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David Milstein Richard Coutts

Achieving Results: Collaborating to Accomplish Change

by David Milstein and Richard Coutts

This article first appeared in Learning and Development in Australia, Vol 30 Issue 4, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

In the current 'Knowledge Age', innovation in the implementation of knowledge strategies is a key factor driving success. New business models are arising globally as organisations and businesses move from one-to-one or adversarial to relationship-based approaches. Throughout the world, organisations and businesses across diverse industries are discovering that Communities of Practice (CoPs) are a useful way to facilitate the creation and sharing of knowledge, capability building and action implementation.

In an age where business knows no boundaries, CoPs hold strong resonance for organisations with remote employees and disparate locations. A singular feature of CoPs is that members can be anywhere in the world and still participate in knowledge building. Through CoPs, global reach and the "tyranny of distance" become non issues.

CoPs are based on the principle that changed behaviour resulting from learning is fundamental to innovation. For learning to occur, knowledge must lead to action (practice). Often, however, learning strategies tend to concentrate on creating knowledge and assume that action will automatically follow. Essentially, this leaves action or behavioural change to chance and opens the way for anti-change or 'balancing' forces to maintain the status quo. To counter this, it is necessary to anticipate and develop strategies to address these blocking forces. This involves the integration of change management and experiential learning processes that can best be achieved through the dynamics of CoPs.

About Communities of Practice

What are they?

Communities of Practice are groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.

Wenger et al, 2002 p. 139

CoPs are a process of social innovation. They comprise groups of individuals focused on creating, stewarding and applying knowledge about a specific issue, opportunity or topic. Members of CoPs share a strong desire to increase their knowledge and capabilities by working together, and by sharing their experiences. CoPs add value to knowledge-creation processes by providing systems that ensure practical application of knowledge (practice).

The idea is not new. CoPs "were our first knowledge-based social structures, back when we lived in caves and gathered around the fire to discuss strategies for cornering prey...It is not communities of practice themselves that are new, but the need for organisations to become more intentional and systematic about 'managing' knowledge ..." (Wenger et al, 2002, p. 5)

The model described in this article, however, is new and also addresses factors that impede progress.

Who will benefit?

CoPs will create value for organisations and businesses that:

  • Have identified a high priority topic or issue and are wondering how to best ensure a successful outcome; or
  • Have already implemented initiatives and have run into implementation problems or challenges.

They will also deliver benefit in circumstances where on-going activity is necessary because the outcomes sought from one-off solutions are likely to be undermined by rapid change in the external environment (the situation with most fields of interest).

The broad-reaching benefits are articulated in the following examples, which have been confirmed through objective, third party evaluation.

  • Toyota Supplier Association

    Average inventory reduction of 75 per cent and average increase in productivity of 124 per cent, compared with 8 per cent and 6 per cent respectively during the two years before knowledge sharing commenced (Dyer and Nobeoka, 2000).

  • Skandia Assurance and Financial Services (AFS)

    For over a decade, AFS's sales grew by 45 per cent annually, and its contribution to gross premium revenue of the Skandia Group rose from 10 per cent to close to 50 per cent in six years (Bartlett and Mahmood, 1998).

  • World Bank

    Transformation of the global strategy of the Bank, pointing to a whole new approach to world development and means of community improvement (Wenger, 2002).

What form do they take?

Figure 1

Communities of Practice forms

CoPs have been created within and across businesses and organisations, and within and across communities and industries. They may operate independently of one another, form ad hoc networks of communities, or link together within a systemic framework (see Figure 1). Irrespective of the form taken or the general field of interest, each has three key elements in common: a domain of knowledge which defines a set of issues, a community of people who care about this domain and share a common sense of purpose, and shared practice, that is, the specific knowledge and resources developed, shared and maintained.

How do you set one up?

CoPs are established by individuals, organisations, firms and industries who share a strong interest in achieving outcomes relating to a specific issue or opportunity. The CoP will facilitate the creation, stewardship and application of knowledge about that issue or opportunity.

New knowledge is shared amongst members of the CoP. Managing new knowledge and communication between members is best supported by a web-based platform to enable participants and other stakeholders access to shared knowledge, contacts and expertise.

Leadership of CoPs is provided by a person who has energy and enthusiasm for a particular opportunity, issue or topic (each CoP is lead by a 'Champion' selected by its members). Members of CoPs make use of CoP Support Resources that include guidelines and checklists to:

  • Facilitate the operation of CoPs as integrated and interdependent systems for creating and sharing knowledge; and
  • Eliminate a wasteful and frustrating 'trial-and-error' approach to developing the generic approaches, systems and processes needed for stewarding their specific knowledge domain.

In designing a CoP, you should follow a number of key steps.

Step 1. Start at the beginning - anticipate change

Increasingly rapid change is reshaping the economic and social landscape of organisations and businesses. It is therefore important that the knowledge creation process and strategies described above be informed by strategic foresight.

Step 2. Create an appropriate environment for shared learning

Shared learning is a complex activity that does not take place automatically. It is therefore essential to create an environment that facilitates it. This requires implementing frameworks, tools and processes for transforming knowledge into successful outcomes. Experience with collaborative learning initiatives highlights the fact that, irrespective of the opportunity, issue or topic being addressed, the change process involves human behaviour and relationships. It is therefore important to use the services of a skilled facilitator - the Champion previously discussed or an external consultant-to guide the process. During the early stages of the CoP's development, the facilitator guides the group in developing mutual trust and generally facilitates group cohesion.

