them – and contributing to each other's learning on organization development

Moving into the digital age, Rob Cross et al in their 2010 MIT Sloan Management Review article 'The Collaborative Organization: How to Make Employee Networks Really Work', use social network analysis to argue that to add organizational value informal networks e.g. 'a community of thought leaders' (aka community of practice) has to be systematically nurtured, and the nurturing is more complex when the community is virtual.

I am with them in pressing home the point that it is convenient but ineffective to believe the strong arguments that communities of practice or value creation networks 'must be left alone to emerge'. Without the convener, the structure, the specific purpose(s), the member benefit and the member incentive to contribute (and recognition for contributing), and the development of a sense of community, inevitably communities of practice and value creation networks fail.

For the firm I am working with this means thinking carefully about how best to

  • Invest in their 'community of thought leaders' – if the business leaders are serious about wanting it to create value. Investment would include a time allowance per member, leaders and managers asking questions and showing obvious/public interest in the community, budget to bring people face to face on occasion, and so on.
  • Clarify what they would see as value e.g. generating white papers, member conference presentations, new service lines attributable to member collaboration, etc.
  • Recognize members for their contributions e.g. through seeing this as a career development and factoring it into promotion discussions, adding it into performance objectives and including it in salary/performance bonus decisions
  • Structure and shape the community in a way that is nurturing perhaps through appointing a single convener whose role it is to develop the community (this would be part of the investment decision), setting expectations and consistently keeping it on agendas.

A community of thought leaders that adds organizational value through social capital generation is not going to arise from one workshop, several initiatives, intention, and luck. It is going to be generated by 'hard work and good management' as the goose in Charlotte's Web says. For an additional eight great tips on this look at the WiserEarth blog 8 tips on how to build a successful online community.

How would you set about developing a community of value adding thought leaders? Let me know.