Bringing together experts and enthusiasts to explore new technologies and ways of working can bring huge benefits to your organization.
For large, distributed organizations, there are great benefits to be found by creating networks that traverse existing team structures, where groups of experts can start to share knowledge and best practice that raises the bar for the whole company.
Here’s a tried and tested approach for building these communities at your organization.
What is a community of practice (CoP)?
A community of practice (CoP) is a structure that unites like-minded people across a company. It goes beyond existing organizational structures, and exists primarily for exchanging knowledge.
A community of practice often gravitates around a specific topic or area of interest, but can be formed around a job profile or a role – such as principal engineers, or engineering managers – connecting both experts and enthusiasts. It provides a safe environment, where people can learn from each other by sharing experiences, or requesting help or advice around concerns from their day-to-day work. The community may help to excel certain skills, or can be a place to learn and try out a new practice.
The concept of a community of practice dates back to the early 1990s, having been introduced by Jean Lave and Ètienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning, later expanded by Wenger in his book Communities of Practice.
The concept became more popular in software circles with the rise of Agile practices and the subsequent wave of adoption of the SAFe or LeSS frameworks from large corporations and scale-ups.
Here at Netcetera, we have communities of practice for iOS Devs, UX experts, tech leads, and Scrum Masters. Each of them with their own meeting cadence and operating model. Recently we launched a new community, uniting various product folks across the company.
Here’s what we have learned about building a distributed, company-wide community of practice around certain roles and disciplines.
Why have a community of practice?
CoPs bring plenty of benefits to the company. They can help motivate employees, break down silos, align and harmonize processes, and establish a consistent tools and technology stack.
Engaging employees around a topic can help boost motivation and break down the silo-mentality. People come together with a shared passion for the topic and with a purpose to exchange, teach, or learn more about it. Highly motivated and engaged employees improve team performance, which in turn leads to better financial results for the company.
These communities create a sense of belonging, where people can easily identify with a like-minded group. If you have taken a new position, leadership of a team, or you are faced with a situation for the first time, the community is a safe environment to seek support from your peers.
A CoP should also be an open community, even if the level of engagement varies between passive participants, active contributors, or core members.
How to get started
As simple as it seems, connecting people from different teams, departments, and locations, and encouraging them to engage in activities beyond their day job, is not trivial. Forming the process takes time and there must be someone driving it.
If you are considering starting a new CoP in your company, these five steps may help guide you through the process:
- Draft the CoP purpose
- Define the audience
- Connect the group
- Engage the group
- Launch the community
Let’s tackle these one by one:
1. Draft the purpose
Start with a rough idea of what the goal or the purpose of the community shall be.
Some starting questions:
- Is the CoP based around a certain role? For instance DevOps, or product architects.
- Is it about a topic? Such as Kubernetes, Design Thinking, or Scrum.
- Is the purpose mainly networking and knowledge exchange, or will the group be governing the policies and processes around that topic?
Our aim was to unite product managers across the company, regardless of the domain they are engaged to. We drafted the purpose in the following way:
We are a community of Product enthusiasts and Product evangelists contributing to the overall (Company) Product portfolio in the roles of Product Managers, Product Owners or Program Managers. We collaborate regularly to share information, improve our skills, and we work on advancing the general knowledge around Products. We are self-organized. We embrace the ideals of respect for people, innovation, and continuous improvement.
Tip #1: Start with a purpose draft, sound it out later with the CoP members, and refine it accordingly.
2. Define the audience
Once you have defined a purpose, you should identify who the community is for. In the case of a role-oriented CoP, you should open it up for everyone acting in that role. For a topic-specific CoP, start with a group of experts in that field and identify the most prominent enthusiast on the topic.
For our product management CoP, we decided to invite only the core roles, such as product or program managers and product owners, but not adjacent profiles, such as UX or product marketing. That kind of community expansion may happen in the next iteration.
Tip #2: Be specific and start with a smaller audience you may broaden the CoP focus and expand the round of participants later.
3. Connect the group
Having the draft of the purpose and the potential audience established, you can now start preparing the infrastructure to open communication and collaboration channels for the group. Start by utilizing the existing tools you have in the company.
Our CoP was built around a job profile, so in our case, it was easy to search and export a list from the internal CRM with everyone having a PM job title. In case of limited system access, the HR team can probably help you with this task.
We created an email distribution list with all participants, a group channel in the chat tools (Slack/Teams), and a dedicated space in our internal Wiki (Confluence). We configured a virtual collaboration board (we use Miro, but any other tool would work). You may consider configuring a task tracking board (Jira, or your preferred tool), for tracking activities.
Tip #3: Set up the tooling beforehand, configure the access rights, enable self-subscription, and allow opt-outs.
4. Engage the group
Once the communication channels are in use, you can start to promote the CoP! Start sharing bits of content to spark the group’s interest. That opens a channel for the first round of feedback. Some members will easily get excited, others will be confused, and some will challenge your idea. Welcome all the inputs and suggestions, and listen to the criticism.
We started by sharing some popular blog posts on the topic of product management, book recommendations, and attractive education opportunities. The first round of feedback followed immediately, including a few challenging questions, such as: What is a CoP? What’s in it for me? Will it help me with the topics I struggle with in my role?
That was a signal that the expectations were unclear. Not everyone in the group was familiar with the concept of a CoP and what benefits it could bring. It was unknown what is expected from the participants, how they shall get involved, and what they can contribute.
All the inputs helped us to rework the concept, to polish the purpose, and to decide on the next steps, which was inviting the members to an inaugural ceremony to clarify the expectations and align about how the community will collaborate.
Tip #4: Announce the CoP and spark the group interest. Listen to the feedback that is coming in, and use it wisely to rethink and refine the concept.
5. Launch of the community
After the discovery and ideation phase, the CoP purpose should be clearer and the membership refined. Non-interested participants typically drop off, but other enthusiasts join in. The communication channels are in place and the next activities shall be about binding the members closer together and bringing the community to life.
It was about time to finally bring everyone together. We looked into the option of organizing an on-site, full-day conference, but not everyone could arrange the travel on short notice. So we decided for a half-day hybrid event, with a mixture of a forming ceremony and some content exchange.
The objective of the event was to align on the community purpose and values, to collect the expectations and concerns, and to outline the skills and competencies of the members.
We opened up the event with an expert talk by a guest speaker. The remaining agenda was a blend of interactive activities in a Futurespective format and, on the other side, a short session fully dedicated to an experience exchange in a format of an unconference.
A Futurespective discourse enables a safe space for an emotional alignment of the participants, encouraging them to share their thoughts, hopes, and fears, and to design a way of working together. Miro offers useful templates for such activities.
We started off with an icebreaker about collaboration, where we used a board of four sections with the topics of communication, working style, teamwork, and feedback. Everyone was invited to add one word per section, for instance:
- Your communication style in one word
- Your working style in one word
- One word on what you value most in collaborating with others
- One word on how would you like to receive feedback from others
This is an excellent icebreaker whenever you are connecting a group of people to work together as a team, as a working group, or even as a community.
The next activity was about collecting the expectations and concerns about the CoP.
The expectations resonated nicely with the purpose of the community. From the list of wishes and expectations, we defined the focus topics of our CoP in the following way:
- Connect the product managers across the company
- Strengthen the product mindset across the company
- Take care of the product manager career path, from hiring, to career transitions, coaching, and mentoring
- Created a knowledge base for all things product related: product principles, best practices, and tooling
In addition, the members outlined very reasonable concerns, mainly around the topics of:
- The importance of CoP engagement and how to prioritize that over a high workload?
- The relevance of the CoP topics and whether they would be applicable to day-to-day work.
- The CoP evolution and whether it will be sustained through self-management.
Finally, the unconference involved short talks on product-related topics. It was a fun way to close the day.
How to evolve your community of practice
To accelerate the success of your CoP, keep the connections between the members closer and look to intensify the exchange of content. Establish regular meetups and create opportunities for other engagements, such as working groups around certain practices or processes that are in the scope of the CoP. Enable an assessment mechanism that will help to inspect and adapt the CoP operation.
There is a great power in connecting people, especially if it is around a topic everyone is passionate about. A CoP gives a good framework and set of principles on how to engage people beyond your organization structures, to strengthen connections through the regular exchange of ideas, and to expand knowledge on a certain topic.
CoPs can evolve from any informal group of like-minded people in an organization, but can also be newly formed around a specific topic, profile or discipline.