Three elements of a movement

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 13, 2012
Filed in Communities of practice, Strategic clarity

Read this today and thought, right on! (is that too Tom Peters?)

Senator Bill Bradley defines a movement as having three elements:

1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we are trying to build

2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe

3. Something to do—the fewer limits, the better

Too often organisations fail to do anything but the third.

From Godin, Seth (2008). Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Portfolio Hardcover. p. 26. ISBN 1-59184-233-6.

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Community of Practice – Green Ninjas

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 24, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration, Communities of practice

I had a great day on Tuesday exploring a Community of Practice that has formed within a NSW local government council. This group call themselves the green champions and 40 representatives across the council participate to make sustainability an integral part of every staff member’s daily activities. The aim is to ‘show by doing’.

Some of the reasons it works: the CEO and elected leader openly advocate the group and provide legitimacy for its activities. This encourages managers to support the involvement of their staff. There is a small core group that work to tap into and unleash the Green Champions’ passion for sustainability. Members of the group spoke about how the Green Champions allows them to make a difference, how they learn about sustainability and can take that home and into their personal lives (such as the school sustainability committee). Some of them have the opportunity to apply their formal qualifications in water, waste, energy management etc. Members described some of the key success factors as the informal nature of the group, how it can avoid some of the internal red tape to get things done, their opportunity to contribute ideas and see them actioned and how every area of the business is represented. The group like it that they are a little edgy and can push the boundaries to get things done.

An example of how the group makes a difference:

earlier this year the group conducted a ‘Switch-off Blitz’. After hours, the group assembled and went through every floor and checked every workstation to check computers, and monitors, were switched off. Everyone who had done the right thing were rewarded with a note from the “green ninja” saying well done and a block of fair trade chocolate. Those who have not switched off their computers properly received a note saying, “no chocolate for you, the green ninja is not happy”. The energy monitoring system recorded a significant drop in energy consumption following the switch off blitz which has been maintained. It’s a great example of how the informal system can make a difference. It was inspiring to see this group in action.


Company Command

What if a single warrior could have the knowledge of thousands?

In the late 1990s, Nate Allen and Tony Burgess (both US Army Captains) sat on their back porches in Hawaii and swapped stories about their experiences as company commanders and pondered the question above. They had a vision about connecting all company commanders in this form of conversation. They were joined by a few others who shared this vision and in 2000 was launched. Five years later, they were two of the authors of the book Company Command: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession. If you are interested in Communities of Practice this is an important book to read.

CompanyCommand was the forerunner. There are now over 50 similar forums, 2,900 new members per month and 75,000 unique visitors per month. There are a bunch more facts here.

Two weeks ago I gave an after dinner speech to the Australian Army Knowledge Management conference. Just before the speech I was introduced to the guy that has responsibility for running the Battle Command Knowledge System, which hosts CompanyCommand along with fifty other forums, Colonel Charles (Chuck) Burnett. I was a bit taken aback as I had a copy of CompanyCommand in my hand and was intending to use it as an example during the talk.

I was fortunate to spend some time talking with Colonel Burnett the next morning and he was very generous with his time. I was particularly interested to hear that one of his greatest challenges is continually justifying the value of the forums like CompanyCommand to his chain of command. Not that having to justify the value of a community of practice is a new thing; its just that having to justify the value of one of the most visible CoP success stories in the world seemed remarkable.

To tackle this, he conducted a survey last year to collect examples of how the communities of practice were making a difference. There were 2500 responses; problems overcome, mistakes avoided, money saved … lives saved. The collected stories are now a key part of communicating the value of the CoPs (we have previously blogged about this technique here and here).


I will finish this post with a quote from the CompanyCommand book:

It became clear to me…that was not about the website. Rather it was about a community of professionals sharing and learning in a fast-paced dynamic operational context; the technology simply enabled the process. In fact, the more I thought about and observed the…forum, the more I realised that the core technology of the forum was the people and the conversations, not the computer.