Step 3. Build from the experience of others

Generic design principles and critical success factors are emerging from the creation and performance of CoPs in different sectors and different countries. It is therefore possible to 'stand on the shoulders' of others and 'profit from their experience'. For example Professor Peter Hines, co-director of the Lean Enterprise Research Centre (LERC) at Cardiff Business School has said: "LERC has taken the Supplier Association model developed in Japan by Toyota, and emulate the approach in the UK. The method has been developed and modified by LERC to make it more effective in a western environment".

Step 4. Ensure a diversity of membership

It is important that CoP membership be drawn from a diversity of experience that reflects the three key drivers of excellence -research, capability and application.

'Netweaving' Communities of Practice

What is 'netweaving'?

"Netweaving" is a term coined by the authors, referring to instances where multiple organisations 'COPs facilitate learning with each other across boundaries. It indicates the strategic alignment of, and the sharing of learning between, CoPs with similar interests. In essence, it is the creation of a sustainable community of learning communities.

A Netweaved CoP (NCoP) is thus a cluster of individual or interlinked CoPs within or across organisations or sectors. NCoPs operate within an overall framework that is designed to enable a systems approach and the sharing of experience amongst a wide network of previously unrelated participant CoPs.

Already there is evidence of successful Netweaved CoPs (NCoPs) occuring nationally and internationally. The need to learn across company boundaries is spawning a growing number of interorganisational partnerships, such as ...the Northeast Indiana TQM Network (Wenger et al, 2002, pp 222-223). In Australia Collaborative Research Centres (CRCs) are being created, in which "competing" companies work together on particular research for the benefit of all the companies involved.

It should be noted that NCoPs are designed to encourage the sharing of knowledge and experience about excellence in a specific field of interest, and not detailed commercial or confidential information.

How does it help?

Netweaving offers individual and/or isolated groups tackling similar issues with the means of communicating with others who have 'gone before', thereby significantly improving efficiency and effectiveness. The netweaving of CoPs provides a mechanism for sharing knowledge, learning and experience with others within their organisation or sector, and with other organisations or sectors if desired.

How does it work?

NCoP Strategies have been designed to enable the creation of an environment that nurtures the sharing of experience and continuous learning and improvement. Considerable emphasis is placed on providing participants with maximum flexibility to meet their own needs.

Strategies for NCoP establishment and operation are listed below.

  • Community Cohesiveness - The Configuration Strategy

    The focus is on the conditions for giving operational effect to the knowledge creation and governance structures outlined above.

  • Fostering Innovation - The Learning Strategy

    This ensures that NCoP activities are deliberately driven by strategies and processes necessary for creating a learning environment that leads to the acquisition of knowledge (both social and human capital) and changes in behaviour (capacity building).

  • Evolution and Growth - The Continuous Improvement Strategy

    Continuous performance assessment and review are integral components of the operation of NCoPs. The focus is on achieving excellence in the delivery of strategic outcomes (desired results) and operational effectiveness (processes/practices) for all NCoP activities.

  • Facilitating Interaction - The Communication Platform Strategy

    A web-based platform is necessary to underpin NCoP activities by providing a resource for interaction and the sharing of experience.

Community Cohesiveness - The Configuration Strategy

The focus is on the conditions for giving operational effect to the knowledge creation and governance structures. The Governance and Stewardship functions necessary for effective NCoP operation are delivered by an NCoP Community Hub comprising:

  • A small Leadership Group, made up of CoP Champions and individuals selected from member organisations, with a passion for the common goal, whereby the group assists with the implementation and initial operation of NCoPs;
  • A CoP Facilitators Network, focused on improving the practice of shared learning within NCoPs;
  • Support Services to assist with coordination of NCoP activities, including knowledge management, organisation of events, communication platform maintenance, resource management, and operational governance issues; and
  • System Support Resources, comprising a Charter, Membership Declaration, Guidelines and Checklists.

CoPs are demonstrating an ability to enhance effectiveness in meeting the challenges of the knowledge age, and they are being successfully introduced within and across organisational boundaries. In Australia, the National Food Industry Strategy promotes their development in food value chains to make Australian chains more competitive in international markets. The World Bank has demonstrated that not even civic communities have to be confined to national borders. These are just two examples of organisations that have recognised the benefits of building a platform for the dissemination and promotion of shared knowledge, to advance not only their own business but their industry as well.

References

  • Bartlett, C.A and Mahmood, T. 1998. Skandia AFS: Developing Intellectual Capital Globally. Harvard Business School: USA.
  • Dyer, J.H. and Nobeoka, K. 2000. "Toyota Supplier Association Knowledge-Sharing Network". Strategic Management Journal. 21: 345-367.
  • Wenger, E., R. McDermott, and W. Snyder. 2002. Cultivating Communities of Practice. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, Massachusetts.

Copyright © David Milstein and Richard Coutts

About the Authors
David Milstein

David Milstein (M.AITD; M.IMC) is the principal of David Milstein and Associates, a specialist in learning systems, strategic thinking and leadership. David Milstein can be contacted at 7 Gunyah Street, Lutwyche QLD 4030, phone (07) 3857 8202, mobile 0407 211 192, or email dmabiz@optusnet.com.au Web Page www.synergypartners.com.au

Richard Coutts

Richard Coutts (M.IMC; M.AAA; AF.AIM) is a Director of Primary Business Solutions Pty Ltd, a firm providing business and industry development strategy services to clients in the public and private sectors. Richard Coutts can be contacted at PO Box 1035, Carindale QLD 4152, phone (07) 3398 6318, mobile 0403 132 547, or r.coutts@pbsolutions.biz

During 2001-2002, Richard and David assisted Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry - Australia in the development and implementation of a national food chain learning network initiative. The network is a component of the National Food Industry Strategy that commenced on 1 July 2002, and is designed around a Netweaved Communities of Practice model conceived by the authors.

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