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.

For C-level managerial advice, from HR best practices to leadership tips, subscribe to TechRepublic’s free CIO Issues newsletter. Automatically sign up today!