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Building a Professional Community

Crowd

If you have ever been part of an active professional community you will want to experience it again. It is energizing and rewarding to be part of a group that finds ways to do things better. Vibrant communities combine face-to-face meetings with an online hub for sharing resources and coordinating events. Organizations such as Schlumberger have recognized the benefit of sharing best practices and have invested in internal professional communities – often referred to as communities of practice.

According to Etienne Wenger, “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Benefits

Since participation is usually voluntary, a community must deliver value to the organization and to individual members. Individuals profit through increased knowledge, networking opportunities and peer recognition for their expertise. New employees can turn to the community to find out what really works. All this can lead to significant cost savings for the organization. Schlumberger states that its InTouch system, which provides technical and operational support to field staff, saves more than USD 200 million per year. The company has also measured a 95% improvement in response time for technical queries.

Challenges

Often, existing networks form the foundation of new professional communities. This was true for Schlumberger’s Eureka Technical Communities. The Intranet based-system made it easier for existing networks of experts to share knowledge with colleagues around the globe – allowing true communities of practice to emerge over time.

You cannot force “community.” Communities evolve organically – they must be nurtured before they will take root and thrive. Henry Edmundson, former Director of Technical Communities at Schlumberger, notes in Fast Company: “It’s fairly chaotic, and that’s good. You can’t force these things. People will use groups the way they want to – or they won’t use them at all.”

Developing a professional community is more about providing the right opportunities for interaction than designing the community from scratch. Unless members interact and share, simply having a community website does not make a community of practice. Active communities such as open source software development do have different roles such as community leaders, branch maintainers, core contributors, etc. However, these roles tend to emerge from the community and evolve over time.

How to Get Started

If you are thinking about building a community within your organization, here are a few things worth paying attention to from the beginning.

  • Determine the focus and goal(s) for the community. What product, idea or problem do you plan to cultivate the community around? Guy Kawasaki, author of The Art of Creating a Community, says, “If you create a great product, you may not be able to stop a community from forming even if you tried. By contrast, it’s hard to build a community around mundane and mediocre crap no matter how hard you try.”
  • Identify the people who are already excited about the product or idea. They will become the heart of the community, actively contributing to the core body of knowledge, ensuring quality of contributions and helping the community grow.
  • Make sure you are ready to take on “founder” responsibilities. A community needs a leader to inspire and bring people together. As founder, you will actively shape the community. Your actions and behaviors will determine whether others will contribute. In the beginning, it is likely that you will be the one coordinating events, establishing infrastructure and letting people know about the community. Make sure you are prepared to shoulder these responsibilities until others step in as the community begins to evolve.
  • Start small and invite people personally. Scott Berkun provides an example of a “relaxed” community invitation in Making Things Happen: “Want to kick ass at leading and managing teams? We are forming a small group of people interested in becoming better team leaders and managers.”
  • Be realistic about levels of participation. Time and energy are limited. We all have to choose carefully where to invest. Don’t expect to draw everyone immediately into active participation. The “core” group of contributors may remain small. Quite a few people may attend community events but still choose not to contribute actively. Some may feel that they do not have the knowledge or authority needed; others may simply lack the time. Over time, more people may choose to get involved if they see the value of contributing.
  • Do not underestimate people’s need for recognition. Contributions will likely increase when people are recognized for their work. The pleasure received from public recognition voluntary work is sometimes referred to as Egoboo. Reciprocity also plays a role; people contribute with the expectation of receiving help in return. Incentives such as awarding members points that they can spend in a virtual store may also boost participation.
  • Establish ground rules. Guidelines help make expectations clear and avoid unnecessary conflicts. For a common body of knowledge such as a wiki, you will need guidelines concerning quality, ownership and editorial decision making to avoid potential conflict. Wikipedia has listed more than 200 guidelines.
  • Welcome new members.  Help people get oriented quickly. Recruit community volunteers to show new members around and introduce them to others.
  • Don’t just sit there, do something! Guy Kawasaki says, “Communities can’t just sit around composing love letters to your CEO about how great she is.” Create a list of problems and issues to work on. Look for ways to improve and innovate. Refrain from endless debates and end each meeting with actionable items.

Photo credit: Yodel Anecdotal/Yahoo! Inc.

Further reading:

  • In their Harvard Business Review article, Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder provide seven principles for cultivating communities.
  • Guy Kawasaki lists things to consider in the Art of Creating a Community.
  • Etienne Wenger explains what communities of practice are.
  • This Wiki article discusses why people are motivated to participate online.
  • Edmundson, Henry. (2001) Technical Communities of Practice at Schlumberger. Knowledge Management Review, 4 (2), 20-23.

Claxus is an international training & consulting firm based in Zurich, Switzerland. We are powered by an international network of experts in business leadership, communication and change management.


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