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The idea of Communities of Practice is thrown around a lot in organizations, often without thinking about the goals of a CoP.  Why? Organizations are increasingly becoming more diverse and distributed, while at the same time pursuing mechanisms to increase collaboration between groups and consistency of knowledge and practice hence the rapid growth of Communities of Practice.  Let’s explore the goals of a CoP.

This week also marks the premiere of Tony Timbol’s new column, “To Tell A Story.” In this week’s installment, we begin to explore the nuances of User Stories.  Tony is a practitioner, consultant, entrepreneur, and science fiction author — Tony does it all.

Email: tony.timbol@agileready.net

Web: BeAgileReady.com 

Interested in Mikolaj Pawlikoski’s book, Chaos Engineering, Site reliability through controlled disruption I have discount codes for the listeners of the Software Process and Measurement Cast, ping me @tcagley@tomcagley.com and I will share them with you!

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Community of Practice and Interest (CoP and CoI) meetings are both formal events, therefore they need planning so the friction for participation is minimized. In a less complicated day and age (September 13, 2014) I published a simple checklist I use to prepare for a CoP meeting.  The checklist is a little different in 2021 given the need to handle highly distributed groups. My basic logistic checklists for fully distributed CoP/I meetings follows:  

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Communities of Interest (CoI) are groups of people with common interests that come together to share experiences and knowledge. The community is focused on the subject rather than the people involved or meeting a common goal which often leads to little interaction between members outside meetings or events. I attend the NorthEast Ohio Scrum Users Group (NEOSUG).  There is a core group that regularly attends and any number of transitory attendees. When in-person meetings were possible, the pizza and the content were both good. Topics over the last few meetings ranged from WIP limits, Agile Coaching Code of Ethics, and the new Scrum Guide. The meetings delivered information, discussion, and a bit of networking.  NEOSUG is a community of interest not a community of practice. Most CoI’s have two primary goals.

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Communities Play A Role In Transformation

Organizations are increasingly becoming more diverse and distributed, while at the same time pursuing mechanisms to increase collaboration between groups and consistency of knowledge and practice. Communities are one tool organizations use to keep people involved and increase capabilities.  A Community of Practice (COP) is one type of community (we will explore the COPs first cousin, the Community of Interest (CoI) next). Organizationally, CoPs have three primary goals. They are:

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Hand Drawn Checklist

Hand Drawn Checklist

Hand Drawn Chart Saturday

The simplest definition of a community of practice (COP) is people connecting, encouraging each other and sharing ideas and experiences. There are a few basic logistics that will affect the efficiency of a community of practice.  On the surface, logistics impact ease and comfort of a meeting but in a deeper sense, impact the ability for members to connect and share information. A basic logistics checklist would include meeting announcements, facilities, and agenda.

Community of practice meeting agenda: (more…)

A community of interest needs a common focus!

A community of interest needs a common focus!

All community of practices (COP) are not successful or at least don’t stay successful.  While there can many issues that cause a COP to fail, there are three very typical problems that kill off COPs.

  1. Poor leadership – All groups have a leader that exerts influence on the direction of the group. The best COP leaders I have observed (best being defined in terms of the health of the COP) are servant leaders.  In a community of practice, the servant leader will work to empower and serve the community. Empowerment of the COP is reflected by the removing of impediments and coaching the team so it meets its goals of connection, encouragement and sharing.  In COPs with a poor leader the goals of the group generally shift towards control of the message or to the aggrandizement of specific group or person.  Earlier in my career I was involved with a local SPIN (software process improvement network) group that had existed for several years.  The SPIN group was a community of practice that drew members form 20 – 30 companies in my area. At one point a leader emerged whose goal was to generate sales leads for himself.  Membership fell precipitously before a new leader emerged and re-organized the remnants.
  2. Lack of a common interest – A group put together without a common interest reminds me of sitting in the back of station wagon with my four siblings on long Sunday drives in the country.  Not exactly pointless but to be avoided if possible.  A community of practice without a common area of interest isn’t a community of practice.
  3. Natural life cycle – Ideas and groups have a natural life cycle.  When a COP purpose passes or fades, the group should either be re-purposed or shutdown. As an example, the SPIN mentioned above reached its zenith during the heyday of the CMMI and faded as that framework became less popular. I have often observed that as a COP’s original purpose wanes the group seeks to preserve itself by finding a new purpose. Re-purposing often fails because the passion the group had for the original concept does not transfer.  Re-purposing works best when the ideas being pursued are a natural evolutionary path.  I recently observed a Scrum Master COP that was in transition. Scrum was institutionalized within the organization and there was a general feeling that the group had run its course unless something was done to energize the group. The group decided to begin exploring Scaled Agile Framework as a potential extension of their common interest in Agile project and program management.

