Communities of Practice – Planning For Success

Community ManagementMy experience of knowledge sharing in organisations stems mainly from my involvement in setting up Communities of Practice (CoPs) for UK local government. This was part of a broader Knowledge Management strategy that I was commissioned to deliver for the Improvement and Development Agency (now part of Local Government Agency -LGA). An online collaboration platform was launched in 2006 to support self-organising, virtual communities of local government and other public sector staff. The purpose was to improve public sector services by sharing knowledge and good practice.

Over the past 10 years, the community platform has grown to support over 1.500 CoPs, with more than 160,000 registered users.  This has led to many service improvement initiatives, from more efficient procurement and project planning to more effective inter-agency collaboration in delivering front-line services, such as health and social care. It has also provided some useful information on the dynamics of social collaboration and community management, e.g. the factors that influence the success of a community.

What does a successful CoP look like?

Success will of course depend on the purpose of the community. Some CoPs have been set up as networks for learning and sharing; others have a defined output, e.g. developing new practice for adult social care.  It is clearly more difficult to establish success criteria for a CoP dedicated to knowledge sharing than it is for – say – a CoP that has a tangible output. Success for the former will rely on more subjective analysis than for the latter, where there will probably be more tangible evidence of an output, e.g. a policy document or case study.

However, rather than argue and debate the criteria for assessing the “success” of a CoP (or other organizational learning system), I’d prefer to consider how we monitor and assess the “health” of a CoP. For this approach I think we have to consider the analogy of a CoP to a living and breathing organism.

A healthy CoP will show clear signs of life; this can be assessed using various quantitative indicators, such as:

  • Number of members
  • Rate of growth of the community
  • Number and frequency of documents uploaded.
  • Number and frequency of documents read or downloaded.
  • Number and frequency of new blog posts
  • Number and frequency of forum posts
  • Number and frequency of comments
  • Number of page views per session
  • Time spent on the CoP per browser session

…etc.

Not that any one of these indicators in isolation will indicate the good health of a CoP, but taken together they can give a general perspective of how vibrant and active the community is.

Continuing with the analogy of a living, breathing organism, different CoPs will have different metabolisms, some may be highly active; others may be fairly sedate. Understanding the community ‘rhythm’ is a key aspect of knowing when any intervention is required in order to maintain this rhythm.  Not all CoPs are going to be vibrant and active all of the time; there may be periods of relative inactivity as a natural part of the CoP lifecycle. But it’s important to know the difference between a CoP that is going through a regular period of inactivity and a CoP that is moribund.

A point to note: inactive CoPs may not necessarily be a cause for concern. One reason for inactivity could be that the CoP has served its purpose and its members have moved on. In which case the knowledge assets of the CoP need to be published and celebrated and the CoP either closed, or (with the agreement of the members) re-purposed to a new topic or outcome.

So, understanding the vital life-signs and metabolism of a CoP is a fundamental part of ensuring the continued good health of the CoP, and therefore more likely to achieve its goals.  And the key to the continued good health of a CoP is knowing how and when to intervene when one or more of the life-signs begins to falter.  Without wishing to labour my analogy of the living, breathing organism too much, it’s the equivalent of knowing when someone is not feeling too well and administering the appropriate medicine. [See concluding section for symptoms and potential cures for an ailing CoP.]

The Online Facilitator

Where does the CoP facilitator or e-moderator come into all of this? Well, I mentioned earlier that over the 10 years since its inception, the Local Government CoP strategy has provided some useful information on the dynamics of social collaboration and community management. For example, there is clear evidence that CoPs that have full or part-time facilitation/e-moderation are much more likely to succeed and be self-sustaining than those that rely entirely on self-organisation or community networks where there are no clearly defined roles or responsibilities.

The most successful CoPs (and I should clarify here that I’m using “success’ to mean “in good health”) are those where there is more than one facilitator/e-moderator and where interventions by the facilitator/e-moderator are frequent and predictable.  This may take various forms, such as regular polls of the CoP members; regular e-bulletins or newsletters; a schedule of events (face to face or virtual); regular input to Forum posts and threads, seeding new conversations; back-channeling to make connections between members of the CoP; etc.

In other words, show me a good and effective CoP facilitator/e-moderator and I can show you – in all probability – a healthy and successful CoP (or similar organisational knowledge sharing community).

Attributes Of A Good Facilitator

I’ve often been asked “what makes a good community facilitator/e-moderator?” This is a difficult one, and I’m of the opinion that it is more of an art than a science. The technical administration functions of the role can be taught, but the good facilitators/e-moderators that I have met bring another dimension to the role, i.e. empathy with, and understanding of, human behaviours and personalities. Something that I suspect comes with experience rather than a pedagogical approach. What I do think is important is having some knowledge (not necessarily ‘expert’ status) and enthusiasm for the topic or theme of the CoP (also referred to as the ‘domain of knowledge’).  This will help where interventions are necessary, and the community members are more likely to appreciate the facilitator/e-moderator as one of their own.

There have been various papers and blogs published about the role and responsibilities of an online CoP facilitator but maybe the following diagram captures the essence of the role. Click to enlarge.

Facilitator Role
Facilitator Role

(Reworked from an original by Dion Hinchcliffe)

Conclusion

The conclusion? Based on a significant body of evidence, coupled with personal experience, if you want to ensure the success of your Community of Interest or Practice, make sure you’ve invested in in a team of good/experienced community facilitators.

