Communities of Practice: Optimizing Internal Knowledge Sharing

Research That Works

Innovative approaches to research that informs design

A column by Michael Hawley
November 2, 2009

An intranet has the potential to unify a corporate culture, emphasize core company values, and develop a sense of community among employees, in addition to its basic function of providing access to documents and procedural information. Unfortunately, some intranets have simply grown organically, as collections of disjointed Web sites for different departments or document repositories for particular workgroups.

The key to intranet success is to provide value to employees and give them a reason to visit the site repeatedly. One of the primary ways to achieve this is to connect employees with the people and groups with whom they need to collaborate. Workgroups, or communities of practice, provide the basis for a living, growing, vibrant space in which people can access the information they need, share best practices, and contribute to a shared knowledge base. This article discusses the role of communities of practice within organizations and provides a framework for planning research and design activities to maximize their effectiveness.

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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.

How Can We Improve This Situation?

A review of best practices and successful case studies reveals that we can dramatically improve the ease and efficiency of information retrieval and knowledge sharing by pursuing some of the following approaches. Structuring your research around these themes can help give direction to a project team or the designers who are responsible for creating an intranet.

Enable Lateral Communication by Introducing Processes for User-Generated Content

Tools for creating user-generated content (UGC) provide the basis for communities of practice. While the implementations of such tools may vary, their concepts are consistent across different vendors. Your research should focus on the tools employees currently use and any existing collaboration communities. Introducing tools that support the creation of the following kinds of user-generated content enables lateral communication among employees:

  • wikis—Wikis support active content creation. Content creators update wikis frequently and edit their content to achieve greater accuracy and depth. If intranet users read a wiki page and see something that is incorrect or out of date, they can update the information, so the next employee to visit the page gets better information. An employee who uses an intranet—and who is a subject-matter expert who others frequently ask for information—can create a wiki page, making their information public.
  • forums and blogs—Forums let employees share information with communities that are interested in specific topics. Participants can either ask questions or contribute answers to questions. Blogs enable employees to communicate with a wide audience about topics that interest them. Frequent readers of blogs are often highly interested in the bloggers’ topics and, via blog comments, can engage in discussions with the communities viewing the blogs.
  • robust employee profiles—The best people search tools let individuals manage their own profiles and share their areas of expertise, so others can find them and benefit from what they know. They can tag themselves as experts on specific topics, post documents, blog, and, in some cases, even build a social network or make themselves available for a chat.

Create a Portal

An intranet is not just a Web site. By creating a portal to all of an organization’s user-generated content, as well as introducing and optimizing integrated search technologies, you can create a network that pulls together everything employees need to do their jobs. Your research should focus on what features are most helpful to employees in narrowing search results.

  • federated search—For intranets, the best search technologies can pool the results from several disparate information sources. Federated search can provide a high-value, single point of access to information that resides on an employee’s computer, on network drives, in an email system, in a profile database, on intranet sites, in document repositories, and in collaboration tools. For example, when a user conducts a search for pet policy, he gets results that include any references to that phrase in personal email messages and files, on pages on intranet sites, in network documents, or in the profiles of employees who have tagged themselves with that phrase or blogged about that topic—perhaps the author of the pet policy.
  • content rating and tagging—In addition to letting individuals tag themselves, you can improve search results by letting the larger community rate and tag content. Then you can leverage these community tags to elevate highly rated results in the search results for particular keywords and deliver more relevant and popular results.
  • tag clouds—To optimize a user’s search effectiveness and awareness, you can display tag clouds. For example, if there were a hot topic of the day for which many users were searching or browsing, that topic would appear in bold and a larger font in the tag cloud.
  • employee DNA—Consider the employee who is viewing content. If employees have tagged themselves with particular tags, documents about corresponding topics should rise to the top of their search results, as should documents others from their department, team, or network have written.

These kinds of approaches offer great potential for the future of enterprise information access. By creating communities of practice within an organization via lateral information sharing and federated search, an enterprise can benefit from faster information retrieval and more comprehensive information awareness and reuse.

Don’t Make It All About the Company

Employees have interests outside the company and want to feel connected with what’s going on in the community around them. If you don’t provide the content that interests employees on your intranet site, they’ll go elsewhere for it. Enable employees to stay up to date with their interests by incorporating regional news, stock tickers, sports scores, and other news right on your intranet. Fun features like a quotation or photo of the day can provide a quick diversion and generate interest that draws employees back to your intranet. Bulletin boards that let employees offer items for sale or trade are also popular. Through contextual research and observation, you can find out what is important to employees and include it in your intranet design.

Make the Mundane Great

There are basic tools employees need all the time—such as conference room locators, people finders, printers, and cafeteria menus. If it is difficult to use these essential tools, employees are unlikely to give other features of the site a chance. Focus on the usability and user experience of these basic tools. When they work great, employees appreciate them and are more forgiving of other sections of a site that are still works in progress.

Design It!

The look of an intranet is important. An intranet’s visual design should not interfere with its usability or the findability of its content, but just because it’s an intranet doesn’t mean it has to be bland. In fact, during interviews with employees about dated intranet designs, they often say their design reflects poorly on the company as a whole. In addition, an out-of-date design gives the connotation that the content on the site is out of date as well. Evaluate options for the visual design, imagery, and style for your intranet. Hire designers, if necessary. Re-evaluate your intranet’s look on a regular basis.

Enable Early Adopters

The first users of collaboration systems drive their further adoption. Remember this, and don’t rush to research the needs of your entire employee population. Fostering the needs of early adopters and starting slowly with small, targeted groups can help you refine your solutions incrementally.

Target 150 and Below

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell documents several examples in which companies or organizations have found that optimally efficient group sizes include 150 members or less. For example, Gore Technologies limits manufacturing plant sizes to less than 150 workers. When researching and planning information architectures for corporate communities of practice on an intranet, keep this magic number in mind.


By enabling bottom-up or lateral communication and linking all relevant information in a dynamic, user-focused space, companies can start to realize the full benefits of communities of practice and their intranets. When undertaking research and design activities, designers of intranet user experiences should consider these principles and let them guide and focus their efforts. 

Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow Media Solutions LLC

Adjunct Professor at Bentley University

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Michael HawleyAs Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow, Mike brings deep expertise in user experience research, usability, and design to Mad*Pow clients, providing tremendous customer value. Prior to joining Mad*Pow, Mike served as Usability Project Manager for Staples, Inc., in Framingham, Massachusetts. He led their design projects for customer-facing materials, including e-commerce and Web sites, marketing communications, and print materials. Previously, Mike worked at the Bentley College Design and Usability Center as a Usability Research Consultant. He was responsible for planning, executing, and analyzing the user experience for corporate clients. At Avitage, he served as the lead designer and developer for an online Webcast application. Mike received an M.S. in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley College McCallum Graduate School of Business in Waltham, Massachusetts, and has more than 13 years of usability experience.  Read More

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