Communities of Practice: a strategy for more effective collaboration

It was my privilege to arrange and facilitate a meeting this morning between a delegation from the Government of Singapore and some of the ‘expert’ Community of Practice Facilitators from the local government Community of Practice platform. My thanks to Etienne Wenger for making the original connections with the Singapore Government, and to Adrian Barker (Policy & Performance CoP – 3913 members), Neil Rimmer (Productivity and Efficiency Exchange CoP – 2513 members) and Michael Norton (Facilitator’s CoP – 528 members) for their input and presentations.

The delegation was from the Public Service of the 21st Century Office (PS21 Office) and was led by the Government of Singapore’s Permanent Secretary, Ms  Lim Soo Hoon. The purpose of the visit was to share knowledge about building sustainable learning and sharing networks in the public sector, and we used the learning experience gained over the past 5 years in establishing the LGID Communities of Practice platform as the largest and most successful professional network in the UK, with over 96,000 users and more than 1,500 CoPs.

During the course of what turned out to be a highly interactive session, I was reminded of so many useful lessons as to what makes a successful CoP, in terms of user engagement, establishing and sustaining a culture of sharing and trust, and building a knowledge ecology that encourages cross-organisation, cross-agency and cross-regional collaboration. Though I’ve been involved (and in all humility – I started it all off!) with the local government CoP strategy since 2005, there is no better learning experience that hearing from practitioners who have been at the sharp end in building and nurturing their communities, and having a real understanding of the skills and effort involved in facilitating a CoP.  They know what works and what doesn’t, but if there was one common denominator, it was that successful CoPs invariably have active and engaged facilitators (sometime also referred to as community managers or community moderators).

I’m not at liberty to post all of the presentations used at meeting (except my own – see below), I thought it might be useful to summarise all of the key lessons for establishing and sustaining successful CoPs, as follows:

Facilitation – what is it?

  • Facilitator’s engage and connect community members by encouraging participation, facilitating and seeding discussions, and by keeping events and community activities engaging and vibrant.
  • Guiding a group to use its knowledge, skills and potential to achieve its goals.
  • Helping by making the processes easier. It’s about guiding rather than directing.
  • Looking at the process rather than context – how you do something rather than what you do.
  • Making it easier for the group to get to their agreed destination.
  • Striking a balance between ‘the group’ and ‘the task’.

Factors influencing success:

  • Forums, blogs, events, library.  Wiki less so.
  • Good quality, active facilitation: making it useful; concise, informed, informative; and giving community members  ‘room to breathe.’
  • Day to day content; monthly update summarising key content + alerts; one-offs (e.g. on-line conferences)
  • Size – critical mass.  Confidence that someone will respond.
  • Face to face element
  • Honesty and trust (who else is listening in?)
  • Keep on topic (urgent, immediate, wide interest, range)
  • Openness, honesty, trust (who else is listening in)
  • Technology – ease of use, facilities, integrated elements (e.g. wiki draws on discussions)
  • An art.  Non-linear: results don’t automatically match your efforts.  A few small things can make a big difference.
  • Presentation at regional and local events
  • Promotion through other online channels (website pages and bulletins)
  • Links with social media channels, e.g. having a Twitter account
  • Organised regular ‘Hot’ and Warmseat’ events to stimulate interest
  • Use of regular polls to assess member opinions

Lesson Learnt:

  • You need trained and dedicated community facilitation
  • On-line events take at least as much organisational resource as traditional – but save time, money and the planet!
  • Need to constantly engage members with interesting and new content
  • Membership rises whenever we promote events – it keeps their interest fresh
  • Use social media channels for promotion for the new on-line generation
  • Lots of work needed to engage older, traditional generation.
  • We are social beings who thrive from human interaction; technology is just an enabler.
  • Don’t be over-prescriptive; give the community a range of collaborative tools and let them decide which ones they want to use and how to use them.
  • Don’t assume everyone understands how to use social media tools.
  • Identify and look after your (power) contributors.
  • Identify and look after your facilitators – they are quite often the difference between successful and unsuccessful communities.
  • Condition your managers for failure – not every CoP is going to be successful.
  • Most senior managers still don’t get it!
  • Command and control will hamper the development of a community.

So, once again – my grateful thanks to all of the contributors to this morning’s meeting, both the presenters and the members of the Singapore delegation.  I wish the PS21 Office every success in establishing their own collaboration and knowledge sharing networks, and can assure them that there is plenty of help, advice and support available from the growing global CoP environments.

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