Leveraging group performance with web technology

July 23, 2006

cop1Communities of Practice Not.

This paper addresses getting the most out of workers who identify with one another professionally, groups some people call communities of practice.

I don’t like the word community because it has a dozen definitions. When I hear community, I first think of a small town. What’s intended is a group of people with a common background or shared interests, such as the medical community.

Practice suffers from the same ambiguity. Practice makes perfect. Tennis practice. A practicing Catholic. But what’s intended here is the exercise of a profession, for example a law practice. Yet some communities of practice, think of Alcoholics Anonymous or a bowling league, don’t involve professions at all. That’s why I’m going to write about groups, not communities. The groups I have in mind are workers who identify with one another because they do similar work.

Why groups matter

Groups of people who identify with one another, be they chefs or customer service reps, converse, share knowledge of how things really work, help one another solve problems, use the corporate grapevine to great advantage, and help new members get up to speed quickly. Sharing solutions with one another averts duplication of effort. Active social networks speed the dissemination of knowledge. Conversations in the community are the seeds of innovation. And work groups improve decision-making because “all of us are smarter than any of us.”

“Communities of practice are the shop floor of human capital, the place where the stuff gets made,” says Tom Stewart, currently editor of Harvard Business Review. “No one owns them. There’s no boss. They’re like professional societies. People join and stay because they have something to learn and to contribute. The work they do is the joint and several property of the group–cosa nostra, ‘our thing.'”

Ten years ago, these groups were thought to spring up on their own, like wild mushrooms or shooting stars. And the common wisdom was to leave them to work their magic on their own. “Fertilize the soil, but stay out of the garden,” cautioned social network analyst Valdis Krebs.

Now we know better. You can bring groups together, assuming you have people who consider themselves members of a profession and see the benefit of joining together. Some companies identify strategically important technologies and support the creation of groups around them. Others make it easy for people in similar jobs but different locations to connect with one another.

Optimizing group performance

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Think of work groups as systems, as above. Inputs are news (by which I mean anything relevant that happens outside the organization) and experiences (which is what’s going on and being dreamed up inside the organization.) Processing comes from conversations, finding experts and information when needed, solving problems, sharing discoveries, and speeding things up. Outputs are better customer service, continuous improvement, accelerated delivery, greater morale, and agility in taking advantage of change. To improve performance, we optimize throughput.

For the news input, instead of having everyone with an interest in, say, signal-processing chip technology, read through journals, research reports, the trade press, and blogs to keep up with the field, some companies designate one or two sharp individuals to track signal-processing chip developments and blog significant developments. People with an interest can subscribe to the blog feed or podcasts of sector news.

Other companies host community sessions where experts swap war stories with one another, with customers, with product managers, with scientists, and with others. Every interaction is captured on video; the video is broken into short segments that are made available to systems engineers and customers as video, slides, transcript, or podcast. All of this is searchable — right down to the sentence level. Rather than looking at being interviewed for training content as a nuisance, the experts look forward to the semi-annual meet-ups with their peers.

For experiences, the inside stuff, package them as stories. No one gets excited by new policies and product specs, but everyone enjoys a good story. As Robert Scobel demonstrated at Microsoft, it doesn’t take much technology to develop compelling stories on video or via blog. If people rate the stories as they read them, the cream will rise to the top so later on, people can skim the storybase for the great ones.

Web technology is an ideal way to facilitate group interaction, for example:

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To optimize processing, community members need to know one another, be able to find people in the group, learn who knows what, have good social connections, and know who’s available. Create spaces, real and virtual, that make it easy and enticing for people to meet. Post a “yellow pages” with thumbnail photo, coordinates, background, project history, interests, expertise. IBM’s “Blue Pages,” an outgrowth of an online phone directory is the company’s most commonly used intranet application. In addition to expertise, Blue Pages shows geographic location, the local time, and whether the person is online. Call someone at IBM; if they aren’t the right person, they can refer you to someone who is within a minute — and IBM has a third of a million employees, 42 percent of whom are mobile workers.

I stuffed  Practices, beliefs, and rules of thumb into a cloud because they will be stored in many places, including people’s heads. Wikis are great as a repository, for they can be perpetually updated. Blogs and RSS feeds are wonderful for keeping up — and can easily be stored in a searchable database. Information generated from the community is always more credible than information that comes from higher-ups. Informal tagging (“folksonomies”) simplify locating information with everyday terminology. The cloud should contain documentation and outputs of past projects so members don’t waste time re-creating something that’s already there.

The cloud is invaluable for helping a new member get up to speed. This is a significant issue. Training is rarely up to date, is time-consuming, and often deals with theory, not practice. At IBM, close to 55 percent of the work force have been with the company for less than five years with many joining the organization through acquisitions. Many people are changing roles as the firm shifts from a sales to a service orientation. Easy access to the cloud is vital for rapid onboarding. A community provides the social structure for novices to become apprentices and eventually evolve into master craftsmen.

Resources like these don’t build themselves. Appoint a wiki gardener to keep things current; it’s a small price to pay, given the enormity of the payback.

Relationship with the larger organization

Professional groups are democratic. They often self-organize. They act on what their members consider right. And this threatens the authority of executives who thought they called the shots. Some organizations even think informal groups are subversive, trying to “beat the system” by making up their own rules. Other organizations are unaware that worker communities are shouldering most of the burden of keeping their members on top of things.

Enlightened organizations support their worker groups by making time for them, setting aside resources to build social networks and “cloud” infrastructure, and recognizing their accomplishments. Cisco, CGI, and others have built groups around the technologies that are strategically important to them. Finally, companies that are merging or making total make-overs have used informal groups to assist in organization transformation.

Our Unworkshops are a living laboratory for prototyping these ideas.

This essay is a work in progress. Please make suggestions.

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