Knowing together, better

I am a bit of an e-mail hoarder, so occasionally I go back into the store and find an apparently random message that strikes a new chord. So it was when I stumbled across a message from Kaye Vivian to the ActKM mailing list dating back to July 2008. Her e-mail simply drew attention to an article by Richard McDermott on communities of practice (CoPs). More significantly, Richard had listed six characteristics shared by CoPs that successfully matured into dynamic entities (rather than withering away).

Cloister, Canterbury Cathedral

To date, I have not explored the potential benefits of CoPs for knowledge purposes. Within law firms, self-organised or mandated groups are the norm. At one extreme, there is the practice group or client team, and at the other there may be groups of like-minded individuals with a common interest (such as trainee solicitors) who cluster together for support when necessary. Some of these groups work as CoPs by sharing knowledge and learning incidental to their main purpose. Reading Richard McDermott’s article, however, I thought his conclusion probably had wider resonance than just for CoPs.

So what are Richard’s six characteristics? Kaye’s e-mail referred to a post of Stan Garfield’s in which he summarised this part of the article, but Richard actually started by pointing to factors inhibiting flourishing CoPs:

When starting, communities often need to build momentum as they discover what knowledge is useful to share. Once they’ve been going for a few years, three other problems often inhibit communities’ ability to maintain the spark they had during their early years — loss of momentum, loss of attention and localism.

Once these problems are overcome, six factors are evident in successful CoPs:

Not all communities at mid-life suffer these limitations. Some are vital, full of energy and add value to both their members and the company. The most vital of the communities we reviewed shared six characteristics — clear purpose, active leadership, critical mass of engaged members, sense of accomplishment, high management expectations and real time.

Whilst I have no experience with CoPs, I think these characteristics also hold good for successful collaboration of many different types. For example, organisational wiki use works well and adds value when we see the factors manifested in the following ways.

  1. Clear purpose: A wiki which has a defined purpose (creating a resource, for example, or managing a project) flourishes where unfocussed efforts fail.
  2. Active leadership: As Stuart Mader points out in his book, Wikipatterns, a number of key roles have grown up around good wiki use. One of those is the wiki champion: “A passionate, enthusiastic champion is essential to the success of wiki…”
  3. Critical mass of engaged members: Because of the 90:9:1 principle, a significant number of people is necessary to generate valuable wiki contributions.
  4. Sense of accomplishment: One of the advantages of good wikis over traditional CoPs is that as they grow the contributions of members naturally accrete and can provide a real sense of accomplishment. By the same token, if nothing is happening with the wiki people will see it and are unlikely to be encouraged to turn it round.
  5. High management expectations: Whilst many wikis are established as grass-roots activities, they can still benefit from interest being shown by senior people in the organisation. Whilst there is an argument that Enterprise 2.0 might result in less hierarchical organisations, it is still the case that people respond to traditional management and leadership.
  6. Real time: This is where wikis can score over traditional CoPs. Whereas CoPs may require additional time (McDermott refers to one organisation where there was an expectation that 10% of people’s time was dedicated to community activities), wikis can be the place where some aspects of work actually take place (in preference to e-mail, for example). This success factor is probably better worded as real commitment.

And what does success look like? For Richard McDermott, CoPs are successful when they achieve a significant level of influence in the organisation.

But to play this role effectively, communities need to be more than informal discussion groups. They need to be empowered to be full-fledged elements of the organization, legitimately exercising influence without formal authority.

The same is probably true of wikis.