It is difficult to build a community of practice from scratch. In fact, the construction metaphor of ‘building’ a community is inappropriate. Rather, it is important to ‘foster’ communities–and the first step is to find the communities that already exist in your organisation.
There are many places to search for evidence of existing communities. Like David Attenborough, the job entails tracking the telltale signs that will lead you to your quarry.
In the modern corporation, computer systems are a good place to start. You can begin by asking the system administrator whether email groups have been set up or whether specific collaboration spaces have been established. Both of these tracks can lead directly to existing communities. In addition, if you have an online meeting-room booking system, check whether regular meetings have been scheduled.
You can also include community mapping as an exercise within a wider knowledge-mapping project. An effective technique involves augmenting the Cynefin knowledge-mapping technique at the point where anecdotes are being collected. At the end of an anecdote circle, ask the participants to brainstorm four types of communities: (i) committees and formal communities; (ii) expert communities; (iii) informal or shadow communities; and (iv) communities that emerge only in a crisis. This exercise generates a long list of potential communities to investigate.
Experience has also shown that the following approach is effective. Provide a technological platform that supports community activities. Then advertise its existence, provide some information on how to use it, and see who comes. In one instance we had worked hard to establish three communities of practice while, on the periphery, a group of simulation modellers had discovered the collaboration platform that we had established–and they promptly made use of its functionality. We became aware of this community for the first time when we discovered them on-line. It should be noted, however, that the business case for the collaborative infrastructure had already been established before discovering the new communities.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: