Some time controlling the message is important!

Some time controlling the message is important!

The simplest definition of a community of practice (COP) is people connecting, encouraging each other and sharing ideas and experiences. The power of COPs is generated by the interchange between people in a way that helps both the individuals and the group to achieve their goals. Who owns the message that the COP focuses on will affect how well the interchange occurs. Ownership, viewed in a black and white mode, generates two kinds of COPs. In the first type of COP, the group owns the message. In the second, the organization owns the message. “A Community of Practice: An Example” described a scenario in which the organization created a COP for a specific practices and made attendance mandatory. The inference in this scenario is that the organization is using the COP to deliver a message. The natural tendency is to view COPs, in which the organization controls the message and membership, as delivering less value.

Organizational ownership of a COP’s message and membership are generally viewed as anti-patterns. The problem is that ownership and control membership can impact the COP’s ability to:

  1. Connect like-minded colleagues and peers
  2. Share experiences safely if they do not conform to the organization’s message
  3. Innovate and to create new ideas that are viewed as outside-the-box.

The exercise of control will constrain the COP’s focus which in an organization implementing concepts such self-organizing and self-managing team (Agile concepts) and will send very mixed messages to the organization.

The focus that control generates can be used to implement, reinforce and institutionalize new ideas that are being rolled out on an organizational basis. Control of message and membership can:

  1. Accelerate learning by generating focus
  2. Validate and build on existing knowledge, the organization’s message
  3. Foster collaboration and consistency of process

In the short-run this behavior may well be a beneficial mechanism to deliver and then reinforce the organization’s message.  The positives that the constraints generate will quickly be overwhelmed once the new idea loses its bright and shiny status.

In organizations that use top-down process improvement methods, COPs can be used to deliver a message and then to reinforce the message as implementation progresses. However, as soon as institutionalization begins, the organization should get out of the COP control business. This does not mean that support, such as providing budget and logistics, should be withdrawn.  Support does not have to equate to control. Remember that control might be effective in the short run; however, COPs in which the message and membership is explicitly controlled, in the long-term will not be able to evolve and support its members effectively.