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Communities of Practice – What I’ve Learnt

Ants collaborating

I  was recently asked  by a colleague to share some “words of wisdom” about what I’d learnt from 9 years of consultancy projects that involved setting up Communities of Practice. I could have written an essay on this topic (and maybe one day I will) but I thought I’d distill it down to the key points as follows:

The Basics:

  • We don’t know what we don’t know.
  • People don’t learn from content, they learn from other people.
  • You can’t force people to collaborate.
  • We don’t know the value of knowledge…until it is shared.
  • Find where the conversations are happening….and join in!
  • A successful CoP must be cultivated; it needs feeding, weeding and nurturing (just like a well-tended garden!).

What makes for a successful CoP:

  •  A clear purpose – what will it be used to do?
  • A safe and trusted environment.
  • A core group of active participants.
  • Understanding the needs of its members/users.
  • An action plan to meet those needs.
  • A blend of face to face and online activities (where possible).

And…

  • Command and control will kill a community.
  • Don’t assume everyone knows how to contribute.
  • Let users drive their own experimentation and use of tools.
  • Ensure CoP facilitators/moderators are given sufficient time for their role.
  • Without active facilitation, CoPs will revert to ‘tribal’ working.
  • Don’t worry about the ‘lurkers’ – be happy that they have chosen to be there.
  • Don’t set unrealistic targets.
  • Condition your managers for failure; not every CoP is going to be successful.
  • Know when to let go!

Finally, one of my favourite quotes:

Go to the people, live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have.

But with the best leaders, when the work is done and the task is accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves'”.  Lao Tsu, circa 500BC

If you want to know more, check my various slide packs on this topic on Slideshare. Happy CoP’ing!

 

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Knowledge Hub User Consultation: the importance of UI and UX

It’s not about what the technology can do; it’s how you use it. The importance of focusing on the user experience (UX) rather than how many features you can add.

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sad-happy-UXLong time readers of this blog will know that I was intimately involved as lead consultant for the local government Knowledge Hub collaborative platform, and have written much about the concepts and ideas that went into its early development. Some of which are noted here:

This is my response, to the latest Knowledge Hub consultation exercise following the recent announcement about CapacityGRID (a subsidiary of Liberata) taking control of the future development and strategy for KHub. This is posted here as an open letter, but has also been submitted to the KHub forum discussion.

It’s laudable that you are consulting with your users to identify improvements to KHub, but I wonder if this is the best way of shaping and prioritising future developments. The fundamental problem, I believe, is the inherent complexities of the user interface (UI), which creates a less than optimum user experience (UX). Building additional features and functionality on top of these shaky foundations is only going to add to the problems many users experience in finding the information they want or knowing how to engage and contribute.

Taking on board all of these new ideas and suggestions for features and enhancements from what will inevitably be a vocal minority may give you a skewed perspective on what is really important, and future problems in managing expectations where some suggestions are given lower priorities. If you get – say – 50 responses, this represents just 0.0003% of your touted user base of 160,000. Hardly a representative sample.

An alternative would be to use the system statistics to develop a histogram showing the most used features and most popular pages and then set about simplifying access and improving performance for these features and pages. This will more likely uncover the underlying problems that ALL users are likely experiencing, it overcomes the problem with skewed priorities from the more vocal users, and will hopefully address some of the problems with the UI/UX.  If anyone cares to understand a bit more about the importance of UI and UX, and the difference between the two, then read this post that I produced during my time as lead consultant for the KHub, which also contains lots of useful reference links to good UI/UX practice. It’s difficult to relate anything in this post to what was actually delivered – especially the business scenarios.

Key point here is that it’s not about what the technology can do; it’s how you use it.

One last point, as you are probably aware, I collated and curated a fairly substantive response, on behalf of the “Knowledge Hub Advisory Group”, to the original consultation when it was announced that KHub might close down. This group acted as a steering group during the procurement and early development stages of KHub, but was disbanded by the new project team shortly after I left the project. I managed to get many of the original members together for the purpose of the consultation exercise, and have yet to see any response or even acknowledgement to this input – formal or informal.

I’ve pulled out two of the many recommendations from this group, which I think are still relevant to this latest consultation, and once again relate to UI and UX, as follows:

1. There is significant anecdotal evidence that users find the current system difficult to use and lacking many of the features of the legacy CoP platform (e.g. tools for Facilitators). The user experience is further complicated by the lack of integration with other LGA products and services, such as esd-toolkit and LGInform. Currently, if you use LGInform you sign in via the esd-toolkit, but if you want to collaborate or have discussions about it you have to separately sign-in to Knowledge Hub. This is despite esd-toolkit supporting relevant standards, such as OAuth and OpenID. Users would naturally like to see a far more intuitive and seamless experience between esd-toolkit, LGInform and Knowledge Hub. Porism, esd-toolkit’s technical partners, are willing to commit resources to help achieve this vision.

2. There is a need for closed, secure spaces for sharing some knowledge and data, and there is also a need for the online management of these spaces, as currently provided by the KHub support team. However, the online field is moving incredibly fast, and it may be that we need to put more emphasis on mini-Hubs and connecting different Hubs and networks. It doesn’t make sense to have a local government-only space nationally when locally the reality is lots of different partnerships and networks across sectors, and with citizens, on the lines that Lambeth and others are developing.

I hope this helps inform this latest consultation, and it would be useful (and courteous?) to get some feedback on this occasion.

Steve Dale

(Image source: http://www.creativerealities.com/)

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Maximising the power of collective knowledge

Introduction

This is a summary of one of the breakout session I ran at the Cisco Public Services Summit, Oslo 9-11 December 2011.  It describes the role of Communities of Practice in supporting more effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between organisations working in the public sector. It notes the key lessons learnt from a 6-year journey, starting from the launch of the UK local government CoP platform in 2006 and how this led to an ambitious attempt to create a new kind of platform for online collaboration and data sharing – the Knowledge Hub.  The slides are embedded at the foot of this post, and also available at Slideshare.

Project Purpose

The main purpose of the project was to break down some of the silo’d work practices both within councils and across the public sector. Local councils were delivering the same set of services, but were not learning from each other about good/best practice. This was also the first time that communities of practice had been used within the public sector environment as a process and methodology for encouraging knowledge sharing and personal development.

I’ve made clear in the slides the difference between “Communities of Practice” (CoPs) and “Social Networks”. Put simply, CoPs operate from a sense of shared values and objectives. Social Networks support a far more personalised agenda, or in other words, its “we” as opposed to “me”.

The following points correspond to the slide presentation, and as noted previously, represent the lessons learnt from a 6-year journey.

Communities of Practice – Lessons Learnt

1. Don’t expect everyone to join in.

Command and control structures are alive and well, particularly in public sector organisations.  Joining a CoP where status and rank mean nothing, and where the free-flow of knowledge is encouraged can be a bit of a culture shock for some people.  By all means encourage colleagues and managers to join, but accept that collaboration and knowledge sharing doesn’t come easy to some people. Concentrate efforts instead on building trust between those who want to be there and create a safe haven for knowledge.

2. Community Facilitation is essential.

You need a community facilitator or moderator to provide cohesion and maintain direction for the CoP. Almost without exception, the most successful CoPs had a good and effective facilitator. Some of the roles and duties of a facilitator include:

  1. Supporting sociability, relationship and trust building
  2. Seeding and feeding discussion topics
  3. Maintaining and sustaining the community ‘rhythm’.
  4. Curating and signposting knowledge artefacts for capture and reuse
  5. Helping to connect community members
  6. Providing help with the CoP tools and facilities
  7. Ensuring the community space is kept “tidy” and navigable
  8. Reporting CoP activity – metrics, evaluations, newsletters
  9. Monitoring success criteria and impact.

3.  Establish your KPIs.

Be clear about what your CoP is trying to achieve. Remember this is a “community” so engage with the members to agree purpose and intended outcomes.  Once the purpose and outcomes are agreed you can identify the metrics that will measure progress. Try to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data for the metrics you measure.

When monitoring the metrics, remember that each CoP will have a particular rhythm or cycle. Some will be light on discussion and strong on shared document building and vice versa. Others will be ‘one-shot’ supporting a single challenge.  Not all communities will be a hive of activity; some will support its participants at a low level of interaction over a long period, others for short bursts around face-to-face-meetings or events.

Key lesson: Don’t rely on metrics to claim your community is successful; use metrics and indicators to understand your community better. 

4. ROI can be measured.

You can guarantee that someone, sometime, somewhere is going to ask about return on investment. I’d much prefer to consider the “I” in ROI as meaning “Impact”, but we live in a world where – for some – value can only be measured in terms of cash saved.  Be prepared for this and consider how ROI can be quantified. In the example for local government CoPs we identified cash savings for online (virtual) conferences compared to physical (face to face) conferences and found that on average £8000 can be saved for each on-line conference.  Online conferences have now become a fairly regular feature, so the potential savings continue to accrue.

5. Hotseats generate heat!

Hotseats are where you invite a recognised expert or illuminory to spend some time answering questions from the community. The event should be promoted and advertised in advance to generate interest, and the person invited into the hotseat can seed the discussions by issuing a statement or question (possibly controversial) prior to the hotseat starting. Questions and answers are posted in the forum. The event can generate a lot of interest and discussions within the community usually continue long after the hotseat has finished.

6.  Use stories to promote the benefits

Don’t just rely on newsletters, statistics or case studies to promote the benefits of the CoP. Bring it alive through stories and anecdotes from the community members. Publish, promote and reward these stories. There is no better endorsement for the success of a CoP than from the CoP members themselves.

Knowledge Hub

The final part of the session was devoted to the thinking behind the development of a “next generation” community of practice platform – the “Knowledge Hub”.  What problems were we trying to fix with this new platform?  Briefly stated these were:

  • Over 80% of the CoPs had been set up as private spaces (gated access via the Facilitator as opposed to just being able to join).  In effect these were silo’d knowledge repositories. We wanted a system that would encourage more interaction between CoPs.
  • There was lack of permeability with external (outside the firewall) conversations. We wanted a system that could easily integrate with external web services.
  • We wanted to address the perennial issue of information overload, perhaps more accurately described as “filter failure”.  Using explicit data provided by the user in their on-line profile, e.g. where they work, their area of expertise, what groups they join, etc., filters could be established to improve the relevance of information received.
  • In a similar way to the way that Amazon works, we wanted to track user behaviour (their digital footprint) in order to “push” relevant information – e.g. conversations, events, and documents to the users.
  • We wanted active and guided navigation to help users find and access relevant knowledge.
  • We wanted to tap into the emerging market for mashups and apps; providing users with the tools to combine and link data to create value-added apps for improving council services.
  • We wanted to reduce development costs and open up the architecture to enable developers and entrepreneurs to create additional value. We would use open source software and adopt open standards (e.g. OAuth, OpenSocial, OpenGraph etc.).

However, as with all things public sector, the budget was radically scaled back early in 2011 and consequently not all of these features will be implemented. The cut-down version of the local government platform was launched 27 October 2011. (http://knowledgehub.local.gov.uk).

But the dream lives on. With support from PFI Knowledge Solutions (Knowledge Hub developers) a roadmap of future enhancements for their innovative Intelligus platform may eventually deliver all of the original requirements. More on this later; a matter of “watch this space”!

I’ll be happy to answer any questions about the Community of Practice project mentioned above, or the Intelligus platform that may realise the original vision for the Knowledge Hub.

 

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The Role of the Facilitator in Building and Sustaining Communities of Practice

I have the honour of being invited to present at the XIII Seminari Compartim L’e-moderador i altres nous agents de coneixement a les organitzacions on 21st September 2011. The event is sponsored by Generaliti de Cataluña, centre d’Estudis Juridics, I Formacio Especialitzada.

This post is a brief preamble to my presentation.

Background

My experience of knowledge sharing in organizations stems mainly from my involvement in setting up Communities of Practice (CoPs) for UK local government. This was part of a broader Knowledge Management strategy that I was commissioned to deliver for the Improvement and Development Agency (now part of Local Government Group -LGG). An online collaboration platform was launched in 2006 to support self-organizing, virtual communities of local government and other public sector staff. The purpose was to improve public sector services by sharing knowledge and good practice.

Over the past 5 years, the community platform has grown to support over 1.500 CoPs, with more than 100,000 registered users.  This has lead to many service improvement initiatives, from more efficient procurement and project planning to more effective inter-agency collaboration in delivering front-line services, such as health and social care. It has also provided some useful information on the dynamics of social collaboration and community management, e.g. the factors that influence the success of a community.

What does a successful CoP look like?

Success will of course depend on the purpose of the community. Some CoPs have been set up as networks for learning and sharing; others have a defined output, e.g. developing new practice for adult social care.  It is clearly more difficult to establish success criteria for a CoP dedicated to knowledge sharing than it is for – say – a CoP that has a tangible output. Success for the former will rely on more subjective analysis than for the latter, where there will probably be more tangible evidence of an output, e.g. a policy document or case study.

However, rather than argue and debate the criteria for assessing the “success” of a CoP (or other organizational learning system), I’d prefer to consider how we monitor and assess the “health” of a CoP. For this approach I think we have to consider the analogy of a CoP to a living and breathing organism.

A healthy CoP will show clear signs of life; this can be assessed using various quantitative indicators, such as:

  • Number of members
  • Rate of growth of the community
  • Number and frequency of documents uploaded.
  • Number and frequency of documents read or downloaded.
  • Number and frequency of new blog posts
  • Number and frequency of forum posts
  • Number and frequency of comments
  • Number of page views per session
  • Time spent on the CoP per browser session

…etc.

Not that any one of these indicators in isolation will indicate the good health of a CoP, but taken together they can give a general perspective of how vibrant and active the community is.

Continuing with the analogy of a living, breathing organism, different CoPs will have different metabolisms, some may be highly active; others may be fairly sedate. Understanding the community ‘rhythm’ is a key aspect of knowing when any intervention is required in order to maintain this rhythm.  Not all CoPs are going to be vibrant and active all of the time; there may be periods of relative inactivity as a natural part of the CoP lifecycle. But it’s important to know the difference between a CoP that is going through a regular period of inactivity and a CoP that is moribund.

A point to note: inactive CoPs may not necessarily be a cause for concern. One reason for inactivity could be that the CoP has served its purpose and its members have moved on. In which case the knowledge assets of the CoP need to be published and celebrated and the CoP either closed, or (with the agreement of the members) re-purposed to a new topic or outcome.

So, understanding the vital life-signs and metabolism of a CoP is a fundamental part of ensuring the continued good health of the CoP, and therefore more likely to achieve its goals.  And the key to the continued good health of a CoP is knowing how and when to intervene when one or more of the life-signs begins to falter.  Without wishing to labour my analogy of the living, breathing organism too much, it’s the equivalent of knowing when someone is not feeling too well and administering the appropriate medicine. [See concluding section for symptoms and potential cures for an ailing CoP.]

The Online Facilitator/e-Moderator

Where does the CoP facilitator or e-moderator come into all of this? Well, I mentioned earlier that over the 5 years since its inception, the Local Government CoP strategy has provided some useful information on the dynamics of social collaboration and community management. For example, there is clear evidence that the CoPs that have full or part-time facilitation/e-moderation are much more likely to succeed than those that rely entirely on self-organization, and/or where there are no clearly defined roles or responsibilities.

The most successful CoPs (and I should clarify here that I’m using “success’ to mean “in good health”) are those where there is more than one facilitator/e-moderator and where interventions by the facilitator/e-moderator are frequent and predictable.  This may take various forms, such as regular polls of the CoP members; regular e-bulletins or newsletters; a schedule of events (face to face or virtual); regular input to Forum posts and threads, seeding new conversations; back-channeling to make connections between members of the CoP; etc.

In other words, show me a good and effective CoP facilitator/e-moderator and I can show you – in all probability – a healthy and successful CoP (or similar organizational knowledge sharing community).

The Role and Responsibilities

I’ve often been asked “what makes a good community facilitator/e-moderator?” This is a difficult one, and I’m of the opinion that it is more of an art than a science. The technical administration functions of the role can be taught, but the good facilitators/e-moderators that I have met bring another dimension to the role, i.e. empathy with, and understanding of, human behaviours and personalities. Something that I suspect comes with experience rather than a pedagogical approach. What I do think is important is having some knowledge (not necessarily ‘expert’ status) and enthusiasm for the topic or theme of the CoP (also referred to as the ‘domain of knowledge’).  This will help where interventions are necessary, and the community members are more likely to appreciate the facilitator/e-moderator as one of their own.

There have been various papers and blogs published about the role and responsibilities of an online CoP facilitator or e-Moderator, but maybe the following diagram captures the essence of the role.

Facilitator Role
Facilitator Role

(click to enlarge)

(Diagram re-worked from an original by Dion Hinchcliffe)

Conclusion

In conclusion, and continuing with my theme of ‘health’ in relation to organizational knowledge systems, such as CoPs, the following is a summary of the symptoms and suggested interventions for an ailing CoP . This has been adapted from some original work by Patti Anklam, and informed by Michael Norton at Local Government Group (see Acknowledgements).

Community Health Checks

As mentioned earlier, the life cycle of a community will be subject to a particular rhythm, which can vary from CoP to CoP. Understanding this rhythm will help inform if and when specific interventions are necessary.

Participation can wane; the number of posts slow down; fewer people show up; only a few people are generating plans for the next activity. But not all lapses in content and contribution mean a community’s life is over. In many cases, some specific diagnosis and actions can reinvigorate a community.

Identifying the Symptoms

The “actions” in the table below are suggested primarily for community facilitators/e-moderators but in fact any CoP member can take the initiative to rejuvenate the community.

Symptom Actions
No participation or activity.

No new documents or links posted.

No new discussion threads, announcements or news.

Post new content, requesting feedback and comments to elicit new conversation.Remind people to set alerts for the site.

Talk to members to find out what people are working on and ask people what they would like to see on it.

Activity only by a few people. Call or email members who haven’t participated for a while; find out why they haven’t been participating. Use those conversations to elicit new content and encourage contribution.Also be sure that the people who are not contributing understand how to use the tools. Never assume that tools are “intuitive” to everyone, or that everyone understands how to use them.
People use email instead of posting questions and discussions on the CoP. The email habit is a hard one to break. If the goal of the community is to capture all the relevant discussions for future use, then the community facilitator needs to take a strong stand with members.One way to do this is to make a public statement that no questions sent by individual email will be answered, but that questions posted to the community will always be answered in set time. Another approach is to respond to all email questions by asking the requestor to post the question in the forum.
Sudden drop in discussions where there was previous activity. If there was a lot of active discussion and then it quickly dies out. Review the postings for potential “flaming”.  Edit the discussion threads to remove inappropriate comments (and state that you have done so). Speak with the people who have posted and clarify the norms for participation of the community.
Another community is focused on the same topic. If the members of the other community are current or previous members of your community, talk to them about why the community isn’t meeting their needs. If they do want to take a specific focus, then be sure that you have set up cross-linkages to the other community sites, and are referring people back and forth as needed.If the new community consists of people who are not participating in the current community, ask some of the same questions. See if there is sufficient overlap that the new community might be better managed as a Sub – CoP of the current site or a merger between the communities.


Reinvigoration

Community facilitation/e-moderation is about creating and sustaining relationships, not just the facilitators’/e-moderator’s relationships with the individual members, but the members’ relationships among themselves. Reinvigorating the community involves restoring “social capital” to the community in a way that motivates and encourages people to re-engage and commit. The table below lists some practical interventions – things you can do to alter the current dynamics – that can have a positive impact on the community.

Reinvigoration of Communities

Intervention Potential Impact on Community
Request sponsor support. Talk to the sponsors of the community.If the sponsor expects the community to be collaborating and operating as a community, ask them to show some visible support to the community, invite them to participate, or to spend time with the community reviewing the community site and making suggestions and providing resources to support it.
Informal get-togethers (face-to-face or virtual). Face to face (or online or phone) meetings can range from very informal to highly formal and structured. It’s important to give people a reason to show up – but once people are together they have the opportunity to make or renew acquaintance, find topics of common interest, and share recent experiences.
Communicate more frequently. Create a “newsletter” that consists of items describing what may (or may not) be happening in the community, but also what different community members may be doing. You may need to call or get in touch directly with a number of individuals to elicit their “news.”
Back channelling. A personal phone call (or a meeting) is a good way to connect one-on-one to find out people’s concerns or to hear what might be in the way of participation. For example, a community member may not be getting support from his/her manager to participate.
Invite new members. Often the way to move a community from a “stuck” to a state of activity is to introduce new members who are more outgoing, or who will ask a lot of questions of existing members.New members introduce new ideas, alter some of the behaviour patterns and bring new connections and knowledge into the group
Have a guest speaker (Hotseat). Bringing new ideas from outside speakers often helps a community to shift its thinking and generate new ideas.  This idea can be adapted into an online event in which people from multiple disciplines are invited to contribute to a topic over a period of time.
Change the community purpose. If a community has “run out of steam,” it may be time to retire the community (with celebration!), and move on to something new.Often if a community has built a lot of social capital and wants to stay together, they can decide on a new topical area to focus on, and create a new community or repurpose the existing community.
Develop facilitation/e-moderation skills. If a goal of the community is to engage in discussions and there is little activity, it might be good to find out how others facilitators/e-moderators go about this.  Join one of the growing number of groups and communities of facilitators/e-moderators, or do a bit of ‘crowd sourcing’ on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks for answers to specific questions. If you can’t find a suitable community of facilitators/e-moderators, consider starting one for your organization!

Acknowledgements

Steve Dale
Director
Collabor8now Ltd

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Communities of Practice: a strategy for more effective collaboration

Acting as a public administrator, it was my privilege to arrange and facilitate a meeting this morning between a delegation from the Government of Singapore and some of the ‘expert’ Community of Practice Facilitators from the local government Community of Practice platform. My thanks to Etienne Wenger for making the original connections with the Singapore Government, and to Adrian Barker (Policy & Performance CoP – 3913 members), Neil Rimmer (Productivity and Efficiency Exchange CoP – 2513 members) and Michael Norton (Facilitator’s CoP – 528 members) for their input and presentations.

The delegation was from the Public Service of the 21st Century Office (PS21 Office) and was led by the Government of Singapore’s Permanent Secretary, Ms  Lim Soo Hoon. The purpose of the visit was to share knowledge about building sustainable learning and sharing networks in the public sector, and we used the learning experience gained over the past 5 years in establishing the LGID Communities of Practice platform as the largest and most successful professional network in the UK, with over 96,000 users and more than 1,500 CoPs.

During the course of what turned out to be a highly interactive session, I was reminded of so many useful lessons as to what makes a successful CoP, in terms of user engagement, establishing and sustaining a culture of sharing and trust, and building a knowledge ecology that encourages cross-organisation, cross-agency and cross-regional collaboration. Though I’ve been involved (and in all humility – I started it all off!) with the local government CoP strategy since 2005, there is no better learning experience that hearing from practitioners who have been at the sharp end in building and nurturing their communities, and having a real understanding of the skills and effort involved in facilitating a CoP.  They know what works and what doesn’t, but if there was one common denominator, it was that successful CoPs invariably have active and engaged facilitators (sometime also referred to as community managers or community moderators).

I’m not at liberty to post all of the presentations used at meeting (except my own – see below), I thought it might be useful to summarise all of the key lessons for establishing and sustaining successful CoPs, as follows:

Facilitation – what is it?

  • Facilitator’s engage and connect community members by encouraging participation, facilitating and seeding discussions, and by keeping events and community activities engaging and vibrant.
  • Guiding a group to use its knowledge, skills and potential to achieve its goals.
  • Helping by making the processes easier. It’s about guiding rather than directing.
  • Looking at the process rather than context – how you do something rather than what you do.
  • Making it easier for the group to get to their agreed destination.
  • Striking a balance between ‘the group’ and ‘the task’.

Factors influencing success:

  • Forums, blogs, events, library.  Wiki less so.
  • Good quality, active facilitation: making it useful; concise, informed, informative; and giving community members  ‘room to breathe.’
  • Day to day content; monthly update summarising key content + alerts; one-offs (e.g. on-line conferences)
  • Size – critical mass.  Confidence that someone will respond.
  • Face to face element
  • Honesty and trust (who else is listening in?)
  • Keep on topic (urgent, immediate, wide interest, range)
  • Openness, honesty, trust (who else is listening in)
  • Technology – ease of use, facilities, integrated elements (e.g. wiki draws on discussions)
  • An art.  Non-linear: results don’t automatically match your efforts.  A few small things can make a big difference.
  • Presentation at regional and local events
  • Promotion through other online channels (website pages and bulletins)
  • Links with social media channels, e.g. having a Twitter account
  • Organised regular ‘Hot’ and Warmseat’ events to stimulate interest
  • Use of regular polls to assess member opinions

Lesson Learnt:

  • You need trained and dedicated community facilitation
  • On-line events take at least as much organisational resource as traditional – but save time, money and the planet!
  • Need to constantly engage members with interesting and new content
  • Membership rises whenever we promote events – it keeps their interest fresh
  • Use social media channels for promotion for the new on-line generation
  • Lots of work needed to engage older, traditional generation.
  • We are social beings who thrive from human interaction; technology is just an enabler.
  • Don’t be over-prescriptive; give the community a range of collaborative tools and let them decide which ones they want to use and how to use them.
  • Don’t assume everyone understands how to use social media tools.
  • Identify and look after your (power) contributors.
  • Identify and look after your facilitators – they are quite often the difference between successful and unsuccessful communities.
  • Condition your managers for failure – not every CoP is going to be successful.
  • Most senior managers still don’t get it!
  • Command and control will hamper the development of a community.

So, once again – my grateful thanks to all of the contributors to this morning’s meeting, both the presenters and the members of the Singapore delegation.  I wish the PS21 Office every success in establishing their own collaboration and knowledge sharing networks, and can assure them that there is plenty of help, advice and support available from the growing global CoP environments.


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Knowledge Hub – part 4: Social Graph and Activity Stream

Continuing with my posts about the Knowledge Hub (Beta release in April 2011):

I wanted to touch on another of the key features being delivered by the new system, the ‘Social Graph’ and ‘Activity Stream’. These are intimately related and hence it makes sense to discuss them as one feature or capability.

Social Graph

A social graph in its broadest context is the mapping of everyone and how they are related.  The term is usually used to refer to online identities, e.g. as used within social networks.

As of 2011, the largest social graph in the world is Facebook’s, which contains the largest number of defined relationships between the largest number of people among all websites due to the fact that it is the most widely used social networking service in the world. (Source: Wikipedia).

Concern has focused on the fact that Facebook’s social graph is owned by the company and is not shared with other services, giving it a major advantage over other services and disallowing its users to take their graph with them to other services if they wish to do so, such as when a user is dissatisfied with Facebook. Google, has attempted to offer a solution to this problem by creating the Social Graph API, released in January 2008, which allows websites to draw publicly available information about a person to form a portable identity of the individual, in order to represent a user’s online identity.

You can see what your Facebook social graph looks like by adding the Social Graph App. Mine looks like this:

Facebook Social Graph

If you’re a member of the LinkedIn network (an open standards network), you can generate your own social graph here.

Mine looks like this:

LinkedIn Social Graph

The first release of the Knowledge Hub will not support a graphical representation as shown in the examples above, but the system itself will maintain the data representation, which will be used for managing the activity stream described below. A graphical representation will be considered for a future release.

The Knowledge Hub is an open platform that is adopting Open Standards wherever relevant and possible. We will be exploring the use of Friend Of A Friend (FOAF) standards for creating a Web of machine-readable pages describing people, the links between them and the things they create and do. FOAF defines an open, decentralised technology for connecting social Web sites, and the people they describe.

Activity Stream

The activity stream is a chronologically ordered list of activities of ‘friends’ or contacts that have been mapped to the ‘Social Graph’ for each individual user.  Facebook users will no doubt be familiar with the activity stream (referred to as the ‘News Feed’ in Facebook) showing what their friends are doing and saying.  Only people who are in the user’s social graph (i.e. those who have been confirmed as ‘friends’) will show up in the activity stream.

activity stream

Any and all actions are logged in the activity stream such as writing or commenting on a blog, uploading a document or photo, confirming attendance at a meeting, joining a new workspace or group etc. The system will automatically create an activity stream (or ‘digital footprint’) for each user, based on the actions they carry out.  Each user will see an aggregated stream of activities for all of the people in their social graph, and for the workspaces that they have joined.  Filters will be available for showing the activities for a specific user (who must be either part of your social graph or a member of one of the workspaces you have joined), or updates from the members of a workspace to which you belong, or just your own updates (a ‘Me’ filter).  It will also be possible to block updates from a specific user, e.g. if you find their activities irrelevant or overwhelming!

So, what’s the benefit of all of this?

Activity streams are ubiquitous to any social network; I’ve mentioned Facebook, but they are also present in LinkedInFriendfeedTwitter and just about any other social network you can mention. The activity stream provides information and intelligence about events that are likely to be relevant to a user and the broader workspace.community members.  The user’s social graph is built up over time and includes people who the user has specifically identified as ‘people of interest’, for example:

  • a shared interest or hobby
  • working for the same organization
  • working in the same location or region
  • having a similar job
  • an expert in a topic you are following
  • a thought leader
  • etc.

We expand our networks and our knowledge by social interaction, i.e. we learn from others.  When we’re in meetings we pick up lots of information from the tacit conversations we have with our colleagues. The activity streams we see in these virtual spaces are fulfilling a similar function, albeit far more powerful, because we can pick up on ALL the conversations and activities from a group as opposed to just the people we have had the time to talk to in a meeting.

For example, how useful might it be to know that your colleague had just joined a community of practice that you were completely unaware of, but given you both have similar jobs is likely to be as relevant to you as it is to your colleague? Or to know that another colleagues have just posted information about a conference that is looks highly relevant to you?

There are many other tools, facilities and capabilities embedded into the Knowledge Hub, but in my opinion, the most powerful and useful of them all is the activity stream, because it provides the ‘glue’ that links otherwise unconnected actions and events together, providing both a lens and a filter on the things that are most likely to be of interest to you.

For the next Knowledge Hub post I’ll talk about some of the exciting developments around the App Store.

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Are you a robin or a magpie?

I was reading one of Johnnie Moore’s blog posts recently, about positive deviance, where looking at outliers helps people to solve serious real world problems. Johnnie refers to an abstract from The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, ( published by Harvard Business Press. © 2010 Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin), which in turn refers to a Nasrudin parable about how easy it is to miss the answers that are right before our eyes.

The part that particularly interested me was the discussion about robins and magpies, reproduced here:

My eye was caught by the analysis of the relative capacity of magpies and robin to break open milk bottle tops and steal the cream. It seems that when foil tops were introduced, a few birds of both species figured out the solution. With robins, it remained just the clever few. The explanation?

“The contrast between robins and magpies is instructive. Robins are highly territorial, live comparatively isolated lives and vocalize primarily to demark their territory.”

But millions of magpies caught on.

“The magpie, by way of contrast, is highly social and leverages its intelligence accordingly. Magpies, with a brain-to-overall-body-weight ratio only slightly lower than that of humans, exhibit unusual levels of social awareness… Magpies are gregarious in winter, gather to roost at night and collect in rooks as large as 65,000 birds during mating season. They team up in bands to tease cats and dive-bomb predators. Demonstrating empathy and social altruism, cooperative breeding occurs from time to time, with additional adults helping to raise nestlings. Young magpies even play elaborate social games, including king of the mountain, passing sticks and sliding down smooth surfaces. They can work collectively to lift garbage bin lids as members take turns feeding. It was observed that one flock figured out how to crack nuts by placing them in crosswalks, letting passing cars break the husks, and waiting for the red light before safely retrieving the contents.”

I appreciate I’m deviating slightly from the ‘Positive Deviance theme’, but my proximity to the nurture and development of Communities of Practice created a connection in my mind between how robins and magpies behave and how community members behave.  The fact that CoPs exist at all is because most of the people attracted to them exhibit  ‘magpie-like’ behaviour, in terms of being social and wanting to share knowledge.  I would guess that the most successful problem-solving CoPs are made of such ‘magpie-people’.

On the other hand – the robin behaviour is more likely to be exhibited by those who distrust and avoid social networking. They exist by protecting and (if possible) extending their territory, where they exert some power and influence. Some are clever enough to tap into the knowledge of others (but without sharing anything of their own knowledge).  They will survive. The others remain distant and aloof, clutching onto the power they have inherited or accumulated, but without ever evolving as their environment changes.  Some managers and many dictators come to mind at present.  Both – it would appear – have a limited future!

Robinmagpie

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Communities of Practice leading the way in public service improvement

iStock_social networks Small

Rounding out another year of growth and innovation in the use of social media, this item provides a compelling case study for the success of Communities of Practice as a foundation for more effective collaborative working. I’m privileged to have been one of the catalysts for establishing this strategy for UK local government. In fact, I’ve been an advocate for Communities of Practice since long before they were made fashionable by Etienne Wenger et al, tracing my involvement back to the original CIX networks of the early 1990’s. This was part of the ‘seed’ I planted in 2005 when asked to develop a Knowledge Management Strategy for what was then the Improvement and Development Agency (now Local Government Improvement and Development) and was responsible for the architecture, design and implementation of the CoP platform. This could have been mistaken as just another technology project if not for the core team of knowledge professionals who would go on to support and manage it and who have been instrumental in providing training for community facilitators and support for the 75,000 or so registered users.

It seemed quite pioneering at the time, at least for the public sector, but I think many other organisations in both public and private sectors have since recognised the value of Communities of Practice as effective knowledge sharing and collaborative networks.

Take a moment to read some of the comments from members of the 1,500 or so CoPs that are actively engaged in some aspect of improving public service for local government.  The next stage to this strategy is the Knowledge Hub (which I’m also closely associated with). This will go live in or around March/April 2011. watch this space!

Benefits of CoPs

Benefits of CoPs Nov10

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Building and Nurturing On-Line Communities – Batteries Not Included

Much has been written about best practice for developing and nurturing on-line communities , such as Communities of Practice (CoP), and the accepted wisdom is that technology by itself – no matter how good – will NOT deliver vibrant and successful communities. “Build it and they won’t come”  should be the mantra, as Google Wave so amply demonstrated (and I know this was not an on-line community in its purest sense before I get flamed!).

I’ve previously tried to illustrate this using the analogy of baking a cake, where the cake’s ingredients e.g. sugar, butter, flour, eggs, milk are the component parts of an on-line community. To bake a really good cake you need all of these ingredients; missing out any one of them can result in something which either looks or tastes nothing like a cake.

cake-ingredientsSimilarly missing out one of the ingredients in an on-line community will lead to potential failure of the community. Clearly some ingredients will be key, e.g. technology is going to be pretty important if it’s an on-line community! Members/users are important because they ARE the community. But let’s not forget the other ingredients, such as the community facilitator (also variously known as the community manager, steward or moderator) the business sponsor, the subject matter experts, the mentors, the librarians etc. Some of these roles may be combined, but the functions they perform are distinct. But I want concentrate on the role and function of the community facilitator, for I would argue that this role is the difference between the success and failure of an on-line community (and especially a CoP), and I have the empirical evidence to prove it!

For any prior readers of this blog you will know I had (and still have) a key role in the development of the local government on-line community platform. Currently over 65,000 registered users and 1,300 CoPs.  Using various metrics available on the platform, I can clearly see the correlation between a successful community and the capability of the facilitator. If this role is so important to the health of the community, what skills and attributes are needed to be a successful facilitator? I’m still not entirely sure, though I do know it’s not a case of just providing some training, although this does help. It’s more about personality; enthusiasm; willingness to share; being sensitive to the community environment; and energy! Lots and lots of energy. Not the sort of things you can learn or teach using a pedagogical approach. I recall co-hosting a community facilitator’s story-telling session using the excellent Anecdote story-telling guidelines. We got ten or so of the LG Improvement and Development (previously IDeA) exemplar community facilitators together to share their experience of what worked so that we could perhaps identify some key lessons that could be shared with all the other community facilitators. One recurrent theme was how hard they worked at making the community successful.  There was nothing really unique or special that they were doing, other than putting energy and enthusiasm into their role. They believed in the goals for their community and worked at helping the community achieve them.

So, coming back to my original theme: what makes a successful on-line community? The community facilitator is the answer, and though it’s clear we need some useful technology to support an on-line environment, that alone will not deliver success. If you will excuse me for switching metaphors, an on-line community (CoP) without a good facilitator is like have having a battery-driven toy without the batteries –  and hence the title of this blog post. This concept is supported by the accompanying slides, developed for a recent IBM webinar hosted and arranged by my good friend and colleague Luis Suarez (@elsua) and available for download from Slideshare.

To conclude, a brief story about a recent response to a proposal I received from a large government body who wanted a cost effective solution to improving knowledge sharing for their dispersed staff. There was a limited budget, and I identified a fairly low-cost collaborative technology solution that was well within the available budget. However, I also included a dependency on having a community facilitator/manager to ensure the success of this nascent community. Unfortunately the cost of the community facilitator/manager was more than twice the cost of the technology, and consequently the solution was starting to look expensive and unlikely to be accepted and implemented by the client. Yes, I could have just quoted the cost of the technology and then left them to get on with it, but then again, I’m not a technology vendor and I don’t believe in perpetuating the myth that technology delivers successful on-line communities. It would have been like leaving them with a battery-driven product but not telling them that the batteries were not included!

I hope the slides are useful for anyone involved in bulding and sustaining on-line communities – and if you happen to be a community facilitator, you have my utmost respect!

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