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Publication Number:      Date:  May/June 2000
Issue No: Vol. 63 No. 6
Date: May/June 2000


Communities of Practice

by Mike Burk

An engineer, thinking that a colleague may once have confronted a problem similar to one that has just arisen in a project, stops by the colleague's office for advice. A safety specialist in an eastern division office runs across some fascinating data on weather-related hazards and e-mails it to a friend in the Midwest with similar job responsibilities. This kind of knowledge-sharing is informal, interactive, and largely independent of the formal structures that organizations set up to promote communication and data interchange.

Communities of practice are simply expansions of one-on-one knowledge-sharing. Most people, in fact, belong to a number of such communities, not all of them work-related. Some have names, such as the church choir or the neighborhood council, and some may have no more of an identity than "a group of management specialists who usually get together for lunch once a week."

While these ad-hoc communities are valuable knowledge-sharing mechanisms, they have real limitations. Knowledge passed in e-mail threads is lost when the thread ends. New staff or staff facing new problems are unaware of the ad-hoc communities and are unable to tap into their expertise. Lessons learned from experience are lost with retirement. Staff turnover and restructuring break down the informal networks to the point where even long-time staff do not know who to call.

Innovative business and government organizations are formalizing these communities to create new mechanisms for creating, capturing, and sharing the knowledge that is critical to their success. With these communities of practice in place, this network emerges as the chartered source to build and deliver knowledge. By providing structure, support, and tools, leading organizations have enabled communities of practice to function far better than their informal predecessors.

Communities of practice are a crucial aspect of knowledge management. (See "Knowledge Management: Everyone Benefits by Sharing Information" in Public Roads, November/December 1999.) They can be defined as networks that identify issues, share approaches, and make the results available to others. Or, as a recent article in Harvard Business Review put it, "they're groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise."

At work, communities of practice can exist solely within an organizational unit; they can cross divisional and geographical boundaries; and they can even span several different companies or organizations. They can be made up of a handful of participants or many dozen. But they all tend to have a core group of participants whose dedication to the topic provides the energy needed to hold the group together. These core participants naturally provide the groups' intellectual and social leadership.

Communities of practice differ from work teams in a significant way. Teams are formed by management and report to a boss. They have defined membership, deadlines, and specific deliverables. Communities of practice can be voluntary, usually have longer life spans than teams (but they only last as long as they have value to their members), and have no specific deliverables imposed. They are responsible largely to themselves.

Why is there so much interest at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in facilitating communities of practice? First of all, as we've seen, they are highly effective ways for organizations to continuously learn. New staff and staff in new roles can be productive much more quickly by accessing the institutional knowledge base. This will become even more important to the agency in the next few years because a relatively large percentage of FHWA's technical and operational staff are nearing retirement.

Many of these sharing networks started and developed without any institutional support or encouragement, and that attests to the fact that they help people get the job done and serve customers. Communities of practice can help transportation practitioners share with their peers the know-how and experience they've gained throughout their professional careers. Through this sharing, members of communities of practice raise each other's competencies, and because FHWA can apply the full knowledge base of subject matter experts to serve its customers, FHWA's customers are the ultimate beneficiaries of this process. In fact, these communities work best when addressing pressing needs, such as difficult customer challenges or streamlining regulatory processes.

Through the use of robust, effective communities of practice, the technology transfer process may be substantially changed. The communities provide opportunities for an unprecedented level of communication between operators, who understand thoroughly the state of the practice, and researchers. This will potentially speed the application of new products and procedures and provide a feedback loop. Ultimately, this may enable FHWA to move beyond traditional technology transfer to a continuous knowledge exchange that encourages even more innovation.

Communities of practice can also help FHWA achieve the goals of the President's Quality Award Program, particularly in the areas of leadership, customer focus, human resource development, and process management. The program's criteria for evaluating performance excellence in 2000 lists three major challenges, one of which is "developing, cultivating, and sharing the organization's knowledge that is possessed by its employees." FHWA's work to encourage the development of communities of practice is a major step toward meeting that challenge.

It's unclear who first used the term "communities of practice," but the concept got its strongest initial boost from the Institutes for Research on Learning (IRL), founded in 1987 as an outgrowth of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). One story associated with the development of the communities of practice concept is that PARC researchers in the early 1980s observed a group of Xerox repair technicians gathering around the office coffee machine to exchange tips about repairs and swap stories about experiences at customer sites. The researchers noted that the technicians seldom consulted repair manuals or training materials, relying instead on their informal network to transfer knowledge and solve problems. Interaction with the group, which had no official recognition from the company, was also the way that new technicians learned the tricks of the trade, the researchers discovered.

One of IRL's key findings is that "learning is fundamentally social, motivated by engagement and participation in practice." This may be somewhat surprising, given the romantic notion of the lone thinker contemplating the mysteries of the universe or the solitary scholar almost buried by thick tomes filled with arcane knowledge. But the social model of learning does seem to best describe the way organizations solve problems and transfer knowledge.

