Tag Archives: E20

A Community of Practice Is More Than a Website

A community of practice (CoP) is, according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, a group of people who share an interest, a craft, and/or a profession.

Over the last year or so, the term communities of practice has entered the social media buzzword lexicon along with virtual collaboration, engagement, platforms, and Enterprise 2.0. Senior leaders want to establish them, new employees are being told to join them, and middle managers are being told to support them, but what, exactly are they?

Nowhere in the definition above does it mention the words website, wiki, blog, or social network. Nowhere does it say that it has to be virtual or physical or even either/or. There is no reference to the tools that are used to facilitate the communication and collaboration, nor is there a defined set of characteristics that define how a community of practice works or what topics they discuss.

A group of people who share an interest, a craft and/or a profession. Sounds pretty simple, right? Sounds like we might already be members of dozens of communities of practice – at work, at church, at school, etc. It’s just a group of people communicating and collaborating openly around a topic that they all care about. CoPs have existed for as long as people have had a desire to learn from each other.

Whether your organization knows it or not, your company/government agency is already filled with CoPs. Just because all of their communication and collaboration doesn’t happen to occur on your designated SharePoint site doesn’t mean that people aren’t already communicating and collaborating around a shared topic of interest. Whether it’s the group of new hires who coordinate the monthly happy hours or the new parents who get together over lunch to discuss work/life balance, communities of practice are alive and well within most organizations. They just might not be the ones with a unique URL on the Intranet.

Are you creating a community of practice or are you just creating another website? How does your CoP stack up to some of these statements?

  • People voluntarily spend time helping others in a community of practice. People visit a website to download what they need.
  • CoPs focus on adding value to their members. Websites focus on getting new users.
  • The success of a CoP is measured in anecdotes, efficiencies, and employee satisfaction. The success of a website is measured by hits, visits, and referrals.
  • The members of a CoP volunteer their expertise to create new tech features. A website has paid developers who add new features.
  • A CoP is built around conversation. A website is built around content.

Communities of practice have been around for decades, and for decades, they’ve helped countless organizations navigate major changes, increase productivity, cut duplication, and make work more enjoyable. In many cases, the use of social media has enhanced these CoPs by providing more tools and opportunities for people to connect with other people. Unfortunately, social media has also given rise to zombie communities filled with content on blogs, forums, and wikis, but which lack any actual human interaction. What are you building?

For more about Communities of Practice, check out Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, 2002 by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder.

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Enterprise 2.0 Success is About the Players, Not the Field

Watch your local Pee-wee football team’s practice sometime and you’ll see a lot of dropped passes, missed tackles, and a whole host of other mistakes. But…what would happen if you put that team on Heinz Field and gave them all the same amenities as the Pittsburgh Steelers? Yep, they still wouldn’t be able to complete a pass, kick a field goal or break a James Harrison tackle. Clearly, just because they were put on a better field and given the latest equipment doesn’t mean they will suddenly learn to play football.

Southern Tier Youth Football Conference, NY - Newark Valley @ Maine Endwell Gold

It doesn't matter what kind of equipment you give them, these players aren't going to win the Super Bowl

Similarly, simply adding the latest Enterprise 2.0 platform behind your firewall doesn’t mean your employees will suddenly learn to collaborate with one another. Collaboration doesn’t just magically happen because you went out and bought the latest Enterprise 2.0 or Social Business software. It happens because they have a reason to collaborate. It happens when they are rewarded for sharing information. It happens when they like working with the people around them.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen dozens of failed wikis, blogs, microblog platforms, forums, and idea management deployments, and I’m sure I’ll see many more. This is frustrating on a couple of different levels for me. First, since I suffer from HOLI (“Hatred of Losing Information“), I hate seeing the missed collaboration opportunities that result from these poorly implemented solutions. Secondly, I know that because of these failures, these organizations will most likely write off social media behind the firewall as some sort of snake oil.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of all of these failures is the reliability with which their failure can be predicted. If you’re implementing some sort of social media behind your organizational firewall, and you’re doing any of the following, I can tell you right now that you probably won’t be successful:

  • The same IT department who installed your email system, your ERP system, or your databases is responsible for leading the implementation of your wiki, blog, microblogging platform, etc.
  • You don’t have anyone talking about user adoption and community management on the team from the very start
  • You don’t have a plan for funding this initiative beyond this year
  • You’re measuring success by the number of “users” you can claim
  • You’re talking about giving away iPads and candy bars to get people to use it
  • There are numerous conversations among senior leadership about how to mitigate the risks of your employees using the tools “as a dating service,” to “goof around,” to complain about everything, or editing things they don’t know anything about.
  • You’re more concerned with the available features instead of making it fast, reliable, and accessible
  • The team responsible for the platform doesn’t even use it

Instead of trying to give the players the latest and greatest stadium and equipment, start focusing on improving their passing and tackling skills. Maybe you could have them run some pass patterns instead of installing a state-of-the art locker room?

