Community of Practice:

Recently, I referenced  the concept of a “community of practice (CoP) ” with regard to a committed follow-up to classification training, which has generated questions regarding the practices behind creating and sustaining an effective COP.

To begin with, it’s important to define a COP.  According to Wikipedia, a CoP is a group of people who are active practitioners in a science or art, and is not used to formulate projects or tasks, but is focused on knowledge management or sharing.  When creating a CoP, the following concepts should be considered:

  • CoP participation is not  appropriate for non-practitioners.
  • The purpose of a CoP, as discussed above, is to provide a way for practitioners to share tips and best practices, ask questions of their colleagues, and provide support for each other.
  • Membership is dependent on expertise – one should have at least some recent experience performing in the role or subject area of the CoP.

To further the value of a CoP in HR, the CoP should consider developing specific goals or objectives to clarify participation and activities.

A successful CoP will have several factors.  CoPs can created efficient and effective communication distribution channels, providing  different venues for information and knowledge sharing.  Additionally, CoPs facilitate the organization’s ability to identify information sources; studies have shown that employees may spend up to 33% of their time searching for information required for production.  These studies also indicate that employees are 5 times more likely to ask a co-worker for information, rather than seek out books, training manuals or other sources.  The CoP, for example, in this case, a classification CoP, can provide critical corporate and technical knowledge, creating efficiencies across the HR organization, and ensuring that mistakes are avoided where possible.  A CoP allows for brainstorming and problem-solving, expanding knowledge and potentially reducing the learning curve.  A CoP can assist HR specialists in transitioning between HR theory and practice.

An effective CoP is managed to ensure that barriers to communication are addressed effectively to allow for participation by all members, even those with limited experience.  CoPs should be limited in size and membership to ensure effective communication, otherwise, the CoP will fail.  Additionally, the CoP should be endorsed by management in order to ensure that time and resources necessary for CoP development and maintenance are available.  Most importantly, the CoP should have leadership, with responsibility for creating high levels of motivation to participate in the CoP.  The most significant motivating factor for CoPs is knowledge sharing or management; CoP leadership should ensure that CoP facilitation supports this overall motivating factor.   And collaboration is essential to ensuring that your CoP is thriving.

There are several actions that will support the development of a successful COP:

1) Identify learning goals for the CoP:  for example, for a classification CoP:

  • Promote knowledge of classification programs and policies
  • Share changes and updates in classification programs and policies
  • Identify specific learning opportunities – including reviewing and critiquing specific classification actions

2) Identify opportunities for open dialogue within and with both internal and external perspectives.  In other words, it may help meet the learning goals to hear different ideas or concepts.  For the classification CoP under discussion, an example might be to bring in managers to discuss their view of classification!

3) Plan for different levels of participation – those who really engage (usually senior staff), active participants, and listeners (learners)!  You may also want to plan, for each session, questions and answers to help drive the conversation if needed.

For the classification CoP under discussion, we are using a set of classification exercises that were designed for the classification workshop that generated the CoP development.  For each CoP meeting, attendees review a classification exercise, including a specific set of questions.  Using these questions as the format for the CoP discussion, members provide their suggestions and ideas on a variety of classification topics, including PATCO, as well as title, series and grade level determinations.

As organizations face increased resourcing challenges, finding new ways to provide and sustain knowledge will be critical to the organization’s success.  A community of practice may be an effective tool to consider for knowledge management and sharing.