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Communities of Practice: The Missing Piece of Your Agile Organisation

| Posted by Emily Webber Follow 0 Followers on Sep 14, 2016. Estimated reading time: 14 minutes |

Key takeaways

  • Communities of practice help connect people in organisations that are scaling their agile delivery
  • Communities of practice can support people, build capability, reduce the duplication of work and build better practices
  • A mature community will benefit members and the organisation
  • Communities of practice take time and effort to create
  • A community goes through a number of stages as it develops and a self-sustaining community has the best chance of survival

 

Communities of practice regularly bring together people who share areas of interest or concerns. They are loose structures that support their members and the organisation's development of those areas. They often form around a specific job role but can also centre on a specific area of interest.

A community of practice is not a new concept: cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger first published the term in 19911. But communities of practice have a specific application in agile organisations and because of this they are on the rise.

I attribute this increase in interest to two factors: organisations seeking to scale agile development either using scaled frameworks or referring to concepts introduced in the popular Spotify articles2 and individuals seeking to connect with others who share similar concerns.

Agile frameworks champion the multidisciplinary team, which is a great way to focus people on a specific outcome. This is different from the traditional role-based-team setup or functional silo, where people who perform the same role sit together. The downside to the multidisciplinary team is that people who perform the same role in different teams have less interaction with each other. The community of practice brings these people back together to regain the benefits of regular contact while keeping the value of the multidisciplinary team.

The message I hear from organisations who don't have communities of practice in place is that work is often duplicated and people are not benefitting from each other's experience. People in organisations without communities of practice don't know who else in the organisation does the same role as they do and they lack the support they need.

This is what makes communities of practice a vital part of an agile organisation.

I have been helping organisations in the public and private sector to establish communities of practice and moving existing communities to the next level.

Benefits of a community of practice

There are many benefits to having a community of practice, both for the individuals involved and for the organisation in which they exist.

A community of practice is a support network for people who share a common role. It will create opportunities for learning, building capability, sharing knowledge and reducing duplication of work. A mature community of practice will take ownership of its area of interest and create value for its members as well as its organisation.

Creating a support network for members

What underpins any organisation is the people within it. People naturally want to connect with other people to find support – this is as true inside the workplace as it is outside of it. This is why communities of practice and small groups tend to start forming without any encouragement from the organisation.

People who don't feel supported at work quickly lose motivation and may leave. Even if they stay, they are not giving their best to the organisation. 

I have seen a number of examples of this where people who have moved from the role of project manager to agile team lead. Some senior managers assume this is a natural move and that an experienced project manager can become an agile team lead with little training or ongoing support – what I would call a "sink or swim" scenario. I've seen those agile team leads become frustrated, overwhelmed and unhappy, leading to a drop in team productivity, which isn't good for them, for the team, or for the organisation.

On the other hand, I've seen people join organisations with strong communities of practice in place and how those communities help them come to grips with the organisation and excel in their role.

The types of activities that can foster a supporting environment are regular face-to-face time with the community, buddy systems (with one or two other people), shadowing, observation opportunities and mentoring schemes.

Accelerating professional development across the organisation

Organisations all too often consider professional development as an individual activity and promote it with personal training budgets or solo learning objectives. While it's useful to think about professional development for individuals, it's also valuable to think about the professional development of a group of people and the organisational capability it may bring.

We learn better when we learn together because we benefit from collaboration and building on top of each other's ideas. People in groups are also able to learn from the successes and challenges of others in the group.

"Copying other people's successes, when combined with individual learning, is dramatically better than individual learning alone".
– Alex "Sandy" Pentland

To boost the value of collaboration, create a safe environment in which people are free to ask questions and try out new ideas. It helps to validate ideas and accelerates learning.

Organisations that invest in communities of practice can get a greater return on investment than those that only invest in individuals because the groups will contribute to members' professional development.

Individuals gain access to more learning opportunities and will discover things that they hadn't yet realised they needed to know.