Now, I just need to wangle an invitation to the US Army KM conference in October this year ☺


Beverly Trayner and Etienne Wenger are hosting a BEtreat

Posted by Shawn Callahan - April 8, 2010
Filed in Communities of practice, News

If you are community of practice leader and want to experience learning in a relaxed atmosphere with some of the very best minds, then you might like to check out Bev and Etienne’s BEtreat. It will be an interesting mixture of the professional and the personal. One day you will be at the cutting edge and the next at a birthday party, and your family is invited too. I wish they lived in Australia but for all those who can make it to California 6-10 July pop in, have some fun and learn something along the way.

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Digital Habitats—book review

EtienneNancyJohn200.pngDigital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith

I’m often the technology steward for communities of practice (CoP). I create the Ning spaces and configure ‘em, I setup the email lists, I work out whether we should have a wiki or a blog or a discussion forum or some other combination of communication technologies. As you can see I’m quite a geek: I really do love it.

And whenever I get stuck I’ll contact my friends at CPSquare: Etienne, Nancy and John. And while I know they all have a deep understanding of CoPs I tend to ask Etienne the theory questions, Nancy the technology questions and John the group dynamics questions. Together they are a formidable team. Sadly I think their new book, Digital Habitats, will give them strong cause to suggest I should RTFM: Read The Flipping Manual.

Digital Habitats (DH) has a single goal: to help the reader understand the role of technology steward in cultivating a community of practice: what is it, why you would do it, are you are cut out for it, how to do it and where to find help. But it is not a shoppers guide nor a roadmap for technology selection.

There is a lovely photo of Etienne, Nancy and John in the preface and I feel that reading DH is like have a friendly conversation with them on a sunny balcony. They provide the context, a little theory, then lots of practical tips supported by real life stories to ground it and make it memorable.

For me there are three ideas in this book I have already put into practice with great effect.

Experience shows us that all know that communities of practice are different, and sometimes poles apart. DH introduces the idea of community orientations to help us understand where the emphasis might lie and therefore what technologies make most sense.

There are 9 orientations: meetings, open-ended conversations, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community participation, serving a context. With my engineering communities, for example, I’ve asked the members where they see their current orientation and then ask them to identify where they would like to be. A community might start off very content focussed but realise that the real benefits will come from providing access to expertise. By understanding this orientation gap the technology steward can start introducing tools to facilitate the future orientation needs.

The second idea I find useful is how my friends (I was going to say ‘the authors’ but it didn’t feel right) describe the range of activities a community might be engaged in. The axis range from informal to formal and learning from to learning with. This diagram helps me ensure I’m thinking about the full range of possibilities when helping communities members design their CoP.

DH envisages three types of readers: deep divers, attentive practitioners and just do it-ers. The just do it-ers are directed to chapter 10 which contains an action notebook. It is a series of checklists to help you think about the role of the technology steward. What I love about chapter 10 is that I can jump in and start learning about the role by doing things and then come back to the descriptions contained in the rest of the book when it is more meaningful for me. DH makes the job of finding the relevant descriptions in the other chapters easy through a multitude of cross-links from chapter 10 to the relevant book section.

There are very few practical community of practice books available (I can think of 3 others) and Etienne has already had a hand in writing one of them. So Digital Habitats is a valuable addition to this exclusive club. It’s highly readable and practical and will definitely help make a difference to the quality of your technology support for your community of practice.


Places to meet for communities – an important ingredient

Three weeks ago I arrived in London for a couple of weeks work and a couple weeks holiday. One of my must-see destinations was the water pump in Broadwick Street, Soho, which was the main contamination source for the 1854 cholera outbreak (my family think I’m crazy). This pump is also the star attraction on John Snow’s famous map showing the geographic distribution of deaths from the cholera outbreak and is one of the earliest example of epidemiology (in case you were wondering, I studied geography at uni). So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the pump to find it was also a community of practice meeting spot for Soho cycle couriers.

Broadwick Street Pump

I wandered about the pump for a while taking photos (to the cyclists’ amusement) and listened to their conversation, which of course consisted of telling stories of what happened in the morning and over the week. Nothing written down, no social software, just oral storytelling.

Finding or creating these places for community in organisations is an important step is supporting communities of practice. Ideally they should be somewhere you can eat, chat informally and know that when you arrive, there will be other people just like you to share your stories with.

You might be thinking, but what if my organisation is distributed and we can’t get everyone in one place? Well, do what the London taxi drivers do, form clusters across the network to tell your stories. Here’s a photo of one group of taxi drivers who meet on Russell Square (there is a little group of them behind the silver taxi).

