A bright idea

Communities of practice help manage agency know-how

If you want to better understand one of the hottest management concepts catching on in the federal government, consider the interaction that takes place among employees during a coffee break.

In most workplaces, people don't just pour themselves a cup of coffee and walk away. Instead, they tend to hang around, sipping and chatting with one another. They trade stories, hash over office problems and offer solutions. "This is how we did it. Why don't you try the same thing?" a worker will suggest to a colleague from down the hall.

As a result, bonds are forged and the collective store of knowledge in the organization is enhanced.

The same outcome occurs in a "community of practice," a group of workers who share their expertise and add to the collective wisdom in their field, often via electronic means and always in a way that bypasses official boundaries and transcends office hierarchy.

Individual federal agencies have constructed communities of practice internally during the past few years. But efforts to build communities of practice that reach across government are now gaining momentum, experts say, because of the rapid growth of technology and the government's pending workforce crisis.

The CIO Council unveiled the electronic regulation community of practice — the first of three formal pilot projects using the concept — at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in October 2001. The two other pilots are being led by the General Services Administration and the Interior Department's Indian Health Service.

Last August, Dan Porter, the Navy's chief information officer, launched Cport, a CD-based effort to spread the word about the benefits of communities of practice among Navy and Marine personnel, managers and top-level officers. Thousands of copies of the CD have circulated among civilian agencies as well, and Navy officials are planning to release a revised and expanded version of the disc by midsummer.

Other communities of practice developed inside individual agencies include Re:NEPA — named after the National Environmental Policy Act — which is an online network at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) designed to share information on highway-related environmental issues. The Department of Health and Human Services also hosts communities of practice on such topics as e-learning, epidemiology and interdepartmental strategic planning.

Communities of practice have long been a staple of management in corners of the private sector. Xerox Corp. and National Semiconductor Corp., the concept's pioneers, formed them almost two decades ago. The World Bank Group, DaimlerChrsysler, Ford Motor Co., IBM Corp. and energy industry leaders such as Schlumberger Ltd. and BP PLC use them extensively. One of the communities of practice at Siemens AG, the electronics manufacturing giant, has 15,000 members.

Even though the federal government lags behind the pioneers in the field, it has caught on to the benefits of communities of practice quickly, according to Etienne Wenger, a California-based researcher and consultant who helped the CIO Council develop its three pilots.

"To a large extent, these communities offer the federal government just what they offer the private sector — they become a key to managing the knowledge assets of the organization," said Wenger, whose numerous books and scholarly articles have made him the leading authority on the subject.

"If you're a car manufacturer, your ability to design good brakes is critical to your business, so if you can have everyone in your organization come together around that topic, you're going to become more efficient," Wenger said. "The public sector is also dependent on knowledge — how to build highways, for example, or how to deal with contractors. Both sectors have knowledge assets that they need to become more intentional in managing and developing, and communities of practice are powerful for that."

At the same time, new software and Internet applications that enable workers to hold interactive discussions online, share files, edit documents collaboratively and search out individuals who have the answers to pressing questions are helping federal agencies build the kinds of relationships that lie at the heart of communities of practice, said Mike Burk, chief knowledge officer for FHWA and chairman of the CIO Council's special interest group on the subject.

"Government is under a lot of pressure to do more, but to do it at less cost," Burk said. When new products are called for, "with a community of practice, the start-up can be very quick and you're not as likely to stumble. Also, you don't go through as many iterations as you normally would in getting the products out."

In short, Burk said, "you can think of a community of practice as a group of people who go through your inbox and put a lot of yellow sticky papers on things with notes that say, 'Hey, this is useful.'"

Even Burk, who often speaks in public forums on the benefits of communities of practice, admits that communicating the concept can be difficult at times. Like most radical new concepts, a community of practice can be more easily defined by what it is not.

It is not, for example, a task force that is tied to a specific assignment and that disbands once the assignment is complete. It is also not a team that is tied to a specific process or function and in which members' roles and tasks vary according to the demands of that process or function. The roles and tasks for members of a community of practice generally remain the same.

