Communities of Practice: The Hare within the Tortoise

CoP Image“Though this be madness, there is method in it” William Shakesphere

The Chief Executive’s level of frustration about the current problems in the Department was almost unbearable:

“After 20 years in government, I simply cannot believe the lack of progress of my senior leaders in implementing these reforms! If they don’t start thinking and acting strategically the entire department may fail! Why do such bright and capable people lack the drive and initiative right when we need it most?”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard such statements – many senior government executives feel frustrated about the lack of innovation, strategic thinking and action among their peers and subordinates.

They mistakenly think the problem is capability and send their leaders to countless courses on strategic thinking, planning and innovation. But the problem is not caused by a lack of capability but rather a lack of empowerment.

The system of public sector bureaucracy often disables and disempowers leaders, blocking innovation and strategic thinking. Hierarchical structures and internal politics lead to a culture where risk taking is punished, allies are few and far between and blame reigns supreme in the wake of political risk. It is no wonder, when it comes to change and reform that most large organisations behave like a slow moving Tortoise instead of embracing the speed of the Hare.

Whilst in Aesop’s fable, ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’, the Tortoise eventually wins, in real-life, our slow moving bureaucracies need to discover and empower the Hares to increase the speed of adjustment to change and innovate rather than create cultures where only the Tortoises survive.

So how do we change these organisations towards fostering empowered, innovative and strategic cultures whilst still respecting the existing hierarchies, politics and agendas outside our control?

The answer lies within the Community of Practice – a framework which helps us discover and empower the Hares that live within the Tortoise and unleash new levels of capability, agility and innovation!

Communities of Practice in the Public Sector: The Missing Link

Communities of Practice are vital to strong performance in the changing public sector, but they require a collaborative framework and rigorous evaluation in order to deliver effective results.

The Community of Practice (CoP) framework is a leading innovative model for developing professional networks in the public and private sector. Professional networks are a long established vehicle to promote information sharing, knowledge management, and relationship building to improve consistency of practice within disciplines at both inter- and intra-departmental levels.

Professional networks have become an increasingly important link to effective governance, knowledge management, and organisational performance within disciplines – where many practitioners have direct line reporting to traditional management structures.

The CoP concept has been readily adopted in the private sector because of the recognition that knowledge is a critical asset that needs to be managed strategically. Trial and error has proven that this is best done within a social structure enabling people to learn with and from each other. The formal hierarchies of the public sector present special challenges to the successful adoption of CoPs.

The public sector across both State and Federal Governments in Australia has experienced a high rate of reform and restructure in recent times, including the establishment of super departments, and further planned changes to governance structures and delegations from central to decentralised models.

Increasing numbers of professional disciplines rely on informal or dotted-line structures to manage the compliance and development objectives of their discipline within their local context, while adhering to the greater whole-of-organisation imperatives.

This leads to an even more critical reliance on CoPs, with two key issues requiring urgent attention:

  1. Implementation of best practice CoP models and refinement to maximize organisational outcomes; and
  2. Evaluation and measurement of the performance of CoPs in meeting both professional discipline and organisational needs.

The Community of Practice model has undergone a number of evolutions over recent years, but three defining elements are well established:

1. Domain – A CoP is not just a group of friends or connections, it is defined by a shared domain of interest;
2. Community – Members of a CoP build relationships that enable them to share information and learn from each other;
3. Practice – Members of a CoP don’t just share an interest, they share a practice, with a shared repertoire of resources.

The application of these three defining CoP elements, in the context of organisational priorities and resources, shapes the flow of work group activity and cycle of meetings, forums and communication which optimise CoP dynamics.

It is increasingly vital to understand the dynamic modelling of how CoPs actually survive and thrive within organisations, in order to prevent such CoPs from failing to deliver. The following is a suggested dynamic model for a successful CoP consisting of four elements:

1. Organisational Embeddedness: the extent to which the knowledge shared in the network is relevant for, and integrated in, the formal organisation;
2. Embeddedness in Practice: the extent to which the knowledge shared in the network is relevant for, and integrated in, the dispersed local practices of network members;
3. Relational Embeddedness: the extent to which the network is characterised by strong social ties and elements such as trust, mutual expectations and identification;
4. Structural Embeddedness: the extent to which network members are connected to one another and know who knows what and how to reach them.

The Missing Link: Knowledge Sharing vs Collaborative Programs of Work

Central to the dynamic model above is the activity of ‘knowledge sharing’, based on the assumption that when the other four elements are working well, knowledge sharing will result. However, from our experience, it is rare for all four elements to be embedded effectively at any given time. We have found the central point to be ‘Collaborative Programs of Work’ as a guiding central activity. This by default encourages knowledge sharing and also acts as a counterbalance to any of the four elements, which may be misaligned due to organisational pressures.