Taxi drivers meeting

To link across the small groupings the taxi drivers use technology: blogs, newspapers, websites, radio.

Meeting in small clusters for oral storytelling and linking across these clusters for wider knowledge sharing might be a useful pattern to adopt in organisations.


Useful conversations for fledgling CoP

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 5, 2009
Filed in Collaboration, Communities of practice

On Tuesday I worked with three new communities of practice in a government agency. Each group was quite different but in all of them we talked about the things the groups should do first. I promised to send them ideas on conversations they might consider early on. Here is what I have come up with so far.

  • Purpose: an important discussion early on is to determine the purpose of the group – why it exists. While many groups will have similar descriptions of their purpose (learning, tap into the organisation’s knowledge in the domain, solve problems faster, standardise practices etc), each group needs to have this conversation.
  • Knowledge Market: this process encourages participants to identify things they can offer (specific techniques, documents etc) and things they need to learn or need help with. This process can be done face to face or via teleconference. It helps the group build relationships and to start sharing their knowledge and expertise.
  • Community Orientations: a concept developed by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith and described here. In this activity groups discuss the areas they will focus mostly on in the short term.
  • Discussion tables. This activity is designed to get groups talking about the things they can do to improve their practice in the selected domain. In this conversation useful things to think about are things that will make the biggest difference for the domain and things that will make their work easier/better/more enjoyable/more rewarding.

What others are there?

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Will the real sponsor please stand up

Posted by Mark Schenk - February 25, 2009
Filed in Communities of practice

diag DCP coord2This morning I had a conversation with Mark Bennett about Anecdote’s CoP Health Check service. The health check focusses on elements of Etienne Wenger’s CoP model which includes executive sponsorship. The conversation with Mark highlighted how the issue of executive sponsorship needs to be addressed at numerous levels.

There might be a business line sponsor such as the Chief Engineer who is very interested in the business results delivered by the CoP and the value proposition of having people spend time on CoP activities. These sponsors take an active interest in the CoP and its activities.

You might have a champion high up in the organisation (the CEO or another C-level position) who gives the CoP its ‘license to operate’ and who might use the CoP as part of a strategic imperative such as creating a more collaborative organisation. These are great sponsors to cultivate and to communicate success stories to.

There might also be a third type of sponsor. One that is easy to overlook in the normal course of events but who becomes critical when times are tough and money is tight. This sponsor is the person in charge of the business unit that pays the wages of the CoP support staff and who funds the technology used by the CoP. This form of sponsor is the one coming to the fore given the current economic climate. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting till the axe is ready to fall before engaging with this sponsor group and ensuring they can see how the CoP initiative is adding value. If you haven’t been engaging these sponsors, yesterday would be a good time to start.

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The power of hobbies in building community

Posted by Shawn Callahan - February 23, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration, Communities of practice

On that day when Adelaide’s temperature reached 46.7C I was running a workshop for the spatial modelling and drafting community of practice. Their ritual is to have a BBQ for lunch, which seems a little crazy given the heat but that didn’t stop us. We all retreated to air condition comfort to chow down on our lamb chops and snags.

Into my third bite I noticed an animated discussion between two of the engineers talking about their love for motor bikes. They’d worked out they both had an interest in German classics and one was describing a fuel tank issue he was having. Mid-conversation one of them jumped up to retrieve a motorcycle magazine to illustrate his point.

Then in an instant the conversation morphed into a description the magazine-wielding engineer was having with a fighter jet he was working on. He was facing an intractable maintenance issue that was causing him technical and political pain. They delved deeply into the issue. You could see that there was trust and respect in the conversation and this trust and respect was at least partially developed while discussing their hobby.

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Communities and networks connection

Posted by Shawn Callahan - February 16, 2009
Filed in Communities of practice, News

Tomorrow is the big launch. Nancy White has been toiling away with Tony Karrer to develop a dynamic website that aggregates community and network blogs. Tony is the technical wiz behind the site and there are plenty of ways to discover new and interesting information about one of the topics I love: communities of practice. Nancy is the ultimate connector and this effort is a natural extension to all the great work she does with online facilitation and communities. So here is the URL. Have fun.

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