Mr. Rogers' new neighborhood

Communities of practice were once considered a radical concept in government, but that is no longer the case. Now feds are warming up to the idea of sharing knowledge and using such communities as forums to make it happen.

A community of practice is a place where a group of people, bound together by a common passion and interest, meet to ask questions, respond to others, and exchange ideas and information. Now advances in technology are making online communities of practice more commonplace.

"I think people have talked about this long enough [that] they know what they are," said Michael Burk, former co-chairman of the CIO Council's community of practice special interest group. "So, as people are evolving how they work, we're starting to see more activities where process and knowledge communities and connections are starting to gel."

The Federal Highway Administration has about 20 communities of practice, and that number is growing, said Burk, who is an associate administrator there.

One of the more successful and perhaps better-known government communities of practice is CompanyCommand, a Web site for Army company commanders. Two captains — who at the time were neighbors and commanded companies in the same brigade — came up with the idea. They realized that swapping stories and experiences about their jobs was helpful and assumed that others could benefit as well.

CompanyCommand started out as a grass-roots effort, but it now has more than 7,000 members and more than 50 topic areas, and it receives funding and support from the U.S. Military Academy.

Why has the site done so well? "Because we have a very clear vision and purpose of whom we want to serve and how we want to help the Army," said Maj. Peter Kilner, one of the four strategic leaders of the site.

"Our role as a team is to inspire people to share," he said. Sometimes this requires Kilner to contact a commander who has just returned from Iraq and ask him to write his story. The site's content, Kilner said, comes from relationships. "People have tons of information, and people help their buddies. But really sharing their knowledge— people need to be inspired and encouraged and then you need to enable it."

Sharing knowledge is what makes communities of practice so valuable, supporters say, because they create a more competent and informed professional community.

"My experience is that work in the federal government, like work in any large organization, is so complex that it's hard to know about what people in your own organization are doing," said Bob Turner, a workforce leadership strategist at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Communities of practice also help agencies tackle cross-agency e-government initiatives, said John Andre, knowledge manager in the General Services Administration's E-Gov Program Management Office. They provide a way for feds to come together to overcome obstacles "and press on for some kind of common achievement," Andre said.

"Since we've kind of become a garden that's a bit overgrown, agencies using consistent processes and applications

Connecting Communities

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of communities of practice in government, some of which have restricted membership. Here is a sampling of online communities of practice in government:

CompanyCommand: An Army site to connect company commanders working to build combat-ready units (companycommand.army.mil).

Emerging leaders: community of practice — One of the many communities sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services University (learning.hhs.gov/communities).

Highway Community Exchange: — A Federal Highway Administration community of practice on a variety of transportation issues (knowledge.fhwa.dot.gov/cops/hcx.nsf/home).

IT community of practice — One of the many communities sponsored by the Defense Acquisition University's Acquisition Community Connection (acc.dau.mil).

PlatoonLeader — An Army site to connect platoon leaders (platoonleader.army.mil).

NEXT STORY: Army tests portal additions

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