Communities of Practice: *Batteries Not Included

Posted on August 5, 2010 by

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Welcome to the legacy Media1derland blog site. Please click here to read this article on our new site.

The theme of the Media 1 blog lately has been centered on transforming learning in our organizations from a series of learning events to a model of a richer, more complete learning experience. Our vision for a complete learning experience includes peer-to-peer, experiential, and informal learning. The challenge is how we provide the mechanism and support to enable this type of learning, especially in a large, global corporate setting.

It seems the term “community of practice” is getting thrown around a lot recently in response to this need. It’s not a new term, but its meaning is evolving with the increasing use of social media within organizations. If you think about it, the web is littered with “communities of practice,” but we tend to refer to them as bulletin boards and forums.

As communities on the web continue to evolve, we are seeing a natural mash-up of functionality in order to round-out the user experience. Wikis are being used to catalog knowledge; micro blogging is being used for knowledge sourcing on demand. Chat has been a part of these communities for quite a while, as have blogs or separate sub-forums for experts. As both an economic reality and as a service, many communities are also incorporating commerce targeted at users of the community, whether it’s products, supplies, or paid-for knowledge in terms of articles, books, or online learning.

There is a “community of practice” for every hobby and occupation under the sun. The challenge is how to harness the power of the community within our own organizations. Further, if we build a community, how do we make sure that it gets used? This is not an “if you build it, they will come” situation.

Communities on the larger web have energy of their own, and a couple big advantages over corporate-built communities. First, communities outside the workplace have the advantage that they are focused on the fun stuff people do with their lives. Unfortunately, the fun stuff rarely translates to our daily work life. However, people innately want to be good at their job. We may not be able to offer fun, but we can support the success of our communities of practice by making sure they have value that directly translates into better on-the-job performance.

The second major advantage of outside communities is that they are typically started by a person or persons who are passionate and perhaps even a little bit crazy about the topic of the community. While the community establishes itself, that person typically is the primary reason people visit the community. They are constantly recruiting, posting, asking questions, answering what they can, and generally engaging everyone that signs up for the community. They are the source of energy that provides a spark for the site. As time passes, the community will attract and grow other experts and become self-sustaining, but it is a process that takes time. Communities of practice built by learning organizations typically don’t have subject specific expertise; in order to be successful you must attract and retain the kind of expertise that your user base will be attracted to.

Media 1 was recently fortunate enough to be involved in the building of a community of practice for HP that supports the objectives of a good corporate community of practice. That community was given the 2010 “Excellence in Learning for the best Use of Web 2.0 Tools for Learning” from Brandon Hall Research.

Here’s what our client Carol Cohen had to say about it:

In order to achieve the biggest impact on the enterprise sales force at Hewlett-Packard, our design builds from the known to the unknown and capitalizes on familiar themes and tools. A collaborative team representing many training development partners with HP built an environment to capture the content sharing and enable safe sales practice, and then to encourage participation developed an approach we call Directed Collaboration. Our strategies included short formal education elements triggered by an emailed ezine that drove the students to a collaboration site where they could discuss, post their answers, receive coaching and most importantly, collaborate peer-to-peer. The result is the HP Sales Fitness Center. We offered a 5-week program called Solution Sales Elite to groups of 50 sales professionals in order to introduce them to the Sales Fitness Center, encourage the practice of content-sharing, and teach them vital selling skills at the same time. We used all the Web 2.0 capabilities we had available in an effort to support the emotional and intellectual needs of our target audience. We made it so painless and fun that sales people were learning before they realized it!

In summary, successful communities of practice do exist in the corporate context, but they must be carefully planned and supported. It’s not enough to build the capability and hope that it will be used; you must make sure value is present on a continuing basis. Don’t get discouraged if the community isn’t immediately successful, it takes a while to build and maintain energy as well as attract more experts to the community.

We can help build the community, but batteries aren’t included.

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