In general, a community of practice is not an institution that lasts forever. Idea and groups follow a natural life cycle.  COPs generally hit their zenith when members finally get the most benefit from sharing and connecting.  The amount of benefit that a member of the community perceives they get from participation is related to the passion they have for the group. As ideas and concepts become mainstream or begin to fade, the need for a COP can also fade. As passion around the idea fades, leaders can emerge that have other motives than serving the community which hastens the breakdown of the COP. When the need to a COP begins to fade, generally it is time to disband or re-purpose the COP.

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. (more…)

A Community of Practice must has a have a common interest.

A Community of Practice must has a have a common interest.

I am often asked to describe a community practice.  We defined a community of practice (COP) as a group of people with a common area of interest to sharing knowledge. The interaction and sharing of knowledge serves to generate relationships that reinforce a sense of community and support.

An example of a recently formed COP:

Organizational context:  The organization is a large multinational organization with four large development centers (US, Canada, India and China). Software development projects (includes development, enhancements and maintenance) leverage a mix of Scrum/xP and classic plan based methods.  Each location has an internal project management group that meets monthly and is sponsored by the company.  This group is called the Project Manager COP (PMCOP).  The PMCOP primarily meets at lunchtimes at the each of the corporate locations with quarterly events early in the afternoon (Eastern time zone in Canada). Attendance is mandatory and active involvement in the PMCOP is perceived to be a career enhancement. Senior management viewed the PMCOP as extremely successful while many participants viewed it as little more than a free lunch.

Agile COP: The organization recently had adopted Agile as an approved development and software project management approach.  A large number of Scrum masters were appointed.  Some were certified, some had experience in previous organizations and some had “read the book” (their description). The organization quickly recognized that the consistency of practice was needed and implemented a package of coaching (mostly internal), auditing and started a COP with the similar attributes as the PMCOP. Differences implementation included more localization and self-organization.  Each location met separately and developed its own list of topics (this allowed each group to be more culturally sensitive) and each location rotated the meeting chair on a 3 month basis.  Participation was still mandatory (attendance was taken and shared with senior management).

In both cases the COP included a wide range of programming including outside presenters (live and webinar), retrospective like sessions and practitioner sharing.

In order to determine whether a COP is positioned to be effective, we can use the four attributes from Communities of Practice to evaluate the programs.  If we use the framework to evaluate the two examples in our mini-case study the results would show:

 

PMCOP Agile COP
Common area of interest Yes, project management is a specific area of interest. Yes – ish, The COP is currently focused on Scrum masters; however, Agile can include a very broad range of practices therefore other areas of focus may need to be broken up.
Process Yes, the PMCOP has a set of procedures for membership, attendance and logistics The Agile COP adopted most the PMCOP processes (the rules for who chairs the meeting and local topics were modified).
Support Yes, the organization provided space, budget for lunch and other incidentals. Yes, the organization provided space, budget for lunch and other incidentals. 
Note in both the Agile and PMCOP the requirement to participate was considered support by the management team but not by the practitioners.
Interest The requirement to participate makes interest hard to measure from mere attendance.  We surveyed the members which lead to changes in programming to increase perceived value. The Agile COP had not been in place long enough to judge long-term interest; however, the results from the PMCOP was used to push for more local, culturally sensitive programming.

 

Using the four common attributes needed for an effective community of practice is a good first step to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a planned-to-be-implemented community of practice.

