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