Affinity groups key to making government better

During the 1990s, the number of "affinity groups" — like-minded folks who get together to address professional issues that matter to their communities — increased rapidly. These groups come in all shapes and sizes, from large, formally chartered groups such as the federal CIO Council to less formal groups such as the federal information technology architects and federal Webmasters.

Even the formal councils have, in turn, spawned a number of subgroups to deal with areas such as work force development, capital planning and, now, knowledge management. Still others get together on their own accord, such as the original FADPUG (Federal ADP Users Group — now I'm really showing my age).

During the past decade, this community-based approach has been studied more closely as a legitimate organizational model. Etienne Winger and Jean Lave coined the term Communities of Practice in a book they published back in 1991. Following that, Wenger published Communities of Practice in 1998, and his work has triggered serious research into a new model for organizational development and learning.

In the federal sector, volunteer groups such as these have met with varying degrees of success, depending on how they organize and what they are trying to accomplish. Some are fortunate enough to receive funding for their interagency projects and can afford to contract out much of their work. Others simply meet to share information and fund their projects on a shoestring budget, or simply out of pocket.

The success of each group often depends on how much energy their volunteers bring to the group. On top of that, volunteers (and their supervisors) face a real dilemma: Do the benefits of participating in these groups justify their time away from the office? Do the volunteers work smarter as a result of their participation or are they wasting too much of their time doing too much outside work?

These are issues faced by many top executives, not just professionals who volunteer at the working-group level. It appears that, after many years, we are still grappling with the age-old questions of matrix management. Spreading our time too thinly often makes it difficult or impossible to effectively serve more than one boss.

Looking for an answer to these issues, I'm reminded of an old Moody Blues tune from the 1960s: The Balance. We can offer tremendous value to our communities by contributing models, studies and best practices to help our associates work smarter. When other participants reciprocate with similar contributions, we all have strong incentives for participating. By participating and sharing in communities, everyone gains because we can use each other's contributions to improve on tackling our projects back at the office.

My recommendation is that we all encourage federal managers and key federal employees to participate in one interagency group as a way to balance contributing to improved government across all federal organizations and to improve working smarter at home.

By sharing and building on what others are doing, we all gain. There are many wheels being invented; we do not need to repeat what others have done.

There's a whole new industry growing up around the issue of collaborating on developing and sharing knowledge in communities. It's called knowledge management. The CIO Council recently created a knowledge management special interest group to examine emerging practices among these communities and to develop some models for how World Wide Web-based collaboration tools can contribute to the efficiency and success of these affinity groups. The special interest group is a sort of "affinity group for affinity groups."

Here's hoping they can help us find better ways to manage communities so we can all strike a balance between our involvement in collaborative projects and handling our workload back at the office.

— Horan is the deputy director of the Emerging IT Policies Division at the General Services Administration and a member of the Federal Web Business Council and the Federal Webmaster Forum.

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