Communities are all differnt

Communities are all different

Organizations are increasingly becoming more diverse and distributed while at the same time pursuing mechanisms to increase collaboration between groups and consistency of knowledge and practice. A community of practice (COP) is often used as a tool to share knowledge and improve performance. Etienne Wenger-Trayner suggests that a community of practice is formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor. There are four common requirements for a community of practice to exist:

  1. Common Area of Interest – The first required attribute for any potential community of interest must have is a common area of interest among a group of people. The area needs to be specific and an area where knowledge is not viewed as proprietary but can be generated, shared and owned by the community as a whole. When knowledge is perceived to be propriety it will not be shared.
  2. Process – The second must have attribute a community of practice needs is set of defined processes. Processes that are generally required include mechanisms to attract legitimate participants and the capture and dissemination of community knowledge.  The existence processes differentiate COPs from ad-hoc meetings.
  3. Support – There is a tendency within many organizations to either think of COPs as socially driven by users and self-managing or as tools to control, to collect and disseminate knowledge within the organization. In their purist form, neither case is perfect (we will explore why in a later essay) but in either case, somebody needs to take responsibility for the COP. The role is typically known as the community manager. The role of the community manager can include finding logistics support, budget, identifying speakers, capturing knowledge and ensuring the group gets together.
  4. Interest – Perhaps the single most important attribute required for any COP to exist is an interest in interacting and sharing. Unless participants are interested (passionate is even better) in the topic(s) that the community pursues they will not participate.

A community of practice tool promotes collaboration and consistency of practice even in organizations that are becoming more distributed and diverse. Communities of practice provide a platform for people with similar interests to build on individual knowledge to create group knowledge which helps organizations deliver more value.

Ready to go learn from the other members of his community of practice.

Ready to go learn from the other members of his community of practice.

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people bound by a shared interest, purpose, hobby or job who interact regularly.  A common attribute of the participants in healthy community of practices, personal or professional, is a passion for communities central theme.  CoPs have three primary characteristics:

  1. Domain – A CoP has a shared domain of interest.  Examples of domains might be project management, Scrum Masters, Ruby programmers, testers or business analysts to name a few. Membership represents a commitment to the domain and a level of shared competence. Members value their competence and learn from each other.
  2. Community – Members do not necessarily interact on a daily basis, however when they do engage in joint activities and discussions, they share and learn. The community is created through these shared experiences.
  3. Practice – A CoP provides shared resources, experiences, tools and stories that support a shared purpose for practitioners. The interactions and conversations generate a shared base of knowledge.

Translating the characteristics into an operational definition: a CoP is a group of people who interact based on a shared domain in which they are practitioners in order to provide each other with support and shared knowledge.

Healthy CoPs provide a platform for people with the same passions to interact, share and learn.  Think about the potential value of a CoP early in the adoption of test driven development within an organization.  Practitioners could gather periodically to share issues and fears they are having while learning how other practitioners have dealt with similar issues.  Practitioners derive value from CoPs that provides a platform where all participants can learn and grow.

When CoPs are unhealthy or ill-conceived they will not deliver value.  Markers of a troubled CoP include low attendance of events and executive edicts requiring participation.  There are generally two problems that trouble CoPs.  The first problem is a failure for the community to deliver value to the practitioners.  In this scenario the community fails to foster communication, collaboration or data for practitioners to learn from.  If practitioners do not get value from the time they spend interacting together they will stop. I once was asked to comment on why a CoP I had been observing was having attendance problems after watching the six people attending the “meeting” spend 90 minutes texting rather than listening to a horrid speaker.  In this case the answer I gave was that boring content was certainly a contributing factor.  I suggested involving the membership in developing the program and finding speakers so that the practitioners would be able to help shape the content.  The second issue that kills CoPs is organizational politics.  In this scenario a leader attempts to use the community to further his or her career at the expense of the community (or at least while ignoring the community). Very few people are interested in being a pawn in another’s career machinations and will seek to avoid participation.  Depoliticizing CoPs is difficult and requires a strong leader that is more interested in the practice than the corporate ladder to displace the more political leaders. In either case when participation begins to fail the value of the CoP will begin to fail.

Communities of practice provide practitioners with a platform to safely support each other, collaborate and learn.  Why are should we have a CoP?  A healthy CoP will deliver value both to the practitioners and the organizations that the practitioners represent.