Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Key ingredients for the success of a Community of Practice

Lately I was asked what I would propose as major key ingredients to ensure the success of a Community of Practice (CoPs) in a United Nations environment. It made me think a little bit about the issue, as I've never pinned that down explicitely for my self before. Three items which immediately came to my mind (although these are surely not the only success factors) are "Needs monitoring", "Use of Web 2.0 opportunities" and "Linkage to Knowledge Products".

Needs monitoring

Communities of Practice are dynamic and sensitive animals which evolve, develop and change over time, both due to developments in the fields they are focusing on, as well as due to the constitution of its membership. They need to be carefully taken care of and require capacity to adapt to new developments. So, to ensure long term success of a CoP I think one should on one hand emphasize careful monitoring of the CoP in light of an organization’s business challenges and strategic objectives. The needs of practitioners need to be regularly monitored in order to identify:

  • What substantive issues are of interest to members;
  • Which topics require special attention through featured e-discussions;
  • What are knowledge gaps within the community for which external knowledge might need to be tapped and new knowledge needs to be generated;
  • What are CoP outputs that members need, both in terms of services and knowledge products. Maybe new challenges require adjustment of existing services (e.g. expert referrals) or new partners call for the introduction of a new type of knowledge product;
  • What activities beyond the email network could increase impact of community interactions and knowledge generated (e.g. knowledge fairs, specific training activities, etc)
  • And most importantly: How can the activities and outputs of the community be further aligned with activities and developments in context of the organizations results.

Adequate mechanisms to ensure the CoP’s success in context of the above questions are regular CoP audits (at least yearly) through surveys and interviews with CoP members, but also UNDP clients and partners.

Use of Web 2.0 opportunities

On the other hand an organization should foster the use of Web 2.0 and social networking tools within the CoP as they can provide powerful mechanisms to increase further a sense of belonging among community members. They also help to capture community knowledge in a more dynamic way (e.g. through wikis or blogs), to add value to community interactions by contextualization (commenting on each other's links, status messages or content) and to broaden the audience and therefore the impact of knowledge generated within the community by disseminating knowledge though additional channels.

Linkage to Knowledge Products

Finally, the link between the CoP and the development of knowledge products (KPs) needs to be strengthened. UN organizations in particular produce a wide range of KPs and invest significant resources into their development and dissemination. The question whether these products actually respond to a critical need of the community which should apply them often remains open. The UNDP Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery published an excellent Knowlede Management Toolkit including guidelines which encourage the consultation of their Community of Practice as a peer review instance during the development of a KP, by posting a query on the respective knowledge network asking for feedback on a first draft. Such CoP peer review approaches need to be strengthened and may be expanded by introducing a “Virtual Peer Assist” (to learn more about Peer Assists see this video from Ottawa University). This would mean that an author is expected to get community feedback already before embarking on developing the new product by submitting the concept note in a query on the network.