Knowledge Management - Keys to Successful Communities of Practice (Networks)

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How can I make my community of practice truly effective?

How can I prevent my network becoming a "notwork"?

Communities of practice (networks) lie at the heart of successful knowledge management in most organisations. They are the lifeblood of informal exchanges of knowledge. Typically, communities go through a series of stages as they develop. This article, drawn from a best-selling knowledge management fieldbook by its author, identifies the key steps involved in creating and sustaining a successful community of practice, providing practical hints and tips for every part of the lifecycle.

The guidelines below are drawn from the book "Learning to Fly - Practical knowledge management from leading and learning organisations" (Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell), and sets out a number steps to launching, energising and sustaining communities of practice (networks) in an organisation.

1. Planning Gather together a list of potential participants. Use referral - ask individuals if they can recommend others in the organisation who should participate. Consider a broader membership to introduce diversity. Would your network benefit from having members NOT closely associated with your domain of interest - to bring in a different perspective?

2. Decide: go/no-go Check for duplication or overlap with other networks/groups, verify the need for the network and make a clear go/no-go decision. Is the scope realistic, or is the subject area too broad for a single network? Take some soundings from potential members and consider splitting to form two or more sub-networks if appropriate.

Getting started

3. Hold a face-to-face start-up workshop Ensure that this includes a social activity to build relationships and trust. If most of the interactions are likely to be via e-mail or telephone, it is important to build relationships face-to-face.

4. Draft a "charter" collectively Develop a simple "charter" which may include:

  • the rationale and scope for the network,
  • the key roles (facilitator, sponsor etc.),
  • the expectations in terms of people's time commitment (do members need help in securing "air cover" from their managers?),
  • a "code of conduct" - how members will work together, and key processes/tools,
  • a sense of "what success looks like", and any appropriate KPIs. (but avoid over-burdening a network with measures at the early stages of its growth)

5. Consider tools for support Check the available tools and their distribution across the members, particularly for a network which crosses organisational boundaries.

6. Appoint a facilitator The responsibilities of the Network Facilitator, some of which, in practice, may be shared with others in the network, may include:

  • organising network meetings/teleconferences;
  • maintaining network distribution lists;
  • owning and ensuring the maintenance of shared information/knowledge resources;
  • monitoring the effectiveness of the network, and stimulating and prodding network members when appropriate;
  • acting as a focal point for the network, both internally and for those outside the network
Note - a network facilitator need not be the "subject expert". Far more important is the ability of that person to involve and include others, and to work behind the scenes to keep the network "on the boil".

7. Set up an e-mail distribution list and send a launch e-mail Establish an e-mail distribution list for your network comprising the potential membership names identified. This should facilitate further communication. The Network facilitator should be identified as the owner of this, and can add or delete people from this distribution themselves. Send an initial e-mail to kick off the dialogue.

Building momentum

8. Seed the discussion with some questions Establish the behaviours by asking a question on behalf of a member with a particular need (have the members do it themselves if possible). In the early stages it is important to demonstrate responsiveness. The facilitator should be prepared to pick up the phone and press for answers behind the scenes.

9. Publicise the network What communications media exist within your organisation? Can you write a short news article in a relevant internal or external magazine which describes the network and its aims?

10. Advertise quick wins When you get answers to questions, or the transfer of ideas between members, celebrate and make sure that everyone knows

11. Monitor activity... Monitor the discussion forum/Q&A effectiveness:

  • Frequency of contribution,
  • Frequency of response.
  • Number of unanswered questions
  • For larger networks - number of joiners/leavers

12. Maintain connectivity Schedule regular teleconferences, summarise successes, develop a list of "frequently asked questions" and a shared team space/website.

Renewing commitment

13. Refine the membership For large networks, send an e-mail to existing members reminding them to let you know if they would like to be removed from the list. Better to have a smaller group of committed members, than a larger group with variable commitment.

14. Maintain face-to-face meetings Consider an annual face-to-face meeting to renew relationships and introduce any new members

15. Keep the focus on business problems Continue to solicit questions and answers - publicise more success stories.

16. Review performance How is the network performing in relation to its performance contract, mission, KPIs? Are there still regular examples of success stories?

17. Test commitment Don't be afraid to threaten to "switch off" the network and test the response of members. People will soon object if they strongly believe in it!

Is it time to "sunset" your community? Or to reinvent it? Consider Options Decide for the future:

  • Continue?
  • Celebrate & close?
  • Redefine the deliverables/scope?
  • Divide into sub-networks?


Launching and supporting successful communites of practice is one of the most effective ways to sustain your investment in knowledge management. It takes thought and effort to get started, but with the right people, and the steps outlined above, they can bring KM to life in any organisation.

Chris Collison is a renowned expert in knowledge management and an experienced practitioner in the leadership and implementation of organisational change from a people perspective.

As a best-selling author, he has presented to audiences at business schools and at conferences around the world, and is a regular contributor to specialist knowledge management publications. Chris has worked with leaders at the highest levels of many public and private-sector organizations, sharing the practical experiences he gained whilst working in BP's knowledge management team, and his deep understanding of the human dynamics of major change programmes.

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