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How to Boost Your Team’s Brainpower

Communities of practice tap existing knowledge to drive innovation.

Many federal agencies, states and municipalities are eagerly hosting hackathons to share information and improve operations. Air Force Material Command, for example, developed its Knowledge Now site to educate employees, the City of Oakland, Calif., created Oakland Answers to better serve its residents, as did Honolulu with its site Honolulu Answers. What do these entities know that others might not? They know government needs to innovate -- and innovation is driven by knowledge building and cross-boundary collaboration. They’ve identified the next wave of applications and resources for their efforts and are deploying them in an intelligent framework called the community of practice.

In government, it’s difficult to expand scope, ask for help, or collaborate beyond the traditional boundaries of a particular program. Sometimes innovations are held back when colleagues can’t fill in the blanks between their own efforts, much less those involving other government entities. This is stereotypical bureaucracy. The problem is not that stakeholders lack a shared purpose, but they lack a safe harbor in which to strategize, crowdsource, manage information and expertise, and codify. Communities of practice can provide all this.

Communities of practice are created by people who engage in collective learning related to a common interest. It’s an ancient concept: Think of settlers learning to survive, tribe elders teaching hunting practices through storytelling, a salon of artists seeking new forms of expression. But from one generation to another, details of past efforts -- including mistakes made and lessons learned -- aren’t always passed on. In addition, key innovations and initiatives developed in one group aren’t always effectively shared with others. This becomes a problem as complexities develop and initiatives require multiple groups and disciplines to work seamlessly together. For government agencies in particular, the need to implement mandates, build programs, standardize work, manage legacy, innovate in flight and promote cross-boundary relationships, make communities of practice compelling.

The technique uses available resources like embedded knowledge, peer dialogue and citizen engagement to drive innovation. Here’s how:

Embedded knowledge. You need to know what you need to know before determining how best to manage it. Staff members should be one source in defining what knowledge your agency needs and what is valuable to stakeholders. This first pass should be overlaid with the requisite policies and procedures. Molly McLure Wasko of Florida State University and Samar Faraj of the University of Maryland, who have written extensively about communities of practice, describe three kinds of knowledge: information in and of itself, the expertise of individuals and that which is embedded in a community. This loosely coupled structure provides both content and context for knowledge management.

Peer dialog. Organizations can encourage communities of practice, but ultimately, the members sustain it and foster a safe place to test drive ideas and ask questions. Members generate social capital by proving their expertise. Studies have shown that one of the best ways to acquire knowledge is through outside links with other organizations. Rigid organizational boundaries can be organically overcome by connecting through these links to develop skills and promote development.

Citizen engagement. Remember the movie Field of Dreams? If you build it they will come. Admittedly, citizen participation in a government-run community of practice is a bit of a wildcard. But democracy calls for an active citizenry. Some advantages to public participation include fostering trust in government, buy-in for program design and building social capital. Crowdsourcing public participation, while not new, is hot.  Studies have shown that it promotes problem-solving. In 2010, the White House urged federal agencies to crowdsource innovative approaches to government initiatives. Thoughtfully structured and administered communities of practice will encourage citizen participation and be all the better for it.

In the Step-by-Step Guide for Designing and Cultivating Communities of Practice, authors Darren Cambridge, Soren Kaplan and Vicki Suter tie four components of intelligent networks—relationships, learning, action and knowledge—to specific technology features such as access management, collaboration wikis, conferencing and keyword search. While this is an interesting tactic, other methodologies exist. Consider a governance-based knowledge management method that matches the following components:

  • People -- access and rights management,  participant ranking, online meetings, chat, e-learning
  • Policies -- records management, content management, version management, project management
  • Technology -- structured databases and tools, conferencing, websites, wikis, team and project workspaces
  • Information management -- key word and full text search, library services

Communities of practice allow agencies to employ their most valuable assets to build knowledge and share capabilities with other government entities and citizens. With the right tools, the possibilities for innovation are endless.

Kimberly Samuelson is director of enterprise content management strategy at Laserfiche.