The Right Environment

Despite their informal and often spontaneous nature, communities of practice have been nurtured and encouraged by many organizations, including FHWA. These organizations recognize the key role of communities of practice in transferring good practices, solving problems quickly and efficiently, developing professional skills, influencing strategy, and retaining talented employees. They help the individual to be a more productive, effective, and satisfied employee.

But if communities of practice are self-directed and outside the organizational chart, what role can management play? After all, some experts warn that too much official scrutiny, even if offered with the best intentions, can cause communities of practice to wither and die. It is inarguable that some environments are more conducive than others to the development and retention of healthy, active communities of practice. Communities can be impeded by turnover and restructuring. Information technology systems may not suit the way the community works, which could lead to frustration. Reward structures may not be supportive of informal collaboration. Also, communities of practice can suffer because they lack the legitimacy, not to mention the budgets, of established departments and teams.

Communities of practice existed within the transportation community even before the current industry focus on the concept. An example is the informal network of transportation professionals who communicate via an e-mail list maintained by FHWA's Kentucky Division. They use this list to post problems or seek information. Informal networks for finance and computer specialists exist as well.

FHWA is now pursuing an aggressive initiative to foster communities of practice. For example, three communities — they could be termed external communities — have public Web sites: rumble strips (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/roadway_dept/pavement/rumble_strips/), roadside safety (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/roadway_dept/), and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov). A visit to these Web sites can help illustrate the potential of the Internet in providing a virtual meeting place for communities of practice that transcend geographical and institutional borders.

Also, a Web-based community resource in response to the National Environmental Policy Act is being developed. This community will be designed to engage customers and partners in critical environmental streamlining issues. In the process, FHWA is developing a more robust knowledge-sharing tool that will be replicated for other areas.

Developing a Community of Practice

Also under development is a virtual meeting space for FHWA's quality coordinators. Margie Sheriff, quality coordinator for FHWA's Infrastructure Core Business Unit, explained that quality coordinators had been getting together for formal meetings a few times a year to discuss best practices and share information on problems and procedures. "It became obvious that meeting just those few times a year wasn't enough interaction to do our jobs," Sheriff said. "We felt it was better to maintain those ties a little bit more closely and more frequently. So, we thought that a virtual community of practice would help keep information flowing back and forth."

The main difference between a community of practice and a series of formal meetings, Sheriff said, is "the spontaneity of getting help when you need it in real time. Information that's shared at a meeting might not be needed at that time, so you kind of stash it away. With a community of practice, you can tap into that at any time."

An informal telephone network might have developed anyway among the quality coordinators, Sheriff acknowledged, "but with a community of practice you can start to document and organize things to build a resource base so you don't have to keep calling people.

When you try to call, often they're not there or they're not available. This is a more systematic and reliable approach to creating a network of people." Under the approach that Sheriff's group is taking, individuals who could be thought of as knowledge associates take on the responsibility of logging on to the community's intranet work space to post information and respond to inquiries.

"You need to touch base with the community of practice on a regular basis — a few times a week or even more frequently — to make sure you're helping the other group members and you're there to solve each other's problems," Sheriff said. "We're trying not to reinvent all these different ways of doing things but to reuse our resources as much as we can."

Sheriff acknowledged that creating a community of practice from scratch can be a delicate — and difficult — undertaking. "It's really a new way of operating, and it takes an actual change in behavior," she said. "If you try to force it and make it an artificial rather than a natural evolution, you can stifle it." By the same token, though, the community requires a "level of maintenance" that Sheriff worries it doesn't always receive. "But we'll keep trying," she said, "and I think as new people come and we get them interested and they can contribute, it can help."

Depending on the Members

It's not surprising that communities of practice develop and operate at different rates. The key to their effectiveness, after all, is that they function in ways that best suit the interests and working styles of their members rather than adhering to some inflexible operational model.

In the words of Etienne Wenger, author of an influential book on learning organizations, "Communities of practice develop around things that matter to people. As a result, their practices reflect the members' own understanding of what is important. Obviously, outside constraints or directives can influence this understanding, but even then, members develop practices that are their own response to these external influences. Even when a community's actions conform to an external mandate, it is the community — not the mandate — that produces the practice."

To help communities of practice grow and flourish, FHWA is providing models — the well-established rumble strips community is a prime example — and technical support for communities of practice. Web-enabled software can offer online discussion, both real-time and asynchronous; document sharing and storage; community member information; group e-mail lists; e-mail notification of new information; and online meeting spaces. FHWA also provides management support for communities of practice, championing the concept of communities and helping to create an environment that supports and encourages them. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, it will be the community members themselves who determine to what extent FHWA's corporate culture will be influenced by communities of practice.

Communities of practice are not the latest management trend or some alternative model for organizational development. Instead, they're a way of describing how people in organizations teach and learn. The challenge for FHWA, as it is for all companies and organizations trying to prosper in the information age, is to take full advantage of its most valuable resource — the knowledge that its people possess. By facilitating the development and operation of communities of practice, FHWA can help ensure that this resource finds its highest and best use.

Mike Burk is FHWA's senior knowledge officer. He is assigned to the Corporate Management Service Business Unit. He has more than 25 years of experience with FHWA, and he has served in several headquarters' and field offices. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and he is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.



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