Harnessing Technology to Unlock the Power of Communities of Practice (COPs)

Posted by Raviv Elyashiv, Marion Burgheimer, Matan Rotmanon, May 20, 2020.

Communities of practice (CoPs) are groups of people who share knowledge on a specific subject, and they have always been a great way for organizations to share knowledge with and among colleagues. The COVID-19 crisis has shifted the way people work and forced many to work almost exclusively in virtual, remote workspaces, which has resulted in people becoming physically isolated from colleagues. As a result, the crisis has reinforced the strength of CoPs as a critical means of knowledge management within organizations.

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In the absence of the ability to engage with colleagues down the corridor and ask what they have done in a similar situation as the one you are currently facing, a digital CoP can provide a reasonable substitution. “One of the main principles of remote work is to increase the asynchronous as opposed to the synchronous part which is limited and expensive,” says Ido Namir, Deloitte’s Global aKnowledge Management CoE Leader. A CoP allows you to work synchronously and asynchronously, reducing costs and increasing value to organizations.

In January 2019, APQC conducted a survey, the American Productivity & Quality Center’s survey, where they uncovered that 42% of organizations surveyed expect to see an increase in the use of Communities of Practice (CoP) in organizations. In addition, 33% indicated a top priority is the need to increase engagement in collaboration platforms or tools, and 79% of the organizations used CoPs to capture and transfer best practices and lessons learned.1

Our experience shows, however, that often, even if organizations use CoPs to capture best practices and lessons learned, employees can have a hard time using the knowledge stored within the CoP repositories during critical times of a project. Instead, they tend to seek the knowledge in other external sources, which sometimes leads them back to the CoP itself.

In one example, professionals were looking for an expert in a certain topic and reached out to colleagues in other organizations. This ultimately resulted in a referral to a colleague who worked in his own organization in a different department, as he was notably the most knowledgeable person in that specific topic.

In another example, an organization faced an issue with a component that caused a product defect. After examination, the team found that a chemical reaction that happened during the cleaning of the component caused the issue. They then found a solution and the problem was solved. However, several months later, the same problem arose, this time at a client’s site. As a result, the client halted all the product’s imports. Since only the team involved in the problem was familiar with this issue, it took some time until the organization rediscovered the solution. This time, the organization decided to write a “lessons learned” document, share it with the CoP members, and store it in the CoP files.

These two examples demonstrate how important it is to document and share insights, solutions, and experts’ names in order to enable the reuse of knowledge. However, in order to do so, a consistent effort is required. Since many CoPs are voluntary-based, documenting becomes less of a priority, and the CoP suffers from gaps in knowledge and an inconsistency of quality. These gaps decrease the value of the CoP to the colleagues and cause challenges to unlocking the knowledge for broad business use.

In order to cope with the challenge, several companies have decided to harness the power of technology to aid the documenting process using various approaches.

One way of making the documentation process easier is to use auto tagging. The tagging is done while saving documents, using an analytical model that uses a crawling mechanism that is specific to each organization. One of the biggest advantages of auto tagging in business use, is the ability to retrieve all the tagged documents under a specific tagging. In addition, refiners can be added based on the organizational taxonomy. These refiners would enable the employee to receive precise results. 

Another way to ease the process of documentation is by adding “Share” buttons to emails, or by developing code that can generate a project summary automatically. For example, a global consulting firm in the US developed a project summary generator that generates information from existing knowledge. The generator then captures the project summary and sends it to the relevant repositories in the organization.

When looking for ways to unlock knowledge for businesses using CoPs, expert knowledge comes to mind as CoP members are eager to gain knowledge and learn from other experts. However, these experts tend to be the busiest employees, and seldom have the time to take an active part in the CoP. For these cases, an email “Share” button can be very beneficial. Upon writing an email, which contains insights or results of a project, the experts click on the “Share” button, and the email’s content is copied to the CoP repositories and tagged according to keywords.

Besides providing ways to ease the knowledge capture, there is the challenge of handling the knowledge in the moment. This can be managed through the use of a smart search that uses rich refiners based on the organization’s taxonomy but integrating the correct knowledge into the different business processes needs analysis and planning. The good news is that there are multiple ways to achieve this goal. The most advanced way is using data adoption platforms integrated with the knowledge database – unlocking the knowledge bolt, and surfacing the correct knowledge that depends, once again, on rich tagged items.

Technologies enable people to leverage and connect knowledge to business life in the organizations more effectively. In addition, these advancements support the objectives of the CoPs. They strengthen the business case for gathering lessons learned and best practices in CoPs using auto-tagging to ease knowledge retrieval in the moment during the project.

CoPs can and should be set up now using the right technology approach to open the possibility of finding the right path for your organization to respond and recover in the current environment, while positioning your organization to be able to truly thrive in the new environment following the COVID-19 crisis.

Authors 

1KM IN 2019: DIRECTION OF THE DISCIPLINE, An APQC Webinar, Cindy Hubert and Lauren Trees, APQC, January 30, 2019

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