With the development of web-based communication technologies, the Community of Practice (CoP) is a growing presence in larger organizations. These online mini-environments -- which bring together a/synchronous communications, document sharing and multimedia display -- are designed on the logic of user-driven open collaboration and resource sharing and allow for ongoing dialogue among employees.
Organizations take up CoPs on the premise that the horizontal communications enabled by the technology will facilitate the breaking down of siloed cultures and encourage innovation out of the resulting multidisciplinary dialogue. Real-life experiences of CoPs show, however, that these ‘new’ forms of organization and communication tend to fail in the medium- to longer-term.
Communities of Practice - Worst Practices
Numerous lists of best practices have been written on setting up and running successful CoPs; having witnessed the failure of a few online communities, I propose this list of worst practices – what not to do to have a successful CoP.
(Please note that this list of worst practices has also been posted in the CPsquare wiki and is open to collaborative modification there.)
1) Expect a CoP to change your organizational culture
If the organization lacks a collaborative culture to begin with (or is not invested in creating one) the CoP will do nothing to advance the silo-breaking objectives sought. Simply opening up avenues of communication is not enough to get people talking.
It can however be a valuable tool in a larger strategy to open up spaces for peer discussion and collaboration. A CoP is a product of -- and tends to reproduce -- the organizational culture.
2) Incorporate a CoP into an unstable organizational environment
If insecurity and competition is high in the organization, trust and sharing will be low, and it will be difficult to maintain a productive CoP. You will end up either with an inactive community or an activist one. If you don’t want to deal with unresolved issues, don’t bring in a CoP.
On the other hand, a CoP can be an effective tool to capture various data during an organizational transition, if it seen by members as a supported space to document real issues and openly contribute to developing organizational solutions.
3) Use a CoP to filter down organizational talking points
Intranets and other organizational communications do this, and replicating it in a CoP will nullify the value of the community for employees.
The CoP is a trickle-up technology that privileges perspectives from the ground that provide insight as to where to make changes. If you don’t want to represent on-the-ground perspectives, don’t implement a CoP.
4) Be exclusivist in your selection of CoP members
Choosing your members based on positions rather than fields, disciplines or interests replicates internal hierarchies and will limit the diversity of discourses that could be represented and developed.
Opening up your CoP membership as wide as possible can bring in novel insights from non-specialists in the field who might be just what's needed to be able to see the issues from fresh and alternative perspectives.
5) Fail to recognize employee participation in your CoP
Asking your employees to participate in CoPs 'off the corner of their desks' neglects the value of work time invested, ideas produced or learning gained that contributes to employee and organizational development.
Publicly recognizing and rewarding employee contributions and participation in a CoP will generate value, interest and incentive for further participation and could make it a place for employees to showcase their unique skills and passions, all of which can further organizational objectives of knowledge and product creation.
6) Control the discourse in your CoP
Planting members to strategically redirect or silence opinions or information that may run counter to organizational perspectives is the surest way to remove incentives for participation in a CoP, not to mention trust within the organization.
Being open to counter-discourses, on the other hand, will build trust and give you both credibility and access to information that is being discussed among employees in any case, with the added bonus of a chance to present the logic behind organizational perspectives. If you are not open to such negotiation, don't implement a CoP.
7) Leave your CoP to its own devices
Simply opening up a space and asking your employees to fill it with content will not work -- if you dont have the incentive to fill it with content, why should they?
Participating and modeling the kind of interaction you expect in your CoP from the top down will act as the strongest driver for employees at lower levels to be included in the discussions you open up.
8) Use a CoP to colonize knowledge
Lurking and silently plucking out for development any innovative ideas produced in your CoP, while leaving out those who produced them, will be seen as knowledge theft and your CoP will be viewed as a technological hierarchy. This will generate strategic rather than open communication, and could leave your employees even less collaborative than they might have been before the existence of the CoP.
On the other hand, including employees in processes developed from the fruits of their labour will immediately incentivize knowledge sharing and production, with the added benefit that the employees will feel more part of and take more autonomous responsibility for your organizational success.
9) Commodify a CoP for profit
Pushing for-fee technology platforms, tools, expertise or memberships for your CoP creates a commodity, not a community. Charging members to interact, innovate and produce knowledge that is of value will be seen as snake oil at best and exploitative at worst, and you will end up with an empty CoP and no profits.
A CoP can, however, become an integral part of your business plan with the objective of applying the knowledge produced there for the benefit of developing both the employees and the organization in the process of product and profit generation.
10) Expect a quick quantifiable ROI from your CoP
Growing seedlings takes time, and the fruits of knowledge gained or produced in a CoP, like the fruits of learning, will only become apparent in the long term, usually as altered organizational relationships, processes or services. It is difficult to quantify the potential value of a seedling as so much depends on the surrounding environment, careful nurturing and unexpected events that can affect its growth and production.