posted 27 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 3
Brewing up a successful CoP
In the beer industry, brewing expertise has long been passed from generation to generation, and personal, informal networks are the norm. Marnix Catteeuw considers how these knowledge-sharing tendencies can be harnessed and used to an organisation’s advantage through the creation of formal communities of practice.
The beer industry does not perceive knowledge sharing as modern-day management hype. Brewers guilds have been in place since the Middle Ages and were the original version of the today’s communities of practice (CoP). Brewing knowledge was shared and apprentices were taught how to brew beer by masters of the profession. Today, sharing of good practice is considered to be crucial if brewers are to achieve efficiency and profitability on a global scale.
In early 2004, the communities-of-practice concept was introduced to the industry as an example of good practice to encourage knowledge sharing. The ‘five P model for success’ was set up – ‘five’ P refers to purpose, processes, people, place and paper – the five critical success factors. For a community to be successful, its members need to work within each of these areas.
Beer brewing is a trade steeped in history and its origins go back as far as the time of the ancient Egyptians. Today, breweries sponsor independent organisations such as the European Brewery Convention and the Institute and Guild of Brewing, which form an international platform for the exchange of both technical and scientific knowledge. The results of scientific research are published in various journals and steering groups regularly come together to formulate standards for analytical methods. International technical seminars are also popular, attracting brewers in their thousands.
Within the industry, there is an inherent feeling of pride. This is clearly expressed in the way brewers refer to their trade: they refer to themselves as brewmasters. Within the brewmasters’ world there are a number of common characteristics, regardless of location:
- The basic beer brewing technology. Although local differences exist in the form of different interpretations and applications of the technology, the basic science is universal;
- A limited number of global suppliers. Similar equipment and raw materials are used worldwide;
- An ongoing drive to improve operational efficiency.
When these common factors were combined with a naturally open and sharing attitude, it followed that the brewmasters and operations engineers were the first employees who realised that, in order to achieve world-class efficiency, best-practice sharing and learning were crucial.
Knowledge management at InBev
InBev was formed in 2004 when Interbrew merged with Ambev. It is a publicly traded company headquartered in Belgium with origins that date back to 1366. The company sells over 190 million hector-litres of beer and has operations in over 30 countries.
Within the organisation, many personal networks exist, which are mainly formed as a result of contact with the head office. Knowledge and experience is freely exchanged in an informal way between people who have often only met each other once or twice. These information flows are often inefficient and not accessible to everybody. Newcomers typically experience a long warming-up period before they begin to build their own personal network.
To combat this, formal networks were launched by technical head office in an attempt to connect the relevant experts in each different brewery. However, this initiative was less successful than anticipated. Earlier this year, communities of practice were introduced, with the intention of integrating the obvious willingness to share as expressed in the informal networks into a formal network structure. InBev also wanted any new networks that were formed to have a formal structure from the outset.
A knowledge-management team was created within the technical head office. The team is responsible for developing the KM models used by InBev and identifying the tools needed to implement them. They also coach the community co-ordinators, facilitate workshops, organise training and so on.
The sociogram of a community
The organisation’s first observation was that members of a community did not always understand their role within that community. In addition, many did not realise that their role could differ significantly from the role of someone else within the same community. The sociogram of a community was created in order to bring some clarity to this kind of situation. The generic model below differentiates four member groups:
- Core members: they contribute most and benefit from working together. They are the individuals who want to share their knowledge and learn from each other to become better at what they do;
- Co-ordinators: they ensure that the community stays alive. It is not imperative that they are a subject-matter experts; the co-ordinator is more of a people connector who is constantly on the lookout for synergies. The co-ordinator takes the time to step aside and look at the community as if he was an outsider, suggesting corrective actions;
- Related experts: they are consulted occasionally, and either represent a specific function or have expertise in a specific area. They are not core community members, but can be classed as an extra resource or knowledge source that a community can tap into when necessary. Related experts include legal experts, quality-assurance staff and so on;
- Knowledge investors: their primary concern is to ensure that knowledge is not lost but reviewed, validated and re-used. When necessary, they will identify valuable knowledge assets created by the community and ensure they go through the proper channels and into the InBev knowledge base as an example of best practice or a lesson learnt.
All relevant knowledge assets that are used or created by the community are stored in the company knowledge base. From here they can be used for efficient knowledge sharing both inside and outside the community and for future referencing.
The ‘five P’ principles for success
The ‘five P’ model offers community co-ordinators a guideline for improving the efficiency of a community. The five Ps – purpose, processes, people, place and paper – stand for:
1. Purpose – why: scope, objective, goal and mission;
2. Processes – how: practices, procedures and roles;
3. People – who: identity, trust and reputation;
4. Place – where: systems, tools and technology;
5. Paper – what: documentation and learning history.
Each of these principles is as important as the next; over-investing in one area will not compensate for the shortcomings in another.
Purpose is an important starting point as a community has to define what it wants to achieve. As good practice, we would recommend creating a community charter, preferably at a community launch workshop. The discussions among the members will create the necessary clarification and alignment of objectives within the group. Furthermore, a charter will pin down what the community wants to achieve in an unambiguous way. It can be changed at any time, but it prevents the objectives from changing over a period of time in ways that are difficult to keep track of. The charter is also a tool through which to introduce new members and align them quickly with more experienced members of the community.
Once the community has agreed upon what it wants to achieve, the members need to define how they will meet their goals and decide which processes and practices need to be in place. At this point the community must consider how communication will be organised, how knowledge will be shared and how community members will learn from one another. It is important that the community members realise that success is a group responsibility, and is not the unique responsibility of the community co-ordinator or an outsider. The community needs to be aware that if it doesn’t do it, no-one else will.
