Communities of Practice in Local Government

I was interviewed recently by the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) about the work I’ve been doing for them in developing Communities of Practice (CoPs) to support efficiency improvements and knowledge sharing in the local government sector in the UK. The original article was published on the IDeA’s Knowledge website, and is reproduced here.  The technology platform for suppoting these virtual communities was launched in December 2007, and currently supports over 20,000 registered users and over 580 CoPs, dealing with issues from ‘Healthy Communities’ to ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ (and much much more).

Steve Dale is the Associate Consultant for the Improvement and Development Agency’s community of practice (CoP) platform. He talks to Juno Baker about the work he is doing to promote knowledge management and CoPs in local government.

“Life is an opportunity to learn from the moment you’re born right until, well hopefully, the moment you die.”

Steve Dale is talking about knowledge management (KM) and the work he is doing to promote KM tools and techniques in local government.

Dale started his career in anti-submarine warfare for the Royal Navy, which he describes as “not a very friendly way of learning about technology”. But after 17 years at Reuters looking after stock-exchange feeds, he set up his own company. He was still focusing on how to organise data but then discovered a fascination for how people use and look for information and knowledge.

“I found I was far more interested in the softer side of things – the people and the issues that they were facing – than I was in the process-driven side.”

In 2005 Dale came to the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) to develop a three-year KM strategy for local government.

CoPs and websites

The agency already had the Knowledge website publishing case studies for councils to share good practice. But, as Dale explains, communities of practice (CoPs) perform a different function.

“You’ve got a reputational risk behind [a website] so you make sure that everything that you’re publishing for public consumption has been properly vetted, [and is] accurate, in the right format and accessible.”

He describes a CoP as a “semi-informal network of people having conversations”. He says they encourage information sharing and communication and are part of a more rigorous process to discover knowledge.

“All of that is unofficial and the community itself believes it’s unofficial… CoPs are unofficial, unvalidated – there might be a whole host of lies going on in there!”

He is of course being facetious. Users of the many CoPs on the IDeA’s platform cite countless benefits of membership, including saving time and money, help and support, and learning from others’ experience.

Dale also wants to clear up any confusion about the part CoPs play in knowledge management.

“They’re all the same thing, the same continuum. Things like peer assists, and after-action reviews and a whole host of other tools and facilities can be used by CoPs to encourage information flow and knowledge sharing.”

In the same way, he says, CoPs can be part of any knowledge management strategy, adding that he doesn’t like the term, ‘knowledge management’.

“To me knowledge management is nothing secret, it’s not smoke and mirrors. At the end of the day, all it is is a process for learning and sharing”

Technology in our time

Dale compares the technological changes of the last 20 years with the invention of printing. He believes that the internet – and particularly web 2.0 – are affecting the way we work as dramatically as Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type. He talks about opportunities for people to self-publish, to write blogs – he himself writes two. He says the changes are developing so rapidly that there is confusion about how to manage it all.

“On one end of the spectrum you’ve got people who are still into the control processes. ‘Staff can only see this, we can’t trust them to go out and look at these other websites. They’re going to be wasting their time if they do all this.’ At the other end of the spectrum we’ve got more enlightened managers who see the opportunities.”

Dale worries that the first type of manager might put off young talent from joining the local government workforce.

“People who have just left university are used to working with all of these tools. You’re trying to attract the best of these graduates. If you say to them, ‘You can’t do any of that, you’ve got a locked-down pc. You can only access these sites and this is your work’, then they’ll leave and go somewhere else that does have an open environment.”

Working with the sector

Dale says that councils’ feedback on the CoPs has been “generally very positive”. But he would like more engagement from the sector.

“If there isn’t a community out there of any interest to the people then we’ve made it very simple for them to create one.”

He also talks about the IDeA’s role, saying there are two things the agency needs to do. First, make sure people understand the benefits of working this way, and secondly provide all of the necessary support to make the CoPs work

“There are about two million people working in local government and I’d like to see a good hundred thousand being fully represented.”

So what does he say to people who say they haven’t got time to be in a community of practice? Dale recalls a recent conversation with someone else about this.

“She was the leader or facilitator of this CoP and she hadn’t got time to be in it. Her job was directly related to this community so my response was: ‘If it’s something to do with your job, what you’re doing in there is actually part of your job. And when you’re not in there you’re potentially doing something frivolous. As a facilitator you need to keep in touch with your community and not an occasional observer.'”

Article published in November 2008.

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