posted 1 Oct 1999 in Volume 3 Issue 2
Communities of practice
It is only natural for communities of to spring up in all dimensions of human interaction; from government units to clubs for people of like minds. They also appear unintentionally within a company; people congregate when certain similar issues develop, or projects need group support etc. Here, Anne Jubert explains how Siemens Knowledge Management is focused on actively creating, encouraging and supporting communities of practice through leadership, expertise, and a variety of supporting roles and processes.
Online technologies have long been heralded as the key to overcoming all our information management issues. For the last few years, the Internet has been poised to revolutionise knowledge management. Although, there is still a belief that in the power of information technology and notably online technology to deliver on our information needs, it has gradually been accepted that the actuality of delivering such solutions goes way beyond a simple utilisation of technology. In short, delivering successful knowledge management solutions requires a much deeper understanding of the needs of users combined with a commitment to a general culture change throughout a company if anyone is to reap the considerable rewards and benefits of implementing such an infrastructure.
With 436,000 employees in more than 190 countries across the globe, Siemens has a vested interest in improving the flow of information and communication between its people. Recognised as one of the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises (1998 & 1999)*, Siemens has Knowledge Management is at the heart of its corporate agenda.
Knowledge Management was established in Siemens as a 'ground-up' initiative, whereby different lines of business implemented independent knowledge management solutions or projects. Recognising the potential knowledge management offered for revolutionising the way people worked, Siemens created a core knowledge management team for Siemens Business Services (SBS) in 1998, headed up by a Chief Knowledge Officer. A clear corporate knowledge management strategy accompanied by a global change programme within Siemens has helped to develop a knowledge sharing culture - or environment - in which sharing information is an unquestioned part of the working experience.
Siemens intrinsically believes that knowledge management improves performance and fosters innovation. As an organisation, our objective is to become a knowledge-based company by improving our processes, motivating our employees and cutting costs. However, without commitment and support from the top of the company through to the individuals using the systems, these are just empty words. From the outset it was accepted that a dedicated Knowledge Team was required, plus a shift in company culture to make it work.
A central team of seven people now reports directly to a board member, and individual 'knowledge brokers' are responsible for knowledge management practice in their specific business area. In addition, at a corporate level, the core team is responsible for co-ordinating and leveraging best practices across SBS and liasing with Siemens' employees.
Individual performance has traditionally been valued above team performance. This naturally goes against the ethos of knowledge management, and required a fairly large shift in perspective and culture to help change the way in which people were expected to work. Within Siemens, Knowledge Management has active support from the very highest ranks of the company, and this has assisted in adapting our organisational structure to support knowledge-sharing and creation, and in developing an environment where people actively learn before they start an assignment, and then pass this information onto others.
Central to SBS's Knowledge Management strategy is ensuring that knowledge, both tacit and explicit is managed systematically, and that this facilitates the development of skills and the creation and trade of knowledge. Real working knowledge lies in people and their relationships with each other, which allows for knowledge networking, both at a creation and sharing level. So the concept of Communities of Practice, or CoPs, are central to our knowledge management strategy.
Communities of Practice for transferring tacit knowledge
A Community of practice is a group of people who, despite often being in disparate physical locations, share a common identity, background and purpose. They are often from the same discipline and are united by a collective responsibility to develop their area or help other team members. The main argument supporting the development of CoPs within Siemens is the belief that personal relationships are at the core of effective collaboration. At Siemens, the development of CoPs has been key to success in developing a knowledge culture, and with the encouragement of cross divisional teamwork on projects, our company is radically changing its traditional way of working. These pockets of collaborative environments allow people to be dynamically linked together, for knowledge to be created and shared.
Launching a Community of Practice
The good news is that usually communities need not be started intentionally, as there are already many natural communities of practice existing in the organisation.
Whether expanding an existing community or starting an intentional one, there are some simple rules:
|The objectives for the community must be clear and you must understand which competences you want to develop|
|You need to carefully plan the specific people you want to attract and establish how the CoP should function in general|
|You have to consider how to enable the CoP concerning leadership, culture, technology and how to measure results|
To make a CoP successful a number of criteria need to be fulfilled:
|Leadership and facilitation is essential. Strong leadership holds the community together and makes it move forward. Icluding recognised experts is important for giving credibility to the community. Therefore, we started by identifying experts, inviting them to lead and facilitate the community in the starting phase.|
|The roles inside the community, formal or informal roles, must be defined e.g. community manager, facilitator, knowledge broker, knowledge editor and other|
|In effective communities the team members share interests /goals and a have a common agenda, their relationships are based on trust and reciprocity.|
|There are defined KM processes aligned with future technological considerations.|
|Leading edge IT enables the interactions of the community.|
Leadership and facilitation
These roles may be formal or more informal, and may be concentrated in a core group or more widely distributed. In the start the community manager and the facilitator are nominated, but when a community gets larger and reaches maturity more people will generally start performing certain roles voluntarily.
The inspirational leadership is found in thought leaders and recognised experts.The are the sponsors and the champions for the communities.
