What Is a Community of Practice?
“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”—Etienne Wenger
On many intranets, the people finder or employee directory is one of the most popular features. The popularity of this feature indicates employees’ need to locate and communicate with others regarding particular topics or areas of practice. In fact, posting communications about specific topics among groups of people with common interests can be much more valuable than other content we post on our intranets.
In some organizations, the structure of the organization itself or a particular project can define networks of employees or communities of practice. Individuals who work in the same department or on the same team often interact with one another to achieve common goals. If employees know of colleagues who have information they need, they simply find people in the employee directory and contact them directly. Often, such structured communities develop communication pathways, processes, tools, and resources to support them.
However, defining communities of practice through organizational structure can be difficult—especially in large, matrix-based organizations. In such organizations, there may be multiple people or departments working on similar topics who are unaware of what others are doing, because there is no communication system to support them. In such an environment, even a person with a large internal network may not know who to contact regarding a particular question. In such a case, a people finder is of little value.
Alternatively, communities of practice can form organically within large, matrix-based organizations, but this process takes time and is unpredictable and inefficient. In addition, such communities suffer from underdeveloped communication pathways, processes, and tools to support them.
What’s the Problem?
Organizations build intranets to serve their employees, providing them with easy access to the information they need to do their jobs. However, the organizational, department-centric focus of many intranets does not support the real-world, multifaceted needs of employees.
The inner monologue of an employee who is attempting to find some essential information might go something like this:
I really need to find this information to complete the task ahead of me. Where could it be? I’m sure I’ve seen this somewhere before, but when, in what meeting, in what form, and from whom?
(Pondering: 1 minute)
Alright. First, I’ll try checking my email to see whether the information is in a message I have stored.
(Searching for email: 1-4 minutes)
Okay, not there. Maybe there’s a document in my network folders or personal folders?
(Searching for documents: 1-4 minutes)
Maybe it’s in our collaboration tool or document repository…
(Searching for documents: 1-4 minutes)
Arg! Maybe it’s not in a document after all. I could try the intranet to see whether that turns up anything.
(Searching and browsing the intranet: 2-4 minutes)
Hmm…, still nothing. Maybe Bob Smith would remember something about this.
(Searching the employee directory, then calling Bob or sending him an email or instant message: 5 minutes)
Then, a brief while later, after receiving an email message from Bob with the needed information:
Thank goodness for Bob! Alright, let me get started on this task!
(Waiting for a reply: 2 minutes)
This kind of situation could add up to many minutes of effort—in this hypothetical scenario, 13–24 minutes. In some organizations, this might represent a worst-case scenario for information retrieval; in others, a best-case scenario. When things work well, an employee could have his or her need met at the first or second step. When things go poorly—for example, if the person who has the information is out of the office—a successful outcome could take much longer, days or even weeks. An employee might hit a dead end and postpone or ignore a task—which doesn’t lead to the ultimate success of either the employee or the organization.
Valuable information typically resides in many different enterprise sites and systems. So, employees must spend time pursuing each information channel, resulting in wasted time and decreased information awareness and reuse. There are many causes for such less-than-ideal situations, including the following:
- Information is siloed.
The information an employee is looking for may be on an organization’s main intranet, on a departmental intranet, in her Outlook folders, on wikis or discussion forums, on her local hard drive or a network drive, in her document repository, or on other internal sites or systems. Alternatively, the information may reside only in the mind of a subject-matter expert within the organization. There are very distinct and often disparate storage facilities and access points for information and assets in an enterprise environment.
- There is a culture of formal communication.
Sometimes, managers and stakeholders view intranets as their opportunity to communicate corporate messages to stakeholders. While this is important, the sharing of information about work practices that occurs organically among employees—over the phone, in person, or via email or instant message—is perhaps more valuable. A lack of structured channels for sharing such information leads to insights and value residing only in the heads of subject-matter experts.
- Tools and governance are lacking.
Employees use email for internal communications, but the larger community cannot easily share or search for email messages. As a result, companies often turn to content management systems. Unfortunately, employees often view content management tools as difficult to use, and publishers are not fully aware of how to use such tools to maximize search effectiveness. For some publishers, content management may not be a key responsibility of their jobs; therefore, they may not have the time or motivation to update content. This leads to stale content that is not easily searchable.