Team Collaboration Patterns Part 5: Communities Of Practice

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The concept of placing people into stable, market facing teams is at the core of Agile Organizational Design. But we won’t always be able to accomplish every thing we want through the use of long lived, stable teams. Often we want to encourage people to collaborate outside of the “official” organizational structure.

As organization’s scale we need to accept that no all collaboration happens in the team. We need to complement the idea of durable teams with other ways people can collaborate with each other.

I use Team Collaboration Patterns as a means to represent the different ways people can engage and interact with each other. These patterns provide us with options, and I have seen them enrich conversations focused on agreeing on how people can interact with each other within and across teams.

Today. I’ll provide an overview of the Community Of Practice Member pattern.

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Summary

You are part of a group of people that share passion, knowledge, and learning with each other about a certain capability

Problem

You want to to encourage grassroots level learning and shared understanding on a particular topic or capability. You may posses a functional capability that does not have an organizational home in this new world of cross functional teams. You want an opportunity to volunteer your time to collaborate with others to excel in a common craft. You want to learn from other professionals in your craft, and you want opportunities to understand more about other people’s craft.

Solution

You participate in a Community Of Practice. When you participate in a CoP, you collaborate to share knowledge among your peers. You spend some of your time creating a body of knowledge through consensus, and through sharing knowledge from practitioner experience in the field.

Discussion

Communities of Practice are responsible for stewarding specific capabilities that are important to the overall enterprise. Unlike Enablers, Communities of Practice are often virtual; membership comes from interested contributors on other teams. For CoPs to have any legs, they typically have dedicated funding and may even have dedicated management.

The difference between a Community of Practice and a more traditional Center of Excellence is that communities do not have an HR component. CoPs do not hire, fire or have any role in managing people’s careers. They are not resource centers. A communities mission is to foster a sense of community among like minded people. Communities of Practice help people move their craft forward. They hold learning events, tours, outings, etc and activity is driven largely by volunteers.

It can be hard to sustain Communities of Practice over the long run. There are many instances where Communities of Practice start with a bang, with lots of fanfare and attendance. Over time attendance can wane, delivery pressure takes precedent over contributing the the CoP, and CoP champions move on to new roles.

Yet CoPs can be incredibly valuable especially for larger organizations as it provides a mechanism to connect people outside of their reporting and/ or team structure. Consider carving out dedicated time for CoP leads to facilitate , and in times where the CoP is lagging, directly contribute content to the CoP. In larger organizations a dedicated CoP lead may be required, if CoP stewardship is to get any serious attention. An effective way to keep CoP’s vibrant is to integrate them with external industry communities, inviting external guest to speak, play host to public meetups, and sponsoring / presenting at conferences. Dedicating time to open source / creative commons or others ways to share knowledge with the public is another effective way to motivate people to contribute to CoPs.

Options

Enablement Vs Communities

It may be tempting to organize many capabilities as Enabler teams, for instance an Engineering Enabler team and a Product Owner Enabler team, or a UX Enabler team. Enablers as rule, play a much more direct role in leveling up a team in a specific capability. Enabler teams make sense when a skill set is new in the industry, and the skill set is scarce. We also use Enablers when there is value in motivating the organization towards some sort of consistency. As we try to increase agility, we want these skills to be embedded within the teams being enabled. We also to allow volunteerism to star steering the growth of knowledge and capability.

Many of the capabilities mentioned above are better represented through CoPs instead. Where we decide to have dedicated Enablers, it is recommend that these Enabler teams put some effort into standing up Communities Of Practice. A good sign of progress is when an Enabler team is able to retire, the capability is being fostered effectively through a community instead.

Other Team Collaboration Patterns

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