posted 14 Jan 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 4
BBC: A passion for community
Encouraging community participation by tapping into, and building on, people’s passion and sense of identity. By Claire Chaundy
The question budding community hosts at the BBC ask me more than any other is, how do you encourage people to participate? At a grass-roots level, people instinctively recognise it can be difficult to overcome organisational and individual barriers to community participation, even when the concept of using communities of practice to share knowledge is embraced.
At a senior level, using passion to inspire participation in non-hierarchical and often voluntary entities like communities of practice may leave managers and leaders feeling uncomfortable. As Steve Denning, former KM programme director at the World Bank, wrote recently in his blog, “Passion is an element that doesn’t easily fit with today’s ubiquitous hard-nosed, bottom-line management style.”
The most successful communities I have seen inside the BBC flourish because they build on people’s passion and sense of identity. If you can get this right, participation comes naturally. As community expert Richard McDermott once pointed out, “You cannot dictate that people feel passion, connection and identity.”
So what has the BBC learnt about using passion and identity to encourage community participation? This case study focuses on the PA Network, which has grown over five years to become one of the BBC’s most successful and well established communities of practice.
While I have been a knowledge-management practitioner for the past three years, I actually joined the BBC as a personal assistant five years ago. I recall the discomfort of my first day very clearly. I certainly had the passion and desire to connect with my peers, but there was no obvious way for me to do so. My new boss gave me a warm welcome and we soon began discussing an urgent meeting it was my duty to arrange. He then rushed off, leaving me to fend for myself.
Sat alone in my office, away from the rest of the department, I suddenly realised I had no idea where to start with what should have been a simple task. I could find no information in my office or on the intranet about how to book a meeting room. I hadn’t been introduced to other members of the department whom I could ask for help. I had no idea how to get in touch with other personal assistants I might need to liaise with.
Five years on, the BBC couldn’t be a more different place. New joiners, for example, participate in a comprehensive induction programme; the intranet boasts a lively message board with tools to set up and join an interest group; and, there is increasing use of social and collaborative tools like instant messenger, online meeting spaces, wikis and blogs.
We also now have a community of practice for PAs, secretarial and administrative staff called the PA Network. Initiated by a personal assistant in the BBC’s Factual and Learning division just after I joined, its purpose was, and still is, to enable community members to share knowledge and help one another with day-to-day queries related to running the office.
Of course, many other things have changed too, but those I have highlighted, in particular the launch of the PA Network, strike a personal chord, because their presence would have provided me with what I desperately lacked on my first day at the BBC: immediate, easy access to engage with peers who could help me with that simple task of organising a meeting.
Since its launch, the PA Network has amassed over 300 members. Its reach covers every division in the BBC, spanning both production and business areas. Tara Prayag, who had the original idea for the community, says, “I set up the PA Network because I felt like a very small fish in a very big pond. It makes the BBC that much smaller.” In an organisation with nearly 27,000 staff, that’s no mean feat.
PA Network members use an e-mail distribution list to help one another with an average of 30 work-related questions per week. Questions asked range from the practical (eg, recommendations for a last-minute meeting venue) to the bizarre. “At one point someone was looking for the front end of a pantomime horse,” Prayag recalls. There is also an Outlook folder containing FAQs. Entries are vetted and updated carefully by Fran Porta, a very active community host, who took over from Prayag when she moved on.
After deducting support costs, we estimate that the value of time saved by members sharing their knowledge through the community represents a return on investment of more than 185 per cent. This figure would increase dramatically if we factored in cost savings from collaborative activities such as negotiating group discounts with external suppliers and sharing unwanted resources. The most important value, however, comes from the wide range of soft benefits the community brings. Ask members what personal value they gain from the community and they will describe things like improving their secretarial skills, feeling a sense of belonging and the sheer enjoyment of connecting with peers from other parts of the organisation.
So what inspires members to join and participate with the PA Network so enthusiastically? Here are some tips focused on utilising passion to encourage participation that the BBC’s KM team has learnt from the example set by the PA Network.
Build on people’s passion
Human beings have an innate desire to form groups, to flock together. You can take advantage of this natural urge when establishing a community by focusing on what people are passionate about. Where community activities build on those passions, people will be inspired to participate, without the need for much encouragement. This is a particularly important enabler in an organisational context. It is a lot to expect people to help someone they have never met to reach their deadline when they may be having trouble meeting their own.
Passion can spring from many quarters. The challenge is to uncover that passion and capitalise on it. Look at who is already talking to whom and find out why. Is it the desire for support and empathy, as we have seen with our induction programme? Is it a need to discuss a particular subject, problem or task?
With the PA Network, its members’ passion is derived from a strong, role-based identity. Many people take junior positions in the company to get a foot in the door. Yet many secretarial and administrative staff at the BBC pursue their role as a career choice and not as a stepping stone to something different. Naturally they take great pride in their work and display the kind of professionalism you would expect to see anywhere within the organisation.
Prayag understood this when she began establishing the community and knew other people would be feeling the same as she did. “I wanted a way of sharing with, and getting information from, people who were in the same job and situation as I was,” she says. First and foremost, therefore, the PA Network provides an easy way for peers to share knowledge. It also provides a boundary that reinforces their role-based identity. It enables members to differentiate themselves in a positive way from other staff within the BBC.
Anticipate blocks to participation
Before Prayag set the PA Network up, she discussed her idea with the BBC’s HR department. HR offered its approval and wrote a letter to prospective members to indicate the department’s support for the community. Prayag circulated the letter via e-mail to a list of potential members. This letter was an important lever. The impact of performing a junior role in the organisational hierarchy meant potential members may have felt they needed permission to participate. The letter anticipated and addressed such worries.
Different departments, divisions or geographic areas have different sub-cultures and operational requirements. These will all impact on people’s ability to participate in community activities. Identifying potential barriers and enablers to participation and addressing them early on will provide a community with a better chance of success.
Technology can be another stumbling block. Porta actively shows new members how to set up filters for community e-mails. This may sound like a relatively unimportant point, but e-mail overload is a reality of working life and has the potential to drive members away. Porta is keen that members make the best use of the technology available to avoid this.
Start small, grow by word of mouth
A challenge when establishing communities of practice is to decide whether to opt for a high or low-visibility launch. There are a variety of possible communication channels to use within the BBC if you want to make a big splash: we have a well used intranet, all-division e-mail lists and Ariel, our weekly in-house newspaper.
The PA Network, though, rejected the high-visibility approach and opted for a simple e-mail invitation to potential members to join the community. With hindsight, it is clear that the strength of identity felt by community members in their role within the company was enough that a low-key invitation to participate was sufficient to get the ball rolling. Similarly, starting small has served the network well in the longer term. With any community, it is highly unlikely that every potential member will immediately get involved. A more realistic approach is to start with the most enthusiastic folk and let the community evolve at its own pace.
Since its launch, the PA Network has continued with a relatively understated approach. The network has never run a marketing campaign to recruit new members, primarily because it simply hasn’t been necessary. Instead, it has relied on the strength of the idea and the benefit of participation to inspire involvement. Word of mouth has worked very well. Now we find that as one member leaves they arrange for their successor to be added to the PA Network distribution list almost automatically.
Clear goals and procedures
The joining procedure for the PA Network was extremely basic when it was first launched. Prospective members e-mailed Prayag and she added their name to the e-mail distribution list. This has evolved and new members now receive a welcome message that asks them to review the community guidelines. These guidelines are written and amended as required by the community.
Some commentators on communities of practice maintain that overly formal procedural guidelines have the potential to damage the voluntary and democratic nature of the community. From my experiences with the PA Network, I do not believe this is the case in this instance. Rather, the formal aspects of the community in fact provide a number of benefits.
The guidelines clearly describe what new members can expect from the community. If necessary, members can use this information in discussion with their managers about the value of community participation. We have yet to hear of a case where a manager has said someone is not permitted to participate. There is, however, a risk that answering other people’s questions may be seen simply as ‘not working’ rather than networking with peers.
Second, the joining procedure and guidelines reduce the risk of new members inadvertently misusing the e-mail distribution list. This is important, as e-mail abuse may easily damage the reputation of the community. Social and personal e-mails are discouraged, and Porta is quick to send a note to the sender if this guideline is broken. She advises them of the correct usage of the e-mail list and points to areas where social and personal conversations are acceptable.
Develop an active host
My experience of BBC communities of practice is that the presence of a host is a prerequisite to success. In fact, I strongly believe that, without a host, there is a good chance that a community will die before it has fulfilled its potential. Hosting a community, though, is a relatively new organisational role and there is often confusion about its shape and purpose.
A business sponsor can lend their name and associated power or credibility to a community without getting their hands dirty. A team or project leader will take decisions on the direction and performance of their staff. In contrast, a host facilitates the activities of a community because it is a democratic entity. A host does not make isolated decisions on behalf of the community, but helps members to negotiate a consensus.
A host is also someone who is actively involved in the day-to-day life of the community. Porta spends approximately 15 per cent of her working week hosting the community. Much of this time involves managing the joining procedure and acting as a single point of contact for members and non-members. Her presence also provides a friendly face for new joiners.
A critical responsibility for a host is to spot potential problems with the community and to draw together members in times of crisis. The PA Network experienced this recently when an intranet discussion folder was set up to deal with similar questions to those solved through community e-mails. This understandably led to some members worrying that it removed the need for the community. Others felt it would dilute the community’s strength.
Porta helped the community to overcome this by revisiting the network’s aims and purpose with core members. Together they agreed that both the PA Network and the message-board folder had their place and brought different value to members and users. The PA Network members, for instance, clearly understand the types of questions that the community seeks to solve, while the message board is less tightly defined in its objectives. PA Network members also rely on the immediacy of e-mail to guarantee a response within a certain time. They know that if they are in a fix, people on the distribution list will be there to help. In this example, the host’s role in focusing discussions and building understanding was invaluable; without it, the community may well have gone into decline.
The diversity of people’s different knowledge requirements can sometimes cause tension within communities. It can be difficult to balance what members have in common with what they don’t. Recently a number of mini PA Networks have been set up to focus on division-specific questions. For example, secretarial and administrative staff who work with BBC News often have particular needs that the main community cannot respond to. Porta has embraced and encouraged this development. Many members now participate in both a sub-group and the main PA Network. Remember, though, that it is important to ensure that sub-groups are clear about their purpose and how they differ from the community proper.
Work with the existing culture
The BBC has a sociable, networked and task-focused culture. Further, while the use of social and collaborative tools is gradually becoming more common, e-mail and phone conversations are still very much the favoured mode of communication when face-to-face contact isn’t possible.
Most PA Network members are desk based. They are rarely able to leave the office as they provide an anchor for their manager, who will inevitably be rushing to and from meetings. Phone and e-mail contact is therefore the usual way for secretaries and administrative staff to communicate. In setting up the network, Prayag recognised the value of working with the prevailing culture and chose e-mail as the most suitable vehicle for members to begin communicating with one another. She was also aware that new collaborative tools, while potentially more effective than e-mail, can also be a daunting prospect for untrained users, who are more likely to respond well to tools with which they are familiar.
The need for sociability
People often stress the importance of face-to-face interaction to enable community members to connect with one another. Meeting in person certainly helps to foster the trusting relationships needed to share knowledge effectively. The PA Network is, however, unique in this regard, as its members have never met. When given the opportunity to do so at an event, they declined the offer. We suspect this is due to members not feeling the need to socialise. The community is so successful and so part of the way things are done in the organisation that it does not require the additional prop of sociability and friendship.
This is, of course, likely to be the exception rather than the norm, but it serves as a reminder not to focus on perceived deficiencies if a community is actually working well. Porta initially saw members’ rejection of the offer for a meeting as a failure on her part to encourage members to form friendships. We now believe this represents a huge success for the community.
The power of passion
The success of the PA Network shows that encouraging participation in communities of practice is far easier if you take the time to understand and build on people’s passions. As a KM practitioner, I find this realisation very liberating. There is often great pressure on us to think up innovative ways to motivate people to participate in knowledge-sharing activities. By focusing instead on what gets people really fired up, and then tying community activity to that, the probability of success rockets.
As to the future for the PA Network, we know that balancing the needs of existing and new members is a challenge for any community as it grows. This will perhaps be the biggest challenge for the PA Network in the coming years. Its membership is already broadening to include more diverse roles such as runners and researchers (see sidebar). Porta has made a great start by welcoming the establishment of local sub-groups, but this is a tension that the community must continue to come to terms with.
The BBC’s KM team claims no credit for the success of the PA Network. We are all deeply thankful to Prayag, Porta and all the community’s members for their efforts, and for the wonderful learning opportunity they have given us. We will of course feed this learning into the ongoing development of the BBC’s communities-of-practice strategy, in the hope that other communities will be able to replicate the outstanding success of the PA Network.
Claire Chaundy is a good practice consultant for BBC Training & Development. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
I asked two members of the PA Network to explain why they participate:
The PA network was a lifeline when I arrived at the BBC. We are lucky because we have a great intranet containing practically everything you need to know. But there’s no substitute for being able to ask people for help when you are in a jam, for instance finding contacts on long-forgotten programmes, saving money by borrowing props for a shoot, finding ever-elusive parking slots. Now, being an old timer, I can help other people out with suggestions.
Of course, there is the irritation of people asking questions when the answer is on the intranet, which is my major frustration, but overall it is a fantastic resource. The PAs are the people who know what is going on in any organisation and, even though I’m not one anymore, I wouldn’t want to be taken off the list.
And while not the reason for its existence, you do also get to know people through the PA Network, although you may never know what they actually look like. A friend of mine in the community and I had been going to the gym for ages at the same time without knowing it. Community members could share a lift and not be aware they are standing next to someone they know. There is, however, something quite reassuring about having invisible friends about the place.
Andrea Paterson, trainee researcher
The PA Network is extremely useful when I’m in a situation where I have no idea what to do. Sometimes a manager demands something ‘right now’ but it doesn’t seem possible to get whatever it is they want. This is when the PA Network comes in really handy. You can send out an e-mail asking if anyone has whatever it is you’re looking for and usually someone will respond positively.
Andrew Bowers, team assistant
Steve Denning’s blog at http://stevedenning.typepad.com
McDermott, R., ‘Building spontaneity into strategic communities’ in KM Review (volume 5, issue 6, January/February 2003)
Karakusevic, A., Bithell, W. & Spinks, S., ‘Upfront and beyond: Connecting the community of new BBC staff’, paper presented to the ‘Networked learning conference 2004’
Goffee, R. & Jones, G., The Character of a Corporation: How Your Company’s Culture Can Make or Break Your Business (Harper Business, 2003)
Pedler, M., Burgoyne, J. & Boydell T., A Manager’s Guide to Leadership (McGraw-Hill Business, 2003)
Wenger, E., McDermott, R. & Snyder W., Cultivating Communities of Practice (