Confounding the definition further, the term "community of interest" is sometimes incorrectly interchanged with community of practice.

According to Wenger, Burk and other experts, "practice" involves the sense that the members are there to accomplish work on an ongoing basis and to achieve a larger purpose — usually by adding value to their workplaces — through that work. Members of communities of practice also interact not only to accomplish work, but also to clarify and define it. They share tools, techniques and even a sense of culture. Communities of interest, on the other hand, share a subject matter but are not focused on a higher purpose or the creation of new knowledge.

In essence, the experts say, a group of ordinary people who like opera and meet regularly to discuss it is a community of interest. A group of federal employees who are all dedicated to streamlining the federal acquisition process and who collaborate and share ideas with the goal of saving the government money is a community of practice.

Technology in the Community

Technology can play a crucial role in enabling the sharing of ideas, experts say. In the GSA acquisition community of practice, for example, members use online chats and postings to a Web site hosted by HHS to collaborate.

Because of the increasing importance of electronic communication in communities of practice, developing a general computer platform that meets communities' needs is a key issue, said Bob Turner, an internal consultant at the Federal Aviation Administration, who helped the Navy develop Cport. "We need [a platform] that will truly engage people and make it interesting," he said.

Technology can also overcome the problems of time and space that beset far-flung communities of practice, Turner and other experts say. When it becomes active, for example, the Indian Health Service's community of practice, which will focus on adult-onset diabetes, will rely heavily on Internet communication, according to Lorraine Valdez, a nursing consultant with the service's national diabetes program and the coordinator of the community.

Of the 12 Indian Health Service diabetes consultants serving American Indian communities, several are as far away as Alaska and Nashville, Tenn., from the Albuquerque, N.M., office where the program's five professional staff members are located, Valdez said.

"There [are] loads and loads of information that need to be shared both ways. We're faced with decreasing funds, and face-to-face meetings are too costly and not efficient," she added. "It will take us some time to get [the community of practice] going, but I see it as a great tool."

Massive advances in technology are making possible the sort of "any time, anywhere" communication that gives federal communities of practice their power, Burk said. "The overall sophistication of what's on people's desks is much greater than it was even three to four years ago," he said. "And the integration of all of it is certainly important, too."

Overcoming Obstacles

As promising as communities of practice seem to be for nurturing cross-agency initiatives and problem-solving, several significant barriers will have to be knocked down before the concept becomes pervasive in the government, experts and leaders of the pilot projects say.

Agency culture and established organizational hierarchies present major challenges. The CIO Council's electronic regulation community of practice, for example, has had four face-to-face meetings since its launch but has yet to use any electronic communication or collaboration tools, according to William Bennett, FERC's chief knowledge officer, who is the community's organizer.

"Our belief is that before a community actually becomes effective and people become actually willing to share key insights, you have to build up a certain level of trust," Bennett said. "That's what we've focused on at the first several meetings — having a lot of face-to-face contact, so that people become comfortable with each other and have confidence in each other's expertise."

Edward Loeb, director of the Intellectual Capital Management Division in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at GSA, says the acquisition community of practice has encountered the same issue.

"Knowledge is power, and to the degree that somebody knows something and somebody else doesn't, the hesitation sometimes is, do you share that knowledge [and thus] you're no longer recognized as the expert," he said. "The key to getting past that is [that] you have to consider the organization, not just what's in [your] personal best interest."

An even bigger stumbling block is failing to win the support of managers to whom community members report, Burk said. Usually that lack of support is manifested in the manager's unwillingness to give employees time to engage in sharing ideas in a community of practice.

When workers are busy, "management tends to say, 'We have a lot to do. Just go on to the next item,'" Burk said.

"If instead of doing that managers would say, 'Take 15 minutes and write a little synopsis of what happened and who was involved and put that into a place [such as a Web site] that will provide access to the information for other people,' you have just made that success available to a multitude of people."

Despite the difficulties, most experts see the concept of communities of practice growing rapidly within the government.

NEXT STORY: DOD aims to seed workforce

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