The Power of Community

By Sarah Fister Gale

Mar. 3, 2009

Early in 2008, American soldiers training Afghan and Iraqi armies were having problems using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The equipment was old and had a tendency to jam, misfire and explode prematurely.

Frustrated, a unit commander posted a question to one of the U.S. Army’s communities of practice, which are online forums where soldiers ask questions and share ideas with peers around the world.

“Within a few days, someone who’d had a similar experience with the launcher posted a simple solution to the site on how to safely prevent misfiring,” says Mike Prevou, president and co-founder of Strategic Knowledge Solutions and senior knowledge management advisor to the Army in Leavenworth, Kansas.

The solution worked, and when the unit commander followed up to discuss his experiences, the issue became a hot topic in the community. The conversation thread was soon picked up by the Army’s safety commander, who issued a formal safety policy on how to deal with the rocket launcher’s safety issues that was sent out to all the units using this equipment. And it all took place within 15 days of the original post.

“Without the community, those soldiers may never have found a solution to their problem, and they probably would have just put the equipment away,” Prevou says.

Communities of practice aren’t just valuable for military personnel. They are becoming vital corporate tools that allow employees with similar jobs or interests to get advice and share best practices.

“Communities of practice are a super-fast way for users to produce and share content,” says Eric Suave, CEO and co-founder of Tomoye, a collaboration software vendor in Ottawa. Prevou uses Tomoye’s technology to build the Army’s communities. “It’s a more responsive way to share information when it’s needed that allows organizations to collect ideas for formal training.”

That capturing of knowledge is critical for organizations that need to tap into the expertise of a far-flung employee population, such as the Army. It’s also an important issue for organizations with aging employee populations who might soon retire, taking with them important but informal knowledge about processes, customers or corporate culture.

“Both groups can work in concert,” Suave says. “On one side you have fast dissemination of information; on the other you have long-term planning that can draw on what people are talking about and turn it into policies and core content.”

This combined value is why communities of practice are cropping up in organizations around the world. They link globally dispersed workers who can serve as mentors to each other and share knowledge in an informal setting.

“Most companies spend 80 percent of their training budgets on formal learning events, yet 80 percent of what people learn is on the job,” says Charles Coy, director of product marketing for Cornerstone On Demand, a talent management solutions company in Santa Monica, California.

Communities of practice can fill in that gap, connecting not only people in spread-out business units but also those who have similar titles but don’t get the opportunity to network as often as they’d like.

“They offer informal networking venues, while giving trainers a way to guide conversations, identify issues and capture knowledge,” Coy says.

A test drive at Subaru
Darryl Draper, national customer relations and loyalty training manager for Subaru in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is writing her dissertation on the value of communities of practice as a learning tool. As part of her work, she launched a test program with Subaru dealers in her region. Half of the dealers completed an online self-paced course that featured no interaction with other students. The second group used identical content, but it was placed in a forum where course questions that included real-life customer scenarios could be discussed.

At the end of the training, dealers in both groups were asked about the information they had learned, and whether they thought about these skills in a different way. Then Draper tracked improvements in customer satisfaction surveys following the course. The course that included interaction and discussion came out on top.

“The data on the customer satisfaction surveys was statistically significant,” she says. “It showed that the community of practice worked.”

Draper is quick to point out that communities shouldn’t replace formal training. Rather, they should enhance training, Draper says. “Formal courses cover explicit knowledge with textbooks and facts, while the community covers implicit knowledge—that unspoken expertise that is the difference between novices and experts.”

Implicit knowledge is much harder to tap and track, because it’s unspoken. “Experts perfect their performance in ways they may not realize,” Draper says. “But through sharing and conversations, that knowledge comes out.”

How to make it work
Launching a successful community of practice, however, is not as simple as throwing a discussion forum on your network and assuming people will take advantage of it, says Coy. “It’s got to be integrated into what employees are already using the network for, and it’s got to be contextually relevant,” he says.

There are many tricks to creating environments that will attract people and will make them want to return for advice, conversation and knowledge-sharing.

Prevou says communities must be built out from the middle and networked out. “You have to find a midlevel leader or a core expert to drive the project and inspire people to use it,” he says.

It also needs to be nurtured and facilitated, Draper says. If there is a lull in the conversation, for example, she’ll ask provocative questions. If a question goes unanswered, she will privately e-mail key experts within the group asking them to respond.

“There has to be a champion who takes the lead for a community to be sustainable,” she says.

Prevou agrees. The Army currently runs 25 major communities of practice, and 90 minor ones, under four categories: leadership, functional, special forums and units. The major communities have dedicated facilitators who track and manage the day-to-day conversations, invite users to participate and market the communities through newsletters, e-mail alerts and formal user training.

To bring in new users, the Army posts its new-soldier material, such as rules and regulations, within the forums so new members have to learn how to use it as part of their training.

Prevou notes that this is not simply a tactic to get more users. Instead, he sees it as an effective way to get new people up to speed on what’s going on in the organization.

“When you are new in a company, you aren’t going to go to your boss and say, ‘Tell me about all of the issues you’ve dealt with in the last year,’ ” Prevou says. “But in the community you can see what people have been talking about. It’s like being able to listen in on everyone’s conversation for the last six months.”

Another way to engage users is to launch a community in conjunction with core training courses, suggests Coy. “That way you build a conversation around a specific topic and encourage users to share problems and network before and after the course,” he says.

Organizations also can make the community part of the course by posting questions at the site before class, or using it as a homework assignment, Prevou says. In one of his earliest communities, Prevou assigned students in an officer training course to ask their peers in Iraq and Afghanistan to share with the community the two biggest challenges they face, then to bring those responses back to class.

“It started us talking about what those soldiers should consider and generating ideas and solutions for them,” he says, noting his students brought those solutions back to their peers in the community. “It built a tremendous link between them and everyone benefited.”

Benefit is a key to keeping a community alive. “Communities have to be reciprocal. It’s got to be a place where if people put something out there, they know they will get something in return,” Prevou says. “When someone gets an answer to a question, it begins to build that trust.”

The communities have to be “sticky,” or created in such a way that users come often, and stay awhile, Suave says. “It’s got to be easy to use and designed for engagement.”

That sense of engagement can be built by sending e-mails when a new topic is posted, or when someone has received a response to their question. Engagement can be fostered by having multiple ways to respond and use content, such as simple one-click bookmarking, and easy posting of documents, images or videos.

Draper warns that a community shouldn’t be all business. “To instill a sense of community, you have to incorporate personal stuff into the conversation,” she says. For example, she posts photos of dealer events and anniversary parties to spur conversations and highlight key employees.

“All of this translates into community-building among peers who might otherwise never connect,” she says.

Draper discovered just how powerful that relationship-building was when she attended a community member’s Halloween event—a car-decorating party for customers.

“I got there and found people from competitive dealerships who’d come to support her,” Draper marvels. “That’s the power of communities. It exploded outside customer-service training to all parts of the dealership.”

There are pockets of excellence everywhere in organizations, Prevou says. “Communities of practice are a tool to tap into that excellence. It’s a way to share knowledge and build networks among people who might otherwise never connect.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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