Issues Identification

Collaborative Programs of Work are best developed by the CoP based on issues identified through author of Good to Great, Jim Collins’ ‘Hedgehog Process’. In this process, CoP members identify key issues through the interconnection of three questions:

  1. What are we collectively passionate about?
  2. What are we the best-practice voice in our organisation for?
  3. What drives our organisation’s resource engine?

From Issues to Action

A SWOT analysis of each issue using the four CoP dynamic factors to refine the establishment and planning of the top priority issues for the CoP Collaborative Program of Work is undertaken. These issues are developed into action plans within subgroups.

They can draw on the support of the wider group at regular forums as well as progress knowledge sharing, organisational improvement and best practice initiatives in a flexible and dynamic manner.

The importance of a central Collaborative Program of Work cannot be overestimated. It is both a stabilising force where the organisational dynamics fluctuate and a central and connected reference point for engagement on ‘hot issues’ for the CoP at the relational, structural and best practice levels.

Collaborative Programs of Work & CoP Resiliency

From our experience, CoPs which have very strong Collaborative Programs of Work based on the issues relevant to the Hedgehog Process have much better performance in terms of team achievement, team dynamics, and whole of organisation improvement. CoPs that are focused on knowledge sharing without a strong Collaborative Program of Work focus are vulnerable to poor performance during times of organisational change.

CoP Evaluation: Measuring The Value

Given the political landscape many CoPs operate in, evaluation methodologies are a vital part of ensuring the effectiveness and value of investment. Evaluation has tended to receive limited focus – a mistake given the importance of the CoP in terms of management resourcing, funding and support, and the critical nature of the CoP as a peak body to ensure effective governance, knowledge management, and organisational performance within discipline.

Based on our work in the public sector we have identified the following three areas for evaluation:

1. CoP Forum Effectiveness (Team Dynamics and Team Achievement)

Team Dynamics – Measuring team dynamics and behaviour within CoP forums provides an important indicator regarding the level at which relationships are embedded and functioning well within the CoP. Key factors in determining effectiveness of professional meetings include:

1. Openness and trust – sharing difficult information and engaging in spirited debate;
2. Balanced debate – characterised by respect for dissenters and probing of silent participants;
3. Competency over role or position – to ensure expertise is brought to the debate/decision;
4. Issues over personalities – the discussion is not overtaken by personalities associated with issues;
5. Accountable actions and clear outcomes – for each group member, including key due dates for measurable deliverables.

We appoint a ‘moderator’ from the group (a rotating position) to collect this information in scorecard format as well as using ‘red and yellow cards’ to note any significant interpersonal issues that may emerge.

Team Achievement – Another important aspect to measuring CoP forum effectiveness is to get the CoP members to measure the group’s achievement of agenda items. They assess whether the group is focused and progressing CoP issues and completing goals and milestones. This is done though a self-rating scale per item at the conclusion of each forum.

2. CoP – Whole-of-Organisation Improvement

We recommend evaluating the CoP’s whole-of-organisation improvement via regular CoP self-assessment of collaborative working group achievements against action plans and survey feedback from organisational stakeholders. Our experience using this group-based evaluation of CoP organisational improvement indicates that CoPs may initially overestimate (compared to feedback from stakeholders) their contribution during the establishment phase, yet comparatively under-rate their contribution as the CoP matures.

This pattern suggests a ‘sleeper effect’ in terms of stakeholder perceptions of value, and underscores the importance of both stakeholder engagement and sufficient resourcing and organisational sponsorship over time.

3. CoP – Best Practice Development

A simple way to review Best Practice Development in CoPs is to review the number (percentage) of agenda items and projects that addressed best practice issues according to the CoP meeting schedule.

Best practice criteria are drawn from professional literature on standards, guidelines and innovation relevant to the CoP and its key issues. From our experience there is a marked upswing to best practice in CoP agendas after the CoP has completed the establishment phase – during which time the agenda may be dominated by more operational issues.

Communities of Practice: Unleash the Hares In Your Organisation

Many of us can see the problems that are created within a large organisation that may need to rapidly respond to change when innovation is stifled and there is an absence of strategic action. We can also intuitively understand how the barriers of bureaucracy, hierarchy, risk aversion and blame lead to an ever slower moving Tortoise despite the urgent need (that sometimes borders on desperation) of the most senior executives to empower their own leaders to unleash much needed innovation and strategy to respond to the challenges.

Through Communities of Practice we can foster empowered, innovative and strategic cultures whilst still respecting the existing hierarchies, politics and agendas that are outside our control.

Is it time for your organisation to embrace the importance of building sustainable Communities of Practice (as opposed to evermore training on strategy and innovation) and unleash the Hares within the Tortoise to discover new levels of organisational agility and effectiveness?

Ride The Waves of Life!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer