Are we there yet?

are we there yet

“Are we there yet?” Image from Shrek 2, by Dreamworks

Six months since we launched our Community of Practice and there is a sense of movement and progress. But if my objective is for it to be a self-sustaining buzzing network of ideas and initiatives, we are probably still a long way from that. The energy mainly comes from me in the centre.

But what is good practice? And how do you design for success? When I took the decision to ‘establish’ this CoP, I decided also that I should design and nurture it based on other people’s research and findings rather than just making it up. I work, after all, in a place where we want other people to use the research we produce; it would seem odd not to use the research done by others.

There is a lot of literature out there on Communities of Practice. Much of it is descriptive and analytical. But I was looking for something more pragmatic so I particularly favoured research with helpful-sounding titles like:

  • Knowing in Community: 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Communities of Practice*
  • Why Communities of Practice Succeed and Why They Fail**
  • Building Spontaneity into Strategic Communities: Eight tips to put excitement into management-created CoPs***

In this last paper, from the KM Review (2003), Richard McDermott comes up with the following eight guidelines:

  1. Focus on an important long-term purpose.
  2. Design for evolution.
  3. Design for citizen leadership.
  4. Create familiar and exciting community places
  5. Establish a heartbeat
  6. Build personal relationships
  7. Design for multiple levels of participation
  8. Actively discover value

All very well. But it is one thing to read it in a paper, another to actually do stuff with an intent to design a successful, thriving community. So let’s have a look if I have managed to work some of these design principles into what we are doing. Let’s see what it actually means in day-to-day work stuff.

1. Focus on an important long-term purpose.

This is something that other researchers have found too. The purpose of the community has to be mission-critical. Since our community is about developing the organization’s capability for gender-responsive and socially inclusive research, this is important and long term and mission-critical. That’s a good start.

2. Design for evolution

Um… maybe we’re doing this or maybe not. To be frank I am not sure what it means… McDermott says this:

Design should catalyze communities to grow through the natural stages of evolution. Rather than introducing community tools all at once, with Web sites, portals, e-mails, etc. One leader started with weekly meetings, and once people were engaged in the topic and had begun to build relationships, the leader introduced other elements of community structure; a Web site, links to other communities, projects to define key practices, etc. Community design is much more like life-long learning than traditional organizational design.

I haven’t a clue if we are doing that. We certainly don’t have a website yet, though we really would like one. So I guess we are evolving a bit.

3. Design for citizen leadership

This is about having “many small leadership roles” and is something I really would like to happen, as any community that doesn’t have distributed leadership or shared ownership is obviously going to be vulnerable if key people leave or take time out. I think citizen leadership is growing. We certainly have subject matter experts who are leading on gender-responsive research. We also have experts in things like Communications and Knowledge Management who make invaluable contributions. I am trying to open spaces so that community members know that they can freely to lead on whatever their expertise or interest is, but I fear that people believe they need to go through me as the person who facilitates the group. I love this sentiment:

Community members need to feel a sense of ownership. Since community members offer their personal knowledge, participation is always a gift, not to the organization, but to other community members. To feel the community is worthy of the gift, community members need to feel it responds to their needs and shifts in directions they choose.

4. Create familiar and exciting community places

Familiar places for strategic communities are typically meetings, teleconferences and Web sites.

Yup. Got that covered. Well the first half anyway. We have familiar places. Interesting too that McDermott says that it has to be a safe and inviting place so that participants can swap ideas and reflect outside their day-to-day practice.

But what about exciting places? These are like when you invite external people to provide a bit of challenge or when you take part in “conferences, fairs, and workshops [which] focus the attention of the community outside its familiar circle, facilitating different lines of contact between people.” Something for next year perhaps?

5. Establish a heartbeat

I’ve been working very hard on this one, trying to make our Community meetings a regular monthly event that people expect and look forward to. It takes one helluva lot more time than I would imagined, Doodling a day and a time, choosing an agenda, organizing if someone will speak. One challenge for the heartbeat is how to establish it for people in both East and West at once. But I think we are establishing a heartbeat.

6. Create a web of relationships

McDermott tells me that I need to ‘walk the halls’. Easier said than done in a global organization in umpteen countries. What I have been doing to ‘walk the halls’ is organize individual Skype calls with every single Community member to see what they work on and what their interest in the Community is. It is a huge investment of time, but I am finding it extremely valuable. First, because I can see a pretty clear pattern of why people signed up to this Community — 99% want to improve their research practice. Second, because it is a way to know who is in the community and why and build trust and individual relationships. Third, because I can see connections between people and put them in contact with each other. And finally, because it is a rich source of topics for our monthly meetings. One conversation was catalyst for an informal presentation and discussion on preliminary data on gender-differentiated agricultural biodiversity assessments in villages in Mali. Next up I’m hoping for another informal presentation, this time on using participatory mapping of landscapes with a gender lens in Zambia.

It’s still all a bit through me though. But the more we meet in our monthly meetings, the more we will develop intimacy and trust.

7. Design for different levels of participation

I think this one is so important. We have in our Community different people with different skills, interests and needs, at different moments of their gender-responsive-research journey, and with different competing commitments in any given moment. After six months you can already see that there is a core group of people with more expertise, other people ebb and flow, more active in one moment, and then dormant again. And that is OK. In the individual conversations that I mentioned above, just about everyone I have spoken to has apologized for not participating more. But we have to recognize that there will always be people who are legitimate inhabitors of the periphery. Some because they are new to the subject and at the start of an inward trajectory, some because they are interested in reading and learning, but not really actively engaged, others because they are providing an important bridging function. I am thrilled that a member of HR is in the CoP. She listens and uses the information to make recommendations for more gender-and-diversity-responsive HR practices, but won’t likely be part of our discussions on research practice. People’s participation can change too. It is fine if someone has an active period and then cools off for a while and then comes back.

8. Design for member value

I have been asking members one by one what value they expect from the CoP. Since participation is optional — any staff member could sign up — I am presuming that all those have signed up have done so expecting to reap some benefit from the CoP, so I am trying to get a handle on what that is. I have been playing with the idea also of doing what McDermott suggests: making “a brief discussion of value a regular part of its monthly teleconferences.”But so far, given the little time we have together and the fact that I am asking that question already in the conversations, I haven’t actually put it on the agenda. Maybe after a year? There may well be a difference between what people are telling me they hope to get from the CoP, and what they find they actually get.


*McDermott, Richard. 2000. “Knowing in Community: 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Communities of Practice.” IHRIM Journal, no. March: 19–26.

**Probst, Gilbert, and Stefano Borzillo. 2008. “ScienceDirect – European Management Journal : Why Communities of Practice Succeed and Why They Fail.” European Management Journal 26: 335–47.

***McDermott, Richard. 2003. “Building Spontaneity into Strategic Communities: Eight Tips to Put Excitement into Management-Created CoPs.” KM Review 5 (6): 28–31.


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