I've seen real value when communities of practice members spend a portion of their time together on learning activities. These can include presentations by internal and external speakers, practicing new skills in a safe environment; games and workshops, exercises to embed learning and visits to other organisations with similar challenges.

Breaking down organisational silos

Most organisations have silos. Silos can form when a group of people feel a deeper loyalty to each other than to other groups of people. They can form naturally or arise as a result of an organisation's structure. Silos can happen between organisations or within organisations, between functions, departments, programmes, teams and other groups. Silos can make communication very difficult, causing duplication of work and frustration for those inside them. They can be damaging to an organisation. You can recognise silo behaviour when people stop referring to others by name and start referring to them as an activity – for example, "procurement are slowing us down".

Supporting cross-team communities of practice will go a long way toward breaking down those barriers and fostering better appreciation for how others work. This can improve communication, reduce duplication, increase knowledge sharing across the organisation and make it easier for work to flow.

Sharing knowledge and building better practice

When a community starts to meet, members will start to share stories and challenges. This is a great place for them to start building trust, which is crucial for a community of practice to thrive.

Sharing stories has a number of advantages for members and the organisation. It will reduce duplication of efforts within the organisation as people will discover the similar things they are working on. It will improve problem solving as a wider range of people will be working to solve each issue. It will lead to better working practices for the organisation.

As the community matures and members continue to share, they will identify common issues and become motivated to fix them. This often leads to valuable outputs with tangible benefits to community members and the organisation.

But this is only possible if the community is empowered to make changes and if the members are allowed to own its vision and goals.

Positive examples I have seen are designer communities creating design patterns and assets for others to use, product owners creating courses for other parts of the organisation, developers creating code tests for interviews and even agile practitioners creating an agile transformation strategy for the organisation.

Hiring and building capability

If you have established communities of practice, bringing new skills into an organisation becomes easier.

When a community of practice is formed of people who share a particular role, it can help the organisation by being responsible for hiring staff for that role and developing new employees once they arrive. Having a community of practice in place is attractive to potential hires. Knowing that you are joining a ready-made support network is an additional bonus in a new job.

If the community has an identity and a set of values, those values can help to identify who is a good fit for the role. If the community can articulate skills gaps and development needs, they can look for a person with the skills to fill those gaps. The community can then support the new hires once they arrive.

Whilst working with a London agency, I worked with the community of agile team leads community of practice to collectively agree on the skills needed for the role. They then used this set of skills to refine the existing job description, to help members set objectives and to create career paths for that role. This meant that community members agreed on what good professional development looked like for that role, rather than having it defined for them by someone else, leading to greater buy-in.

Other communities I know of have created learning and development frameworks for members and taken ownership of training budgets to support people through it.

Starting out

Communities often emerge from a need. When people feel the need for support, they often reach out to find other people like them who they can connect with. It is more likely when someone is the only person with a particular role on a team or with a particular challenges that no one near them shares.

If you are looking for a place to start communities of practice, find these small pockets in your organisation. If these pockets don't exist, cultural or organisational challenges may be preventing them.

I have encountered organisations where time sheets and utilisation rates prevent staff from explicitly spending time on learning activities. I've worked with organisations with members who are geographically distributed, preventing them from meeting regularly. I've experienced lack of buy-in from senior or line managers, so members aren't encouraged or empowered to spend time on community activities. You will eventually need to address these barriers for the community to succeed – although with enough motivation, communities can start up despite these challenges.

Starting a community before dealing with challenges can be a great way of establishing momentum and proving its value before seeking buy-in from an organisation – which in turn will help remove organisational barriers. This is a path that I have seen succeed.

A large organisation I spoke to used this approach, which eventually led to a mature community ecosystem. One of the first communities of practice that the staff formed was the NoSQL community as a number of groups were already looking at that challenge. They took the opportunity to join isolated groups that were working on the same problem in order to learn from each other. The community intentionally stayed under the radar so that it could be a safe-to-fail experiment, one which proved successful. They repeated the experiment with two more successful communities before pitching the concept to the CIO, who approved of the idea, leading to more formalised communities of practice.