When it comes to communities of practice, the people involved often become the most debated element. Having appropriate, competent people in a community is just the beginning; the key words here are trust and reputation. Without dedicating time and attention, trust and reputation building can be a long, slow process. Focused expertise-exchange sessions and frequent informal communications help community members to better understand an individual and his environment. In the brewing business, Friday evening get togethers over a cold beer is a successful relations builder – so far we haven’t found an online equivalent that is as effective.
In a broader sense, this includes the systems and tools that a community feels comfortable using. The ideal place is where the community feels most at home.
In the current digital world, online work spaces with discussion forums and document libraries are used, together with video conferencing tools, e-meetings and newsletters. The level to which people feel comfortable with these tools determines both the frequency of their use and their effectiveness.
Finally, paper stands for what we do not forget. Paper is the community’s common memory, made up of member-generated and valued content, documentation and learning history. Paper is a metaphor, as most information is now stored digitally. Some of this information is the actual knowledge base of the community’s practices and the knowledge created and shared by the community. A community should also remember success and failure stories as well as heroes and former members, as these enforce and sustain community identity and belonging.
The spider-web assessment
The five principles do not overlap, so it is fairly easy to evaluate a community and take appropriate actions on a specific principle if necessary.
To assess a community, an interview with the community co-ordinator and several members will provide the basic data. When combined with an audit of the activities a community undertakes, this gives an accurate analytical picture of how a community functions. At InBev, an assessment tool has been developed, comprising of a set of questions that help to structure the interviews. This is not used as a mathematical analysis method, but leaves room for interpretation. All communities are different and they do not all need the same emphasis on the same points. Some can have a shared vision of their purpose without having any documentation to clarify its position.
Mathematical analysis, however, is not always necessary, as it is often clear to see where a community is struggling. The assessment tool is then used as a visualisation tool to help the community members to identify where the bottlenecks are and to suggest actions that could be taken to overcome these.
The knowledge-management team acts as an internal consultant for InBev. Basically, the team coaches the community co-ordinators and gives the community a regular health check.
When a community is being set up, a short workshop is organised. This typically begins with a presentation of the basic principles of a community of practice. We use the story of a school alumni association as an analogy to put the message about the five principles across to the would-be community members.
The importance of clarity of purpose is illustrated by the choice between providing cheap books for students and organising better job opportunities. One choice will bring about fund-raising practices, the other choice will need networking events with industry professionals. This places the theoretical principles in a situation that everybody can imagine. Once the imagination has been fuelled, the next step is to project the principles into their own community.
A community manual has been developed by the knowledge-management team as a support tool for the community co-ordinators. The manual covers the basic theoretical background for the ‘five P’ principles and offers practical tips on how to implement these in practice. During the lifetime of a community, a member of the knowledge-management team will ensure that the co-ordinator is personally coached and will suggest actions and improvements.
The IT infrastructure is an important tool. An intranet has been put in place, to which every employee in InBev has access regardless of location. For each community, a dedicated document-repository area is created within the intranet, which has basic publish, search and browse functions. Community members can decide what will have restricted access and what they are willing to share with the rest of the company. Within the workspace, a discussion forum can be created where the community can centralise its group discussions. The system sends automatic e-mail notification when a new document or message is posted in the community workspace.
Experience and lessons learnt
People believe that when they form a group, either on paper or during a launch meeting, they will work and interact as efficiently as they would if they were in the same office, even when they are distributed all over the world. Discussing community principles may be perceived by members as a philosophical discussion that has very little to do with the work they want to do. However, once the members realise that real communication in a geographically distributed group is not as easy as it is with someone in the next office, they are more open to introducing the concept of a community of practice.
Frequent, informal communications are an efficient way of transferring an image of the other community members. This is necessary to help understand the questions they ask, the problems they have to deal and to better assist them. This informal, often trivial information helps to build a picture of the context and the environment other community members exist within.
Project teams often only communicate the results of big projects. They look at a community as a communication tool, rather than as a source of knowledge that can contribute to the realisation of their goals. At InBev, we encourage the exchange of day-to-day information and activities between community members. Knowing what other people are working on is the basis for knowledge exchange.
Forums are an efficient tool for group discussions and the exchange of ideas and opinions, but a moderation process has to be installed and this is often seen as a disadvantage. In my opinion, however, it is one of the major advantages of forums. First, using a forum as a community-discussion platform means that all postings are archived so personal archiving of e-mail messages is unnecessary. Second, the obligation to clean out a forum regularly forces the community to officially close a discussion thread. Having this item as a regular item on a community meeting will stimulate a close-out discussion. Combined with the creation of a wrap-up document, this ensures the efficient capture of knowledge.
On the agenda for the future is a further roll-out of the CoP concept with more communities being activated.
The current IT platform will be replaced by new software that will allow easier collaboration. The new system will be more user friendly and better integrated with standard office applications, and will also integrate the intranet sites of all departments and functions within InBev.
With more communities starting up, it will soon be possible to form a community of CoP co-ordinators. Not only will this be an excellent way of aligning the communities, it will also enable the community co-ordinators to learn from each other. Ultimately, this community will guide the knowledge-management team.
I would like to thank the management of InBev for the opportunity to learn about its communities of practice. A special thanks to Alpay Cholak, director of technology applications, for his continuous enthusiasm and also to Steven Warmoes of Warmoes & Associates for his advice, support and proofreading skills.
Marnix Catteeuw is knowledge manager at InBev. He can be contacted at email@example.com