CXO

Communities of Practice: Continuing the learning

Communities of Practice (CoP) are groups of people who are brought together by a desire to learn more about a common class of problems, opportunities, and their possible solutions. Find out how you can benefit from one of these groups.

By: John Moran and Lee Weimer, Community of Practice Facilitators in conjunction with the Enterprise Computing Institute

Communities of Practice (CoP) are groups of people who are brought together by a desire to learn more about a common class of problems, opportunities, and their possible solutions. These groups let their members accelerate business results and add value by collaborating. Everyone learns from one another and from outside resources.

Members find themselves drawn to one another by a force that is both professional and social. Both of these aspects are

The keys to the success of a CoP are both professional and social. The idea of "professional practice" is critical, because the group's members concentrate on the learning that emerges through "real work" within their organizations. Learning is also social, since the CoP is based on familiarity and reciprocal trust. CoPs assist both in finding and sharing best practices and in building social capital across organizations.

How can a CoP impact business results? Knowledge management practitioners have recently been investigating the importance of less structured, or tacit, knowledge as well as the role played by social networks in innovation and knowledge creation. CoPs are seen by many as providing an environment in which this tacit knowledge can be developed, nurtured, and sustained.

CoPs can exist within a single organization or within a single discipline and can span several organizations. A single idea generated from interaction within a CoP might result in a whole new product line, or in saving millions of dollars through shorter implementation of a major IT project, or in better hiring practices. For example, the Silicon Valley CIO Community of Practice (CIO-CoP) has begun the process of defining best practices for contract terms for purchasing software that will directly benefit both buyers and sellers.

So, what does one look like, and how does it operate? As examples, we describe two different IT-focused CoPs that we currently facilitate. (For more information about joining any of these CoPs, e-mail John Moran at John_moran@global-gateways.com.)

THE CIO CoP

This CIO CoP was organized late in 1997 as a fee-facilitated community of CIOs. Its first formal meeting was held in February 1998. This CoP is unusual because the members were CIOs from several different companies who wanted to set their own goals and choose the topics that interested them. The participants set their own ground rules and decided who could participate and when they would meet. The topics they wanted to cover would encompass all of a CIO's roles and responsibilities, including:

  • People: Coaching and developing the capacity of the IT staff and creating a vivid picture of an ambitious future for the IT organization. Building partnerships with executive management and internal or external customers provides the IT organization with recognition as a proactive contributor to business development.
  • Technology: Selecting and utilizing appropriate technologies to keep the organization connected to its stakeholders and to directly benefit the overall business enterprise.
  • Processes: Building effective and efficient processes that deliver information to the business enterprise and facilitate its use for strategic and tactical advantage.
  • Metrics: Setting the criteria and measuring progress to tell us how we'll know we've been successful.

Over the last few years, the CIO CoP has grown and changed significantly. There are now CIOs from over 20 companies participating; the meetings are one-half day each month and are hosted by a member company. Almost all of our meetings include at least two "expert presenters" who interactively lead the community members in topic discussions. Following this session is another important part of each meeting: a dinner that supports both professional and social interaction. We provide a summary of each meeting with the accompanying presentation material, forming a reference library for the CoP members. In addition to regular meetings, the members have collaborated in writing a book titled CIO Wisdom published by Prentice Hall.

The Silicon Valley Applications/Operations CoP

The A/O CoP started in mid-2001 and is structured much like the CIO CoP. The members include up to two director-level IT people from each company. They meet for a half day plus dinner every other month. The members of this CoP are slowly building the level of trust and familiarity required to begin innovative knowledge sharing. One example of this was a meeting set up by one of the members to learn more from Cisco Systems about the role of IT in mergers and acquisitions. Although this wasn't an official CoP event, the organizer felt secure enough in the CoP members that all were invited to participate in the meeting.

CoPs provide value-added benefits. Our experiences with the Silicon Valley CoPs and discussions with members and presenters have provided insight into the value that the different groups have received from their participation in our CoPs. Here is a summary of those benefits:

Benefits for members

  • Open, interactive discussion. The Silicon Valley CIO CoP and the A/O CoP settings are business casual, and membership is limited (usually under 25) to facilitate ease of interaction and help build close relationships. The meetings are based on a dialogue model, with discussion of a single IT-common topic and an emphasis on interactive questioning and listening as opposed to debate. Since the objective of the CoP is to facilitate growth and learning, there is less need to be right than there is to be open. This does not mean all of the members always agree with one another or with the presenters! There is plenty of convincing attempted among various members, among members and presenters, and among the presenters themselves. But, however spirited the exchanges may get, they are always good-natured.
  • Trusted network. Close relationships are critically important to the ongoing success of a CoP for both members and facilitators. People are more likely to trust the experiences of those they have come to know over time and with whom they have also shared experiences. The dinner portion of our meetings provides participants with the opportunity to become storytellers, assume roles other than CIO or director, and eventually become friends.
  • Learning opportunities. By sharing best practices and the experiences others, members are exposed to a range of new and known products, solutions, and services. They may obtain professional opportunities for themselves or their companies, recognition from their peers, or leads for their next new hire (though active recruitment is not encouraged!). The members invariably expand their professional circles, grow, learn, and have fun!
  • Ongoing communication and reference. Outside of monthly meetings, all communication between members, facilitators, and presenters occurs through e-mail, telephone, or an online forum provided by a sponsoring organization. Responsive communications, quality of speakers and facilitation, and attention to detail all contribute to a complete CoP service.

Benefits for presenters

  • Target audience. Representatives of companies that have something to offer an IT organization are provided with a rare experience: an opportunity to sit down with members of their top target audience in an informal setting. They must demonstrate their knowledge of the CIOs' problem areas and how their companies and products might help to solve those problems. This is no "hard sell" environment, but an opportunity to demonstrate competence. Through the product or problem knowledge displayed, a vendor can create a relationship with members that the members will want to follow-up.
  • Learning and business intelligence. Presenters often have an opportunity to learn about competitors' products and services, business areas they are unfamiliar with, and opportunities for their own CIOs or directors.

The Enterprise Computing Institute helps IT professionals solve problems and simplify the management of IT through consulting and training based on the best-selling Enterprise Computing Institute book series.

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