  • Do my employees have a reason to collaborate with people outside of their immediate team?
  • Is collaborative behavior rewarded during the performance assessment process? Are they punished for hoarding information?
  • Does leadership model collaborative behavior?
  • Are colleagues encouraged to spend time with each other outside of work hours (softball teams, happy hours, etc.)?
  • Are there multiple levels of approvals needed before anyone can share anything?
  • Do your employees trust each other? Do they trust management?

If you’re interested in learning more about why your Enterprise 2.0 implementations are failing and what you can do to help them succeed, take a look at the webinar that I just did for UBM TechWeb.  The “It’s Not the Field, It’s the Players” webinar will be archived here, and the slides are now available below. 

[UPDATED TO INCLUDE THE PRESENTATION BELOW]

[slideshare id=9663453&doc=e20webinar-draftfinalslideshare-111012142902-phpapp02]

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Competing on the Field But Cooperating in the Office

It’s not difficult to find examples of sports teams using social media. From the player (Gilbert Arenas’ landmark blogging in 2006) to the team (the Red Sox using Twitter to give away free tickets during a rain delay) to the league (the NHL’s tweetups), social media has gone from being an innovative marketing tactic to a must-have component of any marketing strategy. League and individual team marketing functions are hard at work thinking up all kinds of new ways to use social media to increase fan loyalty, buy tickets, buy merchandise, and watch/listen to the games via myriad devices. Here’s the rub – in any one league, this brainstorming is happening, sometimes 30 times over, in the league office and in each of the team’s front offices because there’s no single platform where team and league staff are sharing this information.

Enterprise 2.0 conference, Jun 2009 - 26

There are plenty of case studies of sports leagues and teams using social media for marketing purposes - where are the examples of using social media to improve league and team collaboration?

Disappointingly, a search for examples where teams, leagues, or college conferences are using social media to communicate and collaborate internally yields a much shorter, less relevant list. For all of the media attention that’s heaped on these leagues and teams for their use (or lack thereof) of social media to communicate with fans and the media, internal collaboration amongst league and team front office staff is still ruled by phone calls, shared drives, and emails. The personal relationships established among front office staff at games and league functions have become the de facto collaboration mechanism for the PR, customer service, ticket sales, media relations, broadcasting, and other front office staff. Despite all the gains in using social media for marketing, the sports industry, by and large, has failed to capitalize on the opportunities social media can bring them internally.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are actually a lot of similarities between the sports industry and the government when it comes to using social media. While the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all maintain fierce loyalty to their respective service branch, they also realize they are all ultimately fighting for the same cause, for the same team, and it’s up to the Department of Defense (DoD) to bring all of these individuals together under one mission.  Similarly, the Penguins, Flyers, Bruins and Capitals are rivals on the ice, yet they all realize that when push comes to shove, they all play in the same league and all need to work together to grow the game. Unfortunately, while the DoD is using wikis to conduct intelligence analysis and social networking to get new employees up to speed more quickly, professional sports leagues continue to rely on tools that are inaccessible, unsearchable, and unorganized to collaborate with one another. By relying on personal relationships instead of using open platforms that connect teams and leagues together, professional sports leagues are missing a golden opportunity to reduce duplication, cut costs, increase morale, and increase employee performance.

What if leagues and conferences were able to create a common platform where all of their teams could collaborate with one another, sharing best practices and lessons learned?
Wouldn’t that be better than relying on phone calls and emails to share this information?

What if each league had an idea generation platform a la Manor Labs where staff could submit ideas that would be discussed and voted upon by their colleagues across the league?
Wouldn’t that be better than sending around “what do you think of this?” emails?

What if each league had one shared platform accessible to all of the communications staff from each of the teams where things like marketing campaigns, communications templates, and results could be uploaded and shared?
Woudn’t that work better than digging through old emails and shared drive files?

What if the league stopped mandating policies and technical platforms on their teams and instead co-created these policies and collaborated on the best technical platforms?
Wouldn’t it be better to be seen as a partner instead of an adversary?

Competition on the field and collaboration in the office isn’t a new idea. This idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts has permeated the sports landscape this year. From revenue sharing across all teams in the NFL’s latest collective bargaining agreement (the teams that bring in more money share revenue with the small market clubs) to the new conference realignments happening in college (Florida and Georgia may be rivals, but you can bet their rooting for each other if they’re both playing teams from the Big Ten), leagues and teams have realized that a healthy league makes for healthy teams. It’s hard for the average fan to understand, but just because Terrell Suggs and Hines Ward may not be the best of friends doesn’t mean that the Steelers communications staff and Ravens communications staff are necessarily at each other throats too.

