The Art of Knowledge Sharing

A growing number of organizations are establishing communities of practice among workers to boost knowledge sharing and learning.

by / June 4, 2002
In the 1980s, Xerox Corp. tried to figure out new ways to boost the productivity of its field service staff. So, the company brought in an anthropologist from its famed Palo Alto Research Center to observe how they actually did their jobs. What the anthropologist found startled Xerox executives.

Instead of spending as much time as possible with their clients, the field service representatives hung out with each other in common areas, around coffee pots or in the parts warehouse. Imagine how a Xerox manager would have viewed the situation, wrote John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray in an article about the experience. "Here's 'low-hanging fruit,' easy pickings for immediate productivity gains. Simply reroute the tech reps, cut out the conversations, eliminate the dead time and pocket the savings."

But the anthropologist took an entirely different view. Field service work isn't for loners. It's a social activity, involving a community of professionals. Time spent at water coolers wasn't dead time, but a time to swap knowledge about how to repair machines better. Don't eliminate the conversations in pursuit of corporate efficiency, the anthropologist told Xerox, but expand them to bolster learning and innovation.

Xerox followed the advice. And since then, a number of other firms have also promoted these informal networks within their organizations. They include National Semiconductor, Motorola, the Federal Highway Administration and the city of Chicago. The name for these informal social structures is "community of practice," a term coined by Etienne Wenger, a learning consultant and expert on the topic.

"Underneath the traditional hierarchy of organizations lie these horizontal structures that people belong to informally to share knowledge and solve problems," he said.

The emergence of communities of practice comes at a time when the practice of knowledge management has appeared to stall, in part because of an over-emphasis on technologies to the detriment of learning how people actually share knowledge.

For example, a multinational technology firm once spent $7 million building a best-practice database for its technology consultants, only to find they never used it, nor did they contribute to the database. Writing in the journal, Organization Development Practitioner, Verna Allee, an expert on knowledge management, explained how, in the rush to install technology, the firm neglected to find out how their consultants actually create and share knowledge within their own organization and how that might be nurtured. Allee was called in to fix the problem.

Wenger recommends other organizations hoping to avoid such problems start by asking themselves a simple question: "What should people share in terms of knowledge and why?" He points out that everybody lauds the idea of knowledge sharing, "but the problem right now is that we have too much information."

Knowledge sharing should be based around the concept of a community consisting of people dealing with the same problem, explained Wenger. "That way, you know who you are going to share the knowledge with and whose information is important to you. A community of practice is a way to manage knowledge that involves the practitioners themselves."

Distinguishing a CoP

While the term community of practice (CoP) is relatively new, the concept is quite old. Wenger points out that guilds formed in the Middle Ages were a type of community of practice. So were various apprenticeship programs, and they still are now. Today, CoPs are everywhere, in various guises, at work, school, home and spread out through communities in the form of hobby groups.

But what distinguishes a CoP within an organization from a committee or task force or nonprofit association? Allee wrote that communities are "defined by knowledge rather than by task" and that a community is "determined by the value it creates for its members, not by project deadlines."

According to Wenger, a CoP consists of three components:

The domain. Workers will organize around a set of problems they all face, creating a domain that brings them together. They may not all deal with the same problem on a day-to-day basis, but because they are all involved with the same practice, they have a shared identity.

The community. The workers function as a community that interacts and solves problems. Through this interaction, they build trust with each other and share ideas much more freely. Wenger said that relationship building is crucial to the success of a CoP, that's why managers don't belong to what are, in effect, peer communities that cut across many boundaries within an organization.

The practice. The community focuses on creating a certain way of solving problems. By doing so and by interacting regularly, they continue to build relationships and trust, allowing the CoP to evolve and grow.

What stands out about CoPs is their strong reliance on social interaction, relationship building and focus on a specific practice. Wenger says it's still an open question whether CoPs can only exist through face-to-face meetings. He has seen communities that have worked well through Web sites, e-mail and teleconferencing. But he emphasized that communities don't survive if they rely on databases as the source of knowledge.

And yet, it's clear that technology plays an important role in sustaining CoPs. Technology in the form of a Web site can help a community establish its identity. It allows them to interact across geographical boundaries. And it can serve as the community's external memory, accumulating the knowledge created and shared by members and storing it in a database that can be searched for future reference.

