Sustainable Communities: Top