Communities of Practice and Cross-Silo Communication

Skills sharing, collaboration, and cross-silo communication can be difficult in matrix organizations where common business practices may be shared across multiple business units. Organizations that strive for continuous improvement in these practices need a mechanism to identify, track and circulate the latest industry trends, techniques and tools. Additionally, this mechanism should support consistent management, and development, of common skills across the organization.

To meet this need, and as a precursor to [book Agile Business Management], organizations can utilize informal ‘Communities of Practice’ (CoP), which can be defined as: “A group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”[1]

CoP’s usually span across departments, have members distributed throughout an organization and are informal, self-organizing, & self-regulating. In a business context, common CoP’s include; operational expertise, project management, information management, business quality, or risk management.

A famous example of a community of practice within an organization is that which developed around the Xerox customer service representatives who repaired the machines in the field[2]. The Xerox reps began exchanging tips and tricks over informal meetings over breakfast or lunch and eventually, Xerox saw the value of these interactions and created the Eureka project to allow these interactions to be shared across the global network of representatives. The Eureka database has been estimated to have saved the corporation $100 million.”[3]

Objectives

The objectives of a CoP will vary over time but are generally[4] to:

  • Identify, gather, and seek agreement on the CoP’s requirements;
  • Provide a forum for the cooperation of activities where the business practice adds value to existing initiatives;
  • Identify linkages & opportunities to collaborate on strategic business projects and coordinate the delivery of specific business practice projects;
  • Report on the progress of projects and programmes that have business practice components;
  • Advise other bodies in the organization on matters relating to the business practice, and on cross-cutting issues of interest to the CoP;
  • Provide an informal point of contact for organizational staff on topics that affect the business practice.

Membership and Structure

Membership of a CoP should be open to all business areas with an interest in the business practice. To be effective, CoP’s should actively seek out and welcome any business areas that have similar interests, goals, or objectives.

While it depends on the context of the organisation, most CoP’s that I have run are hour-long, monthly, physical meetings. If an organisation has distributed teams, teleconferencing should be made available for remote members.

To keep each CoP meeting running smoothly, I usually set up a standing agenda which outlines 5 main sections to each meeting;

  1. New Members Introduction (5 min);
  2. Current Initiatives Roundtable: Where each member has 1-2 minutes to describe what they are currently working on and how members may be able to help each other (10 min);
  3. Focus Presentation: A 20-minute presentation (as planned by the CoP chair) on a specific topic of interest. This presentation may be from CoP members, other staff or SME’s external to the organization (20 min);
  4. Open Discussion / Lean Coffee20 minutes allocated to an open (but still moderated) discussion on any related topics (20 min);
  5. Future Agenda and Next Meeting Timeframe (5 min).

All members are expected to share their expertise, and any documents or other resources they have which they think will be useful to all members.

Leadership

The responsibility of CoP Chair should rotate between members each meeting. This shares responsibility, reduces conflict, and encourages full participation from all members. The chair is responsible for:

  • Facilitating group discussion to ensure that communication is appropriate and respectful;
  • Developing the agenda and/or objectives for the subsequent CoP meeting;
  • Sending out regular messages to all CoP members about the next meeting/activity.

If you have created your own Community of Practice or have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Downloadable Resources

References

  1. Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity
  2. Brown & Duguid 2000
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_of_practice
  4. Ideas from www.earthobservations.org – Guidelines for Generating Community of Practice Proposals (Word Doc: http://www.earthobservations.org/documents/committees/uic/200909_12thUIC/04 Guidelines for Generating Community of Practice Proposals.doc)

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