The community managers and the facilitators are the daily leaders and key to the success of the interactions, they bring people together and creates a framework that is flexible enough to allow for the group to influence and own the content. They guide the processes, encourage communities to move forward with their agenda, help them remain focused .
The knowledge brokers are responsible for the content organisation , the ongoing knowledge capture in the community and the punctual knowledge capture from debriefings and knowledge interviews. They select special resources for their community and network with other communities, they are sort of cross-pollinators between the communities.
The knowledge editor extracts, transforms, summarizes and codifies the information, writes case studies and how to guides. He/she integrates data from a variety of heterogeneous sources to create value added information or knowledge assets for the community and the corporate knowledge bases.
Corporate Knowledge platform
The corporate knowledge platform, or portal is a virtual shared workspace where a number of applications are combined to provide access to all organisational communication, workflow and transaction processing. Essentially, it provides a single access point to all available internal knowledge, expert's networks and knowledge repositories for the CoPs. The key to the technological platform is that it is used in a people-oriented way, developed to deliver on their needs and personalised where possible.
The very architecture of the knowledge portal - an intranet based system - is designed with CoPs in mind. It helps groups build shared knowledge and keep track of issues, and communicate lessons learnt. Bearing in mind the size of the company, there are many different platforms and applications in use. The knowledge management system imposes few technical standards or methods of working, thus allowing for a dynamic working environment. Only when Best Practices KM applications have been identified in one business area and potentially have value for others are they replicated in other business areas.
The knowledge management portal incorporates a number of different media and tools to support collaboration and communication. Knowledge maps, Yellow Pages, Best Practice databases etc. enable users to locate competencies and navigate their way to sources of expertise within the company, thus facilitating the transfer of tacit knowledge. Technologies such as email, desktop video, online chat, team rooms, web conferences, groupware and workflow support are all powerful enablers for virtual teamwork.
Explicit knowledge is knowledge which has been documented and written down, modeled , value-added information which is ready to be used and re-used in multiple contexts. This information, as well as examples of 'Best Practices' are stored as knowledge assets in repositories, which can be shared between several communities. We try not to duplicate existing resources, but to distribute the ownership of the information. Everyone can contribute with new knowledge or add value to existing knowledge assets by evaluating content, or interactive feed back. Subject matter experts have the final responsibility of selecting and determining the content of the knowledge bases.
The Best Practice database consists of information about business processes, reference projects, project reviews, lessons learned, and the templates developed.
The Knowledge Yellow Pages contain CVs, work experience, knowledge of companies, products, informal personal interests, photographs, favorite links. Part of the information is automatically transferred from the department of human resources. This department updates the information about their personal interests and their professional experience themselves and intelligent software can be added, so that activities on the network can be tracked and monitored, e.g. current work on projects, documents published, participation in training modules or work groups.
Training programmes and resource centres can also be accessed through the knowledge portal. The Siemens employees have web based training, CBT or link to Chestra, the corporate methodology. Corporate class room training programmes are published on the web. The bookings for these can be done online, from the desktop.
An important point is that the knowledge management system allows for more than just sharing knowledge between individuals inside the communities. It also connects the members to all available corporate knowledge as well as external information. The objective is basically to ensure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time. With this aim in mind the SBS Core Knowledge Management Team has created Newsboard, an intranet application which facilitates the processes required to filter information in a timely and tailored manner.
Newsboard is essentially a personal news channel providing a single access point to a fully integrated set of internal and external knowledge sources, including news feeds, selected online databases and the WWW. Enterprise-wide information has been made available to all, regardless of business unit or location and is free of charge. Advanced users can set up personal alerts and customise the information they receive.
KnowledgeBoard is an integral part of the different working environments supporting communities. KnowledgeBoard builds on the experience and success of NewsBoard, but communities are catered for with additional subscription-based services and access to specific information and knowledge community specific features e.g.value-added information, event calendar, web-based training sessions, job shops and so on.
It is a tool for business intelligence and knowledge aggregation The information resources are selected and filtered to the specific needs of the different communities to avoid information overload. KnowledgeBoard comes with a retrieval software which carries out the different functions of indexing, searching and presenting results. Intelligent agents search new material at pre-defined intervals and constantly monitor the incoming news feeds. Through KnowledgeBoard the members can also get access to the experts in their domain, share knowledge, receive and give feedback - and potentially do things better.
There is no single best approach to support communities, but the key success factors are management support, motivated people, effective processes and technology that supports relationships and adds value. The challenge of community building is to help people find a way to move towards common goals informally, without having to think and act like everybody else.
Facilitating the CoPs by encouraging dialogue, stimulating creativity, and celebrating successes is key to success. The community must be also an inviting and easy place for non-techies and the participants must feel a sense of belonging. Keeping the community live and interesting to the members is not easy! You have to experiment, switch between media, invite enthusiastic people, - and make it fun to participate It is also important to create links to other CoPs to avoid myopia, and to develop collective, synergistic knowledge
The development of a supporting environment for CoPs is iterative and a learning experiment in itself, it is an ongoing process. If you meet problems, evaluate design and facilitation before you blame technical tools!
Anne Jubert is Knowledge Manager, Core Knowledge Management Team, Siemens Business Services. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org