An aging workforce is becoming the hard-felt reality not only in the United States, but also in Europe and Japan. The obvious impact is that there won’t be enough hands and legs to do the jobs being performed today, but a more critical impact will be the loss of tacit knowledge, which is not explicit and often not documented.
It is the tacit knowledge that operationalizes our organizations and provides us with innovation. The challenge, then, is managing the retention and sharing of our valuable tacit knowledge. Communities of practice are an effective method for bringing tacit knowledge into the light, sharing it, contextualizing it and putting it to good use.
The concept of a community of practice is simple — all that is needed is a group of people who have a common interest and the desire to share their knowledge within a community. It doesn’t have to be formally structured, but the greater the definition of process, the higher the returns will be in managing knowledge and applying it to create value. Here are a couple of examples.
On the less formalized end of the scale, some professionals are self-motivated and decide to meet periodically to share their experiences. The meeting and sharing of knowledge has obvious benefits to those who participate, but the long-term retention of knowledge remains tacit and resides only in the minds of those in the group.
Another less formalized, yet effective, community of practice is the discussion groups that have been created under the banner of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), a 93,000-member professional association that advances learning, quality improvement and knowledge exchange to improve business results and create better workplaces and communities worldwide.
ASQ discussion groups are communities of practice that are geographically based and share industry experience as it relates to quality processes. The first discussion group was created as part of the ASQ’s biomedical division in the Boston area.
This group was made up of quality professionals from various pharmaceutical companies in the region. Their objective was not to compete against one another but, rather, share their tacit knowledge regarding the challenges they all faced. Although the process began very informally, structure and process eventually were introduced to better manage interaction and knowledge sharing.
Since the first ASQ discussion group was formed, more have been established, following the lessons learned in Boston. ASQ facilitated the development of policies and procedures for such communities of practice and provided funding to help them get going.
For example, the aviation, space and defense division of ASQ is developing a discussion group in the Southern California area. The reason for selecting Southern California is obvious: The area has many aerospace and defense companies. The need is not as obvious, however — although there are still a number of large aerospace and defense companies in the region, there are even more small businesses that do not have the learning and development resources the big guys have.
What’s happening there is that professionals from big and small companies are organizing themselves as a community of practice to provide low-cost learning, mentoring and open discussion opportunities. This interaction is a win-win situation for all involved as supplier chains are crisscrossed and intertwined throughout the region.
In this case, both explicit and tacit knowledge are being shared, and professional development is occurring. The retention thereof, however, is still to be developed.
On the higher end of the capability scale, integrated product management teams (IPMTs) provide structure and action as a community of practice. An IPMT is a group of professionals who represent various functional disciplines whose common interest is a product, service or process. What IPMTs bring to the game is a holistic perspective of what’s going on.
In a manufacturing example, an IPMT will have representatives from engineering, manufacturing, quality, procurement and critical suppliers. A service example might have representatives from sales, operations and customer support. In a hospital environment, we might see an IPMT with representatives from the emergency room, administration, kitchen services, nursing, surgical staff and facilities.
Regardless of the setting, the objective is the same: Bring value to the customer while improving business processes. In doing so, waste is minimized by bringing the perspectives of the entire value stream to a community process of knowledge sharing.
Processes that facilitate structured knowledge sharing ensure the white space between process owners is not missed. And when the community formalizes its knowledge into standard work processes, tacit knowledge becomes explicit and is no longer subject to loss when someone leaves the organization.
By instilling these structured processes, an organization can create communities of practice throughout and flow knowledge and action to where they are need. Figure 1 is an example of the various roles and responsibilities an IPMT would have.
The more that is invested into the structure of communities of practice, the greater the value the organization (and, ultimately, the consumer) will realize. In regard to focusing on customer satisfaction and the quality and products the organization provides, IPMTs perform a critical role in interpreting what’s going on through a series of sense-making activities and then leading action.
As displayed in Figure 1, the IPMT can be structured into a series of subteams, but as supplier bases span the globe, the challenge of command and control of knowledge becomes more challenging. Therefore, a network of communities of practice that are governed by process and procedure can facilitate rapid understanding and action.
There is a model to facilitate an integrated network of communities of practice — the VISION network is based on the expectation of the VISION process (which stands for Verify the problem or challenge, Investigate the true root cause, Standardize the solution, Integrate the solution enterprisewide, Optimize the process and No recurrence shall ever occur).
In short, an organization protects customers by engaging in learning and sharing of knowledge. The challenge, as with most organizational processes, is discipline and commitment. Not every problem should go through a process such as VISION, but those that have the potential to cause harm or have substantial cost certainly should. Figure 2 illustrates how a VISION network might be structured.
In the end, learning occurs within a larger distributed community, and the resulting knowledge is retained in new standard work documents (descriptions of how to perform a process or to create a product design). This represents the latest understanding within the community and includes the “know capability” to execute processes and designs.
So, as an IPMT within a community network obtains new knowledge, it is integrated into the community’s standard work. This turns the tacit into explicit and allows for retrieval and reuse.
Applying tools and processes within communities of practice allow for retention and knowledge sharing. The IPMT and VISION network models are examples of how structure and process can be brought to operational learning. Without such processes, organizations are doomed to relearn the same knowledge over and over again.
In a final example of operationalizing communities of practice, ASQ has recognized that the development of the quality profession is one of its primary purposes. As such, ASQ is developing structured community of practice processes throughout its membership base.
ASQ’s structure consists of a headquarters staff that facilitates the day-to-day business of the society, industry-focused divisions that are led by member leaders and member-led sections that are based on where members live. In each division and section, there are many chair positions, including an education chair.
In the ongoing initiative, ASQ is developing roles, responsibilities and process for the education chairs and enabling them with tools to collaborate and leverage society intellectual capital. In short, the quality profession is applying quality tools to enhance the knowledge base of the profession and to remove waste in the sharing of professional knowledge.
So, how do you get started? First, determine the need for establishing a community of practice. What is the purpose of the community of practice? If the community is simply to maintain professional awareness, then its structure should remain simple. But if the objective is to effectively manage the intellectual power of a community, organization or value stream, then processes and procedures should be considered to ensure success. Figure 3 provides an idea of how the level of process rigor relates to effectively managing knowledge in communities of practice.
But don’t do something because it sounds like something you should be doing — make sure you truly understand the purpose, objective and value of the activity in which you are about to engage. Then, make sure the right people are involved and that they have the resources to do it correctly. With communities of practice, if it’s done right, the return on investment is huge.
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