What if the sports leagues and teams took advantage of these Enterprise 2.0 technologies, learned from what’s been done in other similar organizations and used technology to enable this collaboration to take place not just at the collective bargaining level, but at the day-to-day level?

Perhaps the more important question is…what happens if they don’t?

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Mr. Popularity and Your Enterprise 2.0 Community

Let’s do an experiment. Take five minutes and do a quick search of your organization’s blogs, microblogs, wikis, and forums that are available behind your firewall – and then let me know what the most popular topics are. Do they involve “social media,” “Web 2.0,” “new media,” “mobile,” “enterprise 2.0,” or “collaboration?”

Now, take a look at who is posting and commenting on these topics. Are these the same people who also have the most overall comments, posts, edits, and connections? If so, Mr. Popularity may be taking over your community and the worst part of it all? He may actually think he’s helping you.

Starting and maintaining a vibrant online community behind an organizational firewall is already fraught with challenges – integrating it into the workflow, securing funding, scaling across the organization, developing policies and guidelines, creating rewards structures, identifying active champions – and now I’m here to tell you that those very active champions who are so critical to the early growth of your community may also be the cause of its downfall.

You see, while these active champions are responsible for seeding a majority of the content, answering questions, posting content, editing pages, and creating topics, they can also skew the content to suit their own agenda and create a chilling effect on opposing viewpoints and topics. This makes your communities far more social media and technology-oriented than your organization really is. In the early days of your online community, this may be of little concern to you – content is being created, new members are joining, and discussions are happening. This creates a vibrant community for those employees interested in social media and technology, but unfortunately, further dissuades those interested in other topics from joining. Mr. Popularity, once an ally, now becomes a challenge to be overcome.

I’ve actually experienced the pros and the cons of being Mr. Popularity on our  own hello.bah.com community a few years ago. I was one of the first community managers and was a very visible and active champion for the platform. I became known as the guy who could get conversations started, who could help increase traffic to a post, and who would be willing to give an opinion when no one else would. Our internal communications staff was even pitching me to get me to share official corporate messages because I had built up a decent sized following on my blog. This worked out great in the beginning – I was able to help drive some additional traffic to the platform, increase user adoption, and create a ton of new content that was shared across the firm. The double-edged sword of being Mr. Popularity hit me right in the face though when I got the following email (excerpted below):

“When I ducked into our VP’s blog, I noted you had already jumped in with what appears to be a standard, or getting there, pat on the back and tutorial…  Are you becoming too intrusive beyond cheerleading?  The speed at which you’ve already entered the room is giving me the thought that you are becoming Master Control from the movie Tron. I can’t recall reading anyone’s blog that I can’t remember seeing you there in the first couple of replies.  You write extensive replies very quickly that to me verge on being somewhat inhibiting for others, like me, to weigh in so as to not repeat a point.”

Wow! And here I thought I was being helpful! I thought by commenting on everything I could get to, I could help build and reinforce the collaborative culture we were trying to create. And at first, that’s exactly what I was doing. Little did I know that as the community grew beyond the early adopters, my hyper-activity that was a boon at the start was now becoming a detriment. Instead of a community manager, was I becoming a community bully?

To find out if your Mr. Popularity is negatively impacting your community, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does Mr. Popularity know that he/she is having a negative impact? These active champions probably don’t even know that they’re causing harm. Quite the contrary – they probably believe that they’re helping. Like the email I received above, reach out to them and have a discussion with them about their contributions and show them areas where instead of helping create conversation, they may have inadvertently stopped it.
  2. Who are your most active contributors beyond social media and technology? The best way to lessen the influence of Mr. Popularity is to identify people in other business areas who are willing and able to post and discuss content areas like HR, Legal, and Operations.
  3. What is your role in the community? Do a bit of self-reflection – maybe you are Mr. Popularity. Talk to your colleagues and find out what they really think of your online presence. Do you come across as overbearing? Too focused on one topic? Closed off to other opinions? Publicly, you may be receiving all kinds of positive reinforcement. But what are people saying among themselves that they aren’t sharing publicly?
  4. What other possible reasons exist for the gluttony of social media/tech-related topics? Are community members discouraged from discussing operations? Has the Director of HR banned his staff from participating? Having a few individuals who are hyper-active on your online community and skewing the conversations toward their interests is like having two good quarterbacks and not being able to decide which one to start. It’s usually a good problem to have, and despite some of the challenges identified in this post, they are still likely helping more than they’re hurting your community.

Mr. Popularity isn’t necessarily a detriment to your community. Quite the contrary – they’re likely some of your most valuable members. But, left unchecked, they do have the potential to take over the community – its members, its content, and its discussion. The key is in channeling their energy and enthusiasm and focus it on helping grow the community as a whole, to include topics other than social media and technology.

*This post originally appeared on my AIIM Enterprise 2.0 Community blog.

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