Meeting regularly

I usually recommend that a new community's members try to meet weekly. Meeting every week more quickly builds trust and allows any member who misses a session to easily catch up the following week. I also recommend that members meet face to face; where this isn't always possible, members should aim for some initial face-to-face time and follow up with digital communication.

Just getting people together to talk is a great place to start. Look for enthusiastic people as they will get others enthused too. As the members start to form into a community, they will start to work out what members need.

Create a community charter

In the early days of the community, it can be useful to create a charter that covers why the community exists, who the members are, the community's vision and goals and principles for how it will run.

I recently worked with the business-analyst community of practice at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), to help members with the community's direction while they were forming. I ran them through some workshops to give them the chance to think about where they were and question what they should do next. This motivated them to define their community vision, which became

"Create a community for business analysts to enable them to engage, support and share working practices within a safe environment

The goals they have are:

  • define the business-analyst role and objectives;
  • share knowledge, tools and techniques;
  • connect with other business analysts;
  • provide the opportunity to interact with a larger community in a safe environment
  • hold meaningful engagement events in a range of formats to meet the needs of the community.

We worked on turning these goals into a backlog on which they work together as a community.

Let the community evolve

It's important that the community meets the needs of its members, so what it does together needs to come from within the community. Organisations that want to support the growth of communities should offer them support in the form of time, money and people, but let the members decide how it grows.

Community maturity stages

A community takes time and dedication to grow and passes through a number of stages during its lifetime. At each stage, it has different needs and energy levels.

The stages of a community of practice are: potential, forming, maturing, self-sustaining and transformation.

As a community moves from potential into forming, members will start building trust and exploring opportunities, and there will be an increase of energy. As a community progresses through the stages, energy levels will change and the initial dip after the excitement of forming stage is normal and not something to be disheartened about. When the community moves into maturing, it will grow in membership, commitment and depth of knowledge that members share. The community will start to form strong bonds and trust and create real value to its members and the organisation. The final active stage for a community is self-sustaining, where it will have its own momentum and be an integral part of the organisation.

There are times when a community transforms to become something else or never makes it past the forming stage. Many factors can contribute to this. In order for the community to thrive, it needs the right safe environment, the right leadership, the ability to meet regularly and support from the organisation.

Communities of practice only exist as long as the members are interested in maintaining it. This is why the practice of regularly inspecting how the well the community is meeting needs – and adapting it to ensure it does – is crucial to a community's survival.

A community will best survive when it becomes self-sustaining. Self-organisation is supported by a clear understanding of the community's goals and by a community's autonomy to achieve those goals in the way that best fits its members. On regular occasions, the community will need to revisit its vision to check that it is still relevant. It will need to review its goals as they are achieved or to verify that they are still appropriate.

The key elements of a self-sustaining community are:

  • good leadership and clear vision and goals
  • engaged members
  • sharing of knowledge and practices
  • support of skills development
  • visibility and support from the organisation

Communities of practice are an essential part of any agile organisation. Supporting the creation of healthy communities will benefit an organisation and community members in many ways. They can support organisational learning, accelerate the personal development of members, improve knowledge management, improve communication, build better practices, break down silos, facilitate staff hiring and retention and create value for the organistion.

Are communities of practice the missing piece of your agile organisation?

References

  1. Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. "Introduction to communities of practice".Wenger-Trayner ( 2015). [Accessed 30 November 2015]
  2. Henrik Kniberg. "Spotify engineering culture (part 1)".Spotify Labs (27 March 2014). [Accessed 30th November 2015]

About the Author

Emily Webber is an independent agile coach, consultant and trainer. She helps organisations in government and public and private sectors to develop their agile capability with a focus on sustainable change. Her focus is on people, teams, communication, communities and creating a culture of learning. She is the author of Building Successful Communities of Practice: Discover How Connecting People Makes Better Organisations and has ongoing research into the subject. She is a regular conference speaker and supports new speakers through her (co-run) meetup Agile on the Bench and work on diversity at conferences. She blogs at: emilywebber.co.uk and tweets at: @ewebber

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