The value of community

In a recent cover story ("A Bright Idea," May 13), Federal Computer Week introduced the federal information technology community to the concept of communities of practice. When the article came out, I was reading a new book on the topic, "Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge," by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William Snyder, who are leading experts in the field. Anyone interested in learning more about the uses of communities of practice in government should read this helpful volume.

Although the article was mostly about the technology of developing communities of practice, the book is about people and organizational issues — a difference that reflects recent criticism of federal knowledge management efforts being more focused on computers than on people.

Communities of practice, Wenger and the other authors write, "are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis."

Two developments in many agencies make the need for communities of practice greater than in the past. The first, according to the book, is the increasing use of cross-functional teams. For example, a number of agencies, such as the Air Force, already place procurement officials in program offices.

We will also over time see more government IT employees working in program management teams with end users and contractors. Replacing functional stovepipes with teams has many advantages, but it also creates the challenge of maintaining a knowledge base among people who aren't spending as much time with their colleagues as before.

A second change increasing the value of communities of practice is the government's workforce crisis. Surveys show that an important benefit young people seek from a job is the opportunity to develop their knowledge base. Organizations that make it easier for people to do so will have an advantage in the war for talent.

"Cultivating Communities of Practice" is rich with practical advice on making such communities happen. The authors emphasize in-person community meetings. In fact, the book has a whole chapter on the special challenges of technology-mediated virtual communities among people who are not at the same location.

The biggest challenge is creating trust among virtual members, so that people will dare to ask and answer questions honestly and so that information in virtual communities doesn't become an information junkyard that nobody uses. The authors recommend teleconferences, periodic face-to-face meetings and even field trips to encourage trust-building among a virtual community.

Technology helps, but at the end of the day, people are the key.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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