Designing And Developing Communities of Practice As A Competitive Advantage Blogs: A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Microsoft Community Summit about communities of practice — their business value, how they are different from other internal and external communities, and strategies for success in starting them up and growing them in a sustainable way. I invite you to view the presentation embedded below; here are some main points.

What is a community of practice and why you should care

Communities of practice  (CoP) are different than many other internal communities in that their purpose isn’t to get a project done or to collaborate on a team or across teams for a business outcome. Rather, their goal is to steward, develop and up-level domain-based knowledge at a group of professionals — inside and across organizations. This is not to say that knowledge built through work in a community of practice can’t benefit the work you do in a work group — quite the opposite! Communities of practice can and should help its members perform their jobs better.

Knowledge is one of these really tricky areas — it’s critically important, yet highly evasive. The amount of information produced by the world makes knowledge obsolete almost immediately. At the same time, we need knowledge more than ever before — in this interdependent, global world, knowing something that happened in China could directly impact something you are doing in Mexico. Ability to get information, turn it into insights and knowledge, and mobilize people to do something with it — this is the competitive advantage of today.

In helping me prepare for this talk, I heavily leaned on “Cultivating Communities of Practice” by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder – a recommendation from our awesome community member Simon Terry. They define a community of practice as having 3 key elements:

  1. Domain — what your shared purpose is, knowledge you are building,
  2. Practice — the domain-based method of creating knowledge, such as frameworks, standards and knowledge bases,
  3. Community – the social fabric of learning.

Building successful communities of practice

As we know, community design is critical to success of any community. From the research that I’ve done, people I’ve talked to, and based on personal experience, I see there being four main design “buckets” for CoPs.

1) Design for value

You should design your community in such a way that the value gained is apparent to each member from the first minute they get there. Well-designed communities know exactly who is participating in them, what they bring to the table, what roles they play, and how to help people get what they need. A healthy community connects people with experience to those looking for that experience, and to other complementary experiences. You should be ready to name the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) for each participant or participant “persona”, and you should design ways for various levels of contribution to happen: from reading, to engaging, to creating content.

2) Design to catalyze

Your community needs to evolve; otherwise it reaches a state of stasis and people eventually attrit. While you want to design the right systems for people to get and contribute value right away, you don’t want to over-engineer the community. Don’t forget the value of building the community with the community — its strength often gets forged through the creative act of defining, building and growing.

Create the right mix of private and public spaces — just enough to get things going, but leave it open enough so that others can build it out. Even the healthiest of communities won’t stay that way indefinitely without a “shot of adrenaline in the arm” every once in a while. Engagement events become important as they get people participating in different ways and mediums. You may get together in person, weekly call, monthly webinar, speaker series, retreats — it’s up to you! Mix it up, but keep a constant rhythm going.

3) Design for smart growth

All communities need to grow; in fact, if you aren’t growing, you are dying. How you grow matters, though; you never want to throw a crowd of new people into a community without the right onboarding experience and without ambassador member involvement.

You always want to have a healthy balance of new and expert members. To that end, you will want to understand how you recruit and approve new members. What is the vetting process, and expectations of members? You will want to think about the quality of the member you’d want in the community and design a vetting process that makes sense. If you raise the bar for membership higher, your community will be smaller and more engaged because people have more skin in the game. More open communities have a low (if any) bar for entry, and may have less engaged members, as the sense of community isn’t as strong.

As you grow, don’t forget to measure against your success KPIs — that is how you will continue to get funding and mindshare.

4). Design to self-sustain

Finally, you want to design your community so that it doesn’t need any one person to run. You should be able to go on vacation and not worry about what’s happening in your community. If you design your community for value and smart growth, enable members to develop as community leaders, you will have a great group of ambassadors. Create an environment where people want to and are able to connect, facilitate storytelling, and give up control to your ambassadors.

Now back to you! Have you developed or been a part of a community of practice at work (inside or outside of your company)? What made it successful? What are some things you learned?

Photo Credit: anchylosaurus via Compfight cc

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