Building a Community of Practice

In Part 1 of my “Learning Toward a Common Goal” blog series, I discussed Mass Collaboration exercises such as Cicada 3301, and their benefits to corporations and organizations. In this blog, I’ll tackle how to get traction with your “community of practice.”

Yammer, Facebook®, home-grown technologies… I often see clients create community of practice sites and roll out the latest social media tools, or even spend mightily to build a custom platform. Yet regardless of the tool, I see many of them struggle to get traction with employees.

According to Eleanor Wenger-Trayner, communities of practice are groups of people with shared interests, who want to learn how to do what they do better, and who want to seek out connection with others to have conversations and shared resources. If you have a passion for photography or weaving, as I do, then you might look for organizations — either in-person or online — of folks who share your passion and exchange ideas for how to improve.

There are many reasons why a corporate community of practice may fail to gain a following out of the gate: people are busy in their day-to-day jobs, they don’t see the value, or, frankly, their passion for sales or accounting isn’t as strong as their outside-of-work passions for gardening, car repair, or tennis.

How can we overcome these perceptions and motivate employees to engage in a community of practice?

What may be lacking in these situations is the common goal or challenge.

In 2013, NASA sponsored the International Space Apps challenge: a two-day event that brought together more than 9,000 scientists, technologists, artists, educators, and students from across the globe to solve challenges on topics ranging from spotting meteors to urban poultry farming. The sponsors of the NASA event offer some guidance on how to build a community to foster innovation and collaboration on a mass scale.

  1. Define the challenges you want to solve. This provides the focus. Then step back and get out of the way. NASA and agency partners defined 57 challenge statements and directed the energy of global innovators to them. Out of that came more than 770 possible solutions.
  2. Combine a central infrastructure with local control. This provides the “best of both worlds” — a way to scale and network people, while providing participants with a contextualized personalized experience.
  3. Leverage technology to amplify virtual participation. More than a quarter of participants were virtual, using tools such as Google Hangouts™ and Skype™ to connect. These virtual collaboration tools allowed teams in different locations to work together.

Coming back to your community of practice, a goal or challenge serves to engage participants, give them a reason to access the system (thereby becoming more familiar with how it works), and collaborate and network with each other. Rewards and recognition can increase incentives for participation, but — ideally — the reward for everyone is experiencing how people with a shared focus within the organization can learn and work together to achieve a common goal.