Workplace Culture

CoPs & Bloggers: How to Build Vibrant Communities of Practice

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jan. 5, 2014

Frustrating is one way to describe finding a “community of practice” online only to discover that it was little more than a message board and the last post was 16 months ago.

Online communities of practice are a great idea in theory:  build a place in your organization where like-minded professionals can network, brainstorm and share resources. But without enough traffic, they quickly turn into online ghost towns.

Part of the problem is the technology, said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst for Constellation Research in Toronto. “Five years ago, when you built an online community it was just a black hole with no content,” he said. But today, thanks to social business platform tools like Yammer, Jive, SAP Jam, Lithium, and IBM Connections, these sites can be built and instantly populated with videos, blogs and chat rooms.

That’s what makes a community of practice work, Lepofsky said. “Within the first 10 seconds people need to know why they are there, what they are looking at, and what they can do with it. Otherwise they will leave and never come back.”

The concept of communities of practice applies both to stand-alone sites catering to particular professions as well as to groups within an organization. Internal CoPs, sometimes also dubbed centers of excellence, social networks or just Wikis, promise to increase knowledge sharing, informal learning and ultimately performance.

Lepofsky urges community owners to create structure around how content is tagged, archived and accessed, and to take advantage of search tools and content certification options to ensure the best information rises to the top. They should also be sure a site manager keeps track of the content as it is created, he said. “Knowledge management is critical to making these sites work.”

To add further value to a community of practice, try to make it a necessary part of how people do their job, said Patty Hoppenstedt, director of HR for the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg.

One of the best ways to ensure the right content is chosen and made easily available, is to actually ask potential members what they want, said Sameer Bendre, an agile software development consultant in Atlanta. When he helped create a community of practice for agile project managers, his team used the feedback from members to create a top 10 topics list, then they compiled content, including webinars, podcasts, and white papers, under each category link. “It made it easy for users to find what they wanted without having to search the whole site,” he said.

Bendre also encourages site members to volunteer their expertise to answer questions, generate blogs, and build the repository of information. “You have to motivate people to contribute because that adds value for users,” he said. “Any way you generate interaction is good.”

To add further value to a community of practice, try to make it a necessary part of how people do their job, said Patty Hoppenstedt, director of HR for the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg.

Hoppenstedt’s team built an online hub using SAP Jam to act as a gateway for all employees. The goal was to make communication and information sharing easier and more transparent across the organization, but to achieve that goal she had to make sure everyone used the site every day. So she moved all of the organization’s applications, village news, training, city documents, and any other information employees might need into the site — which employees refer to as “Jam”.

They are also encouraged to post group messages in Jam, instead of using email, and to create smaller groups in the site to manage projects, have work discussions, or just to network.

“We created the expectation that to be efficient in your job, you have to use Jam,” she said. “Once they understand that, using it becomes second nature.”

Regardless of whether a community of practice is for every employee in a company or a select group of users, HR should be involved in its creation and management, said Mike Grafham, head of Yammer customer success for Microsoft in London.

 “You want HR to be a facilitator, not a bottleneck,” he said.

That means they shouldn’t see their role as a content police. Rather they should help business units decide if they need a community of practice, make sure the environment they build adheres to corporate policy, and help get the message out to employees who might want to use it.

HR can also help foster the culture of knowledge-sharing that is vital to making these sites useful, Lepofsky said. “In some companies, people hold onto their knowledge because they think it gives them security,” he said. “HR has to show them that when they share information it gives everyone an opportunity to grow.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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