By Matthew Loxton1
Why do people participate in Communities of Practice2 (CoP)?
An Applied Psychologist or a Knowledge Management person might tell you it is for the pure enjoyment and commitment to their identity as an expert in the field. People want to contribute something to their field, to leave a mark, to better the practice, and to be seen in a positive light amongst their peers in that domain. They often self-identify in occupational terms, and part of their persona hinges on that occupational identity – The answer to “who am I?” is often coloured in occupational terms.
People offer discretionary participation and exchange of ideas motivated by intrinsic forces of their own personalities, and the behaviour of the company should be to support them, enable them, and in some cases to defer to them when it comes to their expertise.
Individual Benefits of Communities of Practice
Here are the most salient benefits as I see them:
- Occupational Security
Gone are the days when an employer could offer guarantees of employment for life, but while the employer can’t offer job security anymore, being in active contact with a broad network of practitioners in their field, the individual is far more likely to find their next position through a contact than on their own. (Hudson 2010)
Let’s face it, some people will get out of bed at 4am, trek across bug-infested marshland, and endure mosquitoes, nasty sandwiches, and soggy clothing – just to catch a glimpse of a rare bird. They don’t do that because anyone paid them, but because they get a thrill out of it.
Besides spotting that elusive Red-Belied Woodpecker, the next best (or even better) thing is to tell people who would understand why that got you to crouch for hours in discomfort bordering on agony. They get it – they know what it’s like and you don’t have to explain why, just where, when, and how. Not only do they understand, but their questions are passion-supportive, and their suggestions are net contributions.
- It’s Bigger than ME
Besides what we know about a good life and a great career (passion, expertise, reward) (Collins 2001), and about fulfillment (mastery, autonomy, purpose) (Pink), what makes this transcendental is that it feels bigger than the individual – they get to feel a sense of being an integral part of something bigger than mere success, a sense of meaning.
Benefits of Communities of Practice as perceived by Senior Management
Let’s turn to the hard-nosed CFO/COO and explain why they should care and how this may hit EBITDA and make the investor smile?
Let’s count the ways:
- Succession Planning
A CoP is a ready-made breeding ground for succession-planning and risk mitigation because it identifies and trains natural replacements should an expert leave or become unavailable. Not only will you know who the stand-ins are, but they will already have an idea of what the need is and have methods and ideas similar to the person they replace.
CoPs naturally extend out into the regions beyond the organization and not only would the CoP know who is out there, but also have a track record on them and be able to point the recruiters at a specific place to fish and specific people to approach. It reduces the time and cost of recruitment to mere pennies on the dollar and with far higher success rates.
People who are passionate about some aspect of their job tend to stay there and are likely to view fondly an employer that makes exercising their passion a reality, and see it as a good place to work – even when somebody flashes more money to entice them away. Once the cash side is “sufficient”, passion beats money almost every time.
Engaged workers are productive workers, and nothing spells engagement quite like being passionate about one’s occupation. By creating social groups built around mutual passion for an occupation, CoPs drive engagement for as long as the firm’s mission and the occupation domain are aligned.
- Intellectual Capital
CoPs generate intangible assets that can be replicated and reused, and which increase performance in the form of methods, processes, techniques, and case studies and results. On their own, these increase performance, but when turned into explicit knowledge can be licensed out or sold for hard cash (Like Kodak is interested in doing to raise cash). When hinted at publicly, they drive up market value and can push share-price up. They also siphon up knowledge created by other firms and create a net gain in intangible assets.
- Reduction of Waste
CoPs produce standards, templates, and documentation that cut down on mistakes, reduce re-inventing the wheel, and force a reduction in variation.
Standardization and process improvement lead directly to improvements in product and service quality, and the relentless refinement native to a CoP drives out error and variance, and steadily increases quality.
Ever hear that the grapevine is faster than light? Well this is where the social network acts directly to the benefit of the organization. “Hey look what I found” is faster by orders of magnitude than drafting a corporate memo, and gets to the right ears in the right jargon faster than a speeding bullet.
- Adaptive Capacity
CoPs have a finger on the pulse of changes in their domain of excellence and are quick to notice developments in technology or practice, and this gives the firm a head-start on noticing changes in the business environment, and also the flexibility to make appropriate changes in good time.
Firms that do provide the infrastructure, scaffolding, and deference to grow CoPs will find themselves with more engaged and more productive staff, higher levels of Intangible Assets, and over and above lowered costs and increased revenues, could see a climb in the share price as the market puts value to the non-physical assets they have built.
Notes and references
- Matthew Loxton is an occasional guest blogger on topics related to Elisabeth Goodman’s blog site themes of process improvement, knowledge management and change management – key topics to support Elisabeth Goodman’s work at RiverRhee Consulting on enhancing team effectiveness. Matthew holds a master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and donates KM expertise to medical institutions
- “A Community of Practice (CoP) is a dispersed group of people with a common interest in a subject who have decided to work together to share what they know, learn from each other and work collaboratively to achieve common goals. Their involvement with each other is voluntary, although it may be driven by cascaded objectives, and they do not have the same management reporting line. A CoP requires active facilitation and support with a careful balance of formality / informality” definition taken from John Riddell‘s definition included in Elisabeth Goodman’s presentation: “Sustaining Effective Continuous Improvement In An Organisation: A Holistic View”, at IQPC Business Process Excellence in Pharmaceuticals, Biotech and Medical Devices, London, 7th April 2011 http://slidesha.re/h2vVhN
- Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great : Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York, Harper Collins.
- Hudson (2010). Networking: Tapping into the Hidden Job Market.
- Pink, D. H. (2009) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Hardcover