Some of the tools used by CoPs include synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools, including Lotus' Notes and QuickPlace, WebEx, Communispace and Microsoft's NetMeeting. Other technologies include portals, document-management systems, knowledge-exchange software and e-learning tools. For more information, see Wenger's survey of community-oriented technologies.

Feds Love CoPs

At the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), people like Mike Burk, the administration's chief knowledge officer, nurture communities of practice. The federal agency is one of many that has grasped the strategic importance of knowledge management in government and has assigned someone at the executive level to oversee its growth and development.

In fact, the Federal CIO Council, an interagency forum chartered to improve the management of IT in the federal government, supports both a knowledge-management special interest group and, within that, a CoP special interest group. More than 30 federal agencies have knowledge-management officers and staff participating in the Council's special interest group.

Burk, who holds one of two knowledge leader positions within FHWA, says his role is to provide leadership for knowledge management from an organizational perspective. "Right now, we're doing two things related to knowledge management," he said. One is the development of an expertise locator, so staff and the public can more easily find the right person with the right information -- or knowledge -- within the agency.

The second project is setting up communities of practice. "I find that fledgling communities are the easiest to set up," explained Burk. "They can stay in touch by mail, meetings or e-mail. We try to provide them with a virtual space to collaborate and share knowledge."

The key to launching a CoP successfully is finding the right champion who will enthusiastically build the community, creating a buzz so that other people with similar practices will gravitate toward it and participate.

One such person is Lamar Smith. His specialty is overseeing the team of FHWA workers who must plan and carry out the goals of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is a set of policies aimed at protecting the environment. For FHWA, that means tackling the problem of environmental protection while building highways -- not a small task, considering all the issues.

Not surprisingly, the problems of building highways while minimizing ecological damage touches a lot of people in the federal sector as well as state government, local jurisdictions and the private sector, including for profit and nonprofit. "NEPA is fairly complex," Smith said. "It can require quite a bit of analysis. Anybody who is a NEPA practitioner is required to know a lot about a lot."

To help make NEPA knowledge sharing less painful, Smith, with Burk's support, has created a community of practice so that NEPA practitioners can share experiences and ask questions of experts, based on their area of knowledge. "It used to be bunch of people getting together by phone or meeting," said Smith. But thanks to the Web, the group has evolved. Today, NEPA's community has 11 special interest groups and the number of participants is in the hundreds. Practitioners can join in virtual discussions, search for answers in the reference database, check out works in progress and directly contact other practitioners, with related interests, through the directory.

According to Smith, NEPA's Web site doesn't replace the hands-on training and meetings NEPA practitioners need to stay on top of the various objectives. "But it allows us to have dynamic discussions on all the issues. The Web allows the participants to set their own pace in terms of learning and knowledge sharing."

Smith added that the group is very focused, with high-quality discussions taking place on a regular basis.

CoPs Need Leaders, Time

According to Smith, his work with the CoP is time-consuming but rewarding. Without his leadership and active participation, the CoP would have little chance for success, said Wenger. "It's really important to have an energized core group with a person who is coordinator of the community."

Another success factor for CoPs is time. "It takes time to sustain a community," Wenger continued. "If there are too many competing priorities, it becomes difficult for people to remain in the community."

At the FHWA, Burk echoed the same point, adding "Management has to give community practitioners the time to socialize around their problem and provide them a place and a method to make knowledge available."

So far, CoPs at the state and local level have been limited to certain intergovernmental issues, such as the environment and justice. For example, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have created a CoP with cities around the problem of reducing gun violence in communities. Chicago developed a CoP to address economic development issues. Again, the practitioners involved came from a wide range of backgrounds, not just city government.

The key to the making a CoP happen isn't money, nor does it involve heavy doses of technology (though it can make a community much more dynamic), but social interaction among peers around a focused problem. Because knowledge is at the core of any community of practice, these groups will endure, despite the ups and downs of knowledge management, explained Wenger.

"It's important to remember that communities of practice have existed forever," he said. "The idea now is that organizations must pay attention to these informal structures that have always existed under the radar screen. Organizations -- including government -- need to leverage the value that's there by legitimizing them."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor