Maximising the power of collective knowledge


This is a summary of one of the breakout session I ran at the Cisco Public Services Summit, Oslo 9-11 December 2011.  It describes the role of Communities of Practice in supporting more effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between organisations working in the public sector. It notes the key lessons learnt from a 6-year journey, starting from the launch of the UK local government CoP platform in 2006 and how this led to an ambitious attempt to create a new kind of platform for online collaboration and data sharing – the Knowledge Hub.  The slides are embedded at the foot of this post, and also available at Slideshare.

Project Purpose

The main purpose of the project was to break down some of the silo’d work practices both within councils and across the public sector. Local councils were delivering the same set of services, but were not learning from each other about good/best practice. This was also the first time that communities of practice had been used within the public sector environment as a process and methodology for encouraging knowledge sharing and personal development.

I’ve made clear in the slides the difference between “Communities of Practice” (CoPs) and “Social Networks”. Put simply, CoPs operate from a sense of shared values and objectives. Social Networks support a far more personalised agenda, or in other words, its “we” as opposed to “me”.

The following points correspond to the slide presentation, and as noted previously, represent the lessons learnt from a 6-year journey.

Communities of Practice – Lessons Learnt

1. Don’t expect everyone to join in.

Command and control structures are alive and well, particularly in public sector organisations.  Joining a CoP where status and rank mean nothing, and where the free-flow of knowledge is encouraged can be a bit of a culture shock for some people.  By all means encourage colleagues and managers to join, but accept that collaboration and knowledge sharing doesn’t come easy to some people. Concentrate efforts instead on building trust between those who want to be there and create a safe haven for knowledge.

2. Community Facilitation is essential.

You need a community facilitator or moderator to provide cohesion and maintain direction for the CoP. Almost without exception, the most successful CoPs had a good and effective facilitator. Some of the roles and duties of a facilitator include:

  1. Supporting sociability, relationship and trust building
  2. Seeding and feeding discussion topics
  3. Maintaining and sustaining the community ‘rhythm’.
  4. Curating and signposting knowledge artefacts for capture and reuse
  5. Helping to connect community members
  6. Providing help with the CoP tools and facilities
  7. Ensuring the community space is kept “tidy” and navigable
  8. Reporting CoP activity – metrics, evaluations, newsletters
  9. Monitoring success criteria and impact.

3. Establish your KPIs.

Be clear about what your CoP is trying to achieve. Remember this is a “community” so engage with the members to agree purpose and intended outcomes.  Once the purpose and outcomes are agreed you can identify the metrics that will measure progress. Try to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data for the metrics you measure.

When monitoring the metrics, remember that each CoP will have a particular rhythm or cycle. Some will be light on discussion and strong on shared document building and vice versa. Others will be ‘one-shot’ supporting a single challenge.  Not all communities will be a hive of activity; some will support its participants at a low level of interaction over a long period, others for short bursts around face-to-face-meetings or events.

Key lesson: Don’t rely on metrics to claim your community is successful; use metrics and indicators to understand your community better.

4. ROI can be measured.

You can guarantee that someone, sometime, somewhere is going to ask about return on investment. I’d much prefer to consider the “I” in ROI as meaning “Impact”, but we live in a world where – for some – value can only be measured in terms of cash saved.  Be prepared for this and consider how ROI can be quantified. In the example for local government CoPs we identified cash savings for online (virtual) conferences compared to physical (face to face) conferences and found that on average £8000 can be saved for each on-line conference.  Online conferences have now become a fairly regular feature, so the potential savings continue to accrue.

5. Hotseats generate heat!

Hotseats are where you invite a recognised expert or illuminory to spend some time answering questions from the community. The event should be promoted and advertised in advance to generate interest, and the person invited into the hotseat can seed the discussions by issuing a statement or question (possibly controversial) prior to the hotseat starting. Questions and answers are posted in the forum. The event can generate a lot of interest and discussions within the community usually continue long after the hotseat has finished.

6. Use stories to promote the benefits

Don’t just rely on newsletters, statistics or case studies to promote the benefits of the CoP. Bring it alive through stories and anecdotes from the community members. Publish, promote and reward these stories. There is no better endorsement for the success of a CoP than from the CoP members themselves.

Knowledge Hub

The final part of the session was devoted to the thinking behind the development of a “next generation” community of practice platform – the “Knowledge Hub”.  What problems were we trying to fix with this new platform?  Briefly stated these were:

  • Over 80% of the CoPs had been set up as private spaces (gated access via the Facilitator as opposed to just being able to join).  In effect these were silo’d knowledge repositories. We wanted a system that would encourage more interaction between CoPs.
  • There was lack of permeability with external (outside the firewall) conversations. We wanted a system that could easily integrate with external web services.
  • We wanted to address the perennial issue of information overload, perhaps more accurately described as “filter failure”.  Using explicit data provided by the user in their on-line profile, e.g. where they work, their area of expertise, what groups they join, etc., filters could be established to improve the relevance of information received.
  • In a similar way to the way that Amazon works, we wanted to track user behaviour (their digital footprint) in order to “push” relevant information – e.g. conversations, events, and documents to the users.
  • We wanted active and guided navigation to help users find and access relevant knowledge.
  • We wanted to tap into the emerging market for mashups and apps; providing users with the tools to combine and link data to create value-added apps for improving council services.
  • We wanted to reduce development costs and open up the architecture to enable developers and entrepreneurs to create additional value. We would use open source software and adopt open standards (e.g. OAuthOpenSocialOpenGraph etc.).

However, as with all things public sector, the budget was radically scaled back early in 2011 and consequently not all of these features will be implemented. The cut-down version of the local government platform was launched 27 October 2011. (

But the dream lives on. With support from PFI Knowledge Solutions (Knowledge Hub developers) a roadmap of future enhancements for their innovative Intelligus platform may eventually deliver all of the original requirements. More on this later; a matter of “watch this space”!

I’ll be happy to answer any questions about the Community of Practice project mentioned above, or the Intelligus platform that may realise the original vision for the Knowledge Hub.


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