Communities are groups of people who share an interest, a specialty, a role, a concern, a set of problems, or a passion for a specific topic.
Community members deepen their understanding by interacting on an ongoing basis, asking and answering questions, sharing their knowledge, reusing good ideas, and solving problems for one another.
Communities should be part of any KM program. Connecting people is fundamental to getting knowledge flowing, and communities are an important way of doing so.
Here are five keys for a successful community of practice:
- A compelling topic: The members and potential members must be passionate about the subject for collaboration, and it must be relevant to their work.
- A critical mass of members: You usually need at least 100 members, with 200 being a better target.
- A committed leader: The community leader should know the subject, have energy for stimulating collaboration, have sufficient time to devote to leadership, and then regularly spend time increasing membership, lining up speakers, hosting calls and meetings, asking and answering questions, and posting information which is useful to the members.
- Regular events: Conference calls or in-person meetings
- Active online discussions: Regular posts, multiple replies, and no unanswered questions
Communities are fundamental to connecting people with related interests so that they can share with one another, innovate, reuse each other’s ideas, collaborate, and learn together. Starting a community is an excellent first step in launching a KM initiative and can be used as a building block for more elaborate functionality.
Communities enable knowledge to flow between people. Community members:
- Share new ideas, lessons learned, proven practices, insights, and practical suggestions.
- Innovate through brainstorming, building on each other’s ideas, and keeping informed on emerging developments.
- Reuse solutions through asking and answering questions, applying shared insights, and retrieving posted material.
- Collaborate through threaded discussions, conversations, and interactions.
- Learn from other members of the community; from invited guest speakers about successes, failures, case studies, and new trends; and through mentoring.
Communities come in two main varieties. Communities of Practice have a rich and formal set of activities, governance, and structure, and are based on common roles or specialties, typically work-related. Communities of Interest are for topics that don’t require a lot of formal structure, but need threaded discussions for collaboration and knowledge sharing, typically not work-related.
- Communities of Practice have members with a particular work role or expertise. These communities are focused on developing expertise, skills, and proficiency in the specialty. The motivation is to master the discipline, learn about the specialty, and solve problems together. An example of a role-based community is project management, and an example of an expertise-based community is Microsoft SharePoint.
- Communities of Interest are groups of people who want to learn about a particular topic, or who are passionate about one. They make no commitment to deliver something together. The motivation is to stay current on the topic and to be able to ask and answer questions about it. An example is all people who have an interest in photography.
The first thing to do is to decide what topic you wish to address in a community. Pick a compelling topic that will be of interest to many people in your organization. The potential members must be passionate about the subject for collaboration, and it must be relevant to their work.
Before creating a new community, check to see if there is an existing community already focused on the proposed topic or on related one.
If nothing similar already exists, then you can proceed to create a new one. If communities already exist in your organization, then answer the following questions.
Is your topic already covered as part of another community? If so, offer to help the leader of that community. Help can include increasing membership, booking speakers, leading calls and meetings, responding to questions, and sharing useful information.
Is there an existing community focused on a related topic? If so, approach its leader about expanding it to include your topic. This helps achieve critical mass, broadens the appeal of the community, and provides the same type of help as mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Is there an old community that is inactive but could be resurrected or migrated to form the new community? If so, ask if you can take over the leadership, or harvest the membership list to start the new one. Reusing existing membership lists, community tools, and knowledge content can save time in starting a new community.
If the answers to all these questions are negative, then you can create a new community for the desired topic. For details on how to lead communities of practice, see:
- 10 Principles for Successful KM Communities
- Communities of Practice Primer and Manifesto and the associated webinar recording
- KM Conversations: Social Collaboration Part 2: Communities of Practice
- My latest book: Handbook of Community Management: A Guide to Leading Communities of Practice
Most KM programs include communities as a fundamental component. Some programs are built entirely around them. Because communities connect people to each other and enable knowledge to flow between them, they are a powerful enabler of knowledge sharing.