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A community of practice is a valuable asset to the workplace and such communities are needed more than ever. Working remotely can mean less interaction with the range of colleagues in your organisation and even in the office we can be separated into physical spaces and our work siloed. Establishing a community of practice can counter the isolation of knowledge and learning many organisations experience. A healthy community will have mind-opening and challenging discussions and share stories so members can learn, have fun and meet others from different parts of the organisation.
Over a year ago, a customer asked me and my colleagues to build and lead a community of practice for Agile delivery. Humans naturally form communities and I believe in their organic nature, so initially I was unsure imposing a community of practice could be successful, however; I have come to learn and believe that there are valuable benefits to be found in creating a community of practice in this way.
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly
Communities of practice are almost synonymous with communities of interest, perhaps the only difference being that in practice we are primarily aiming to improve. Bringing together people with common interests on a regular basis can pool knowledge from across the organisation, increase it, and then disseminate it.
There should not be entry requirements to a community of practice: from novices to experts, every member has experience and ideas to share, evolve together and learn from. We wanted to create an environment where:
Communities of practice do not usually require heavy institutional infrastructures, but their members do need time and space to collaborate. These communities do not require much management, but they can use leadership. They self-organize, but they flourish when their learning fits with their organizational environment. The art is to help such communities find resources and connections without overwhelming them with organizational meddling.
The Systems Thinker(2)
I mentioned before that forming communities is a human trait. Throughout our lives we form groups inside and outside work and they are organic: they form, evolve, and equally can disappear over time. Allowing communities to emerge and live in as ‘natural’ a way as possible while supporting and enabling them is a delicate balance for organisations to find. Success for a community is active membership, collective learning, and evolving members’ knowledge. Finding ways to enable and cultivate that is key to success. Here are some of the practical steps we took to establish and facilitate a community of practice:
The first thing we established was a dedicated space for members to communicate, using tools the organisation already owned. I set-up a space with Microsoft Teams and a weekly video call. Initial members were a list of colleagues and close contacts we already knew. To expand our reach we used existing organisation-wide channels to ‘advertise’ the group and making our purpose clear (see below). Finding a time for that call will be difficult, but it is important to find a time and stick to it; just as a Scrum team’s daily standup is immovable, the community of practice meeting should have the same predictability and stability.
Without paper, whiteboards, or a physical space to collaborate in, we established a virtual collaboration space (e.g. Mural, Miro). These platforms are generally a virtual whiteboard of sorts, and allow people to brainstorm together in real-time with digital post-its, images, and voting. Using the tool to apply Agile practices, like retrospectives, we guided the development of the community, we also used the tool to record things we had discussed and things we want to discuss. The list of topics we want to discuss tends to grow quicker than we can discuss them, so we occasionally vote on the topics to gauge ongoing interest. This doesn’t set the topics of meetings in stone but gives us guidance and offers members the opportunity to deliver a talk, structure a session, or practice new Agile delivery skills. One benefit of remote tools like Mural and Miro is that an equal voice is given to all members. When voting for example, all votes are hidden until the end – more democratic than what you might achieve with dot-voting physical post-its in person.
We established this community of practice to focus on Agile delivery. That is not a purpose. Expanding members’ knowledge of Agile delivery, increasing its use throughout the organisation, improving our practices…they are more purpose oriented. Building a strategy, charter, or manifesto as a community could provide a good starting kick to a community. The Social Change Agency’s Movement Building canvas could be just the thing to adapt to this situation.
A community of practice will thrive if all members possess “openness, honesty, lack of judgement and confidentiality”(3) so that a trusting space can be created. You wouldn’t want to ask a question or share an experience where you felt you could have done better if you feared the community would judge you. If you are looking to establish a community of practice, even if one is already forming, recognise that it is hard to establish psychological safety between strangers. Meetings with exercises aimed at getting to know each other, exploring members’ past and present work successes and – most importantly – failures is a good start for building a space where everyone can talk freely. Actively encourage diverse membership of the community so there is a range of voices and experiences. No one person should feel drowned out by other members.
We know through experience and through retrospectives with real community of practices that members have a richer work life. In a large organisation, where skills may be scattered or siloed, the community forms stable connections. Members feel like their experience and knowledge is growing and they have a support network to discuss problems. This, in turn, leads to innovative ideas.
Communities of practice also encourage self-sufficiency, as all members need to contribute to sustaining the community in some way. Either with their input, enthusiasm, questions, or even facilitating and leading meetings. They provide a space where members are empowered to act. Self-sufficiency and empowerment are extremely important aspects of an agile organisation and Agile delivery, so introducing and growing them can provide learning and benefits to delivery.
Communities of practice are beneficial. They benefit well-being, skills development, culture and the future organisation. We have learned that it is possible to establish a successful community of practice whether or not people in the organisation are forming communities independently.
Do you want the benefits of communities of practice in your organisation? MEQIFY can help, whether you are establishing new communities or want to support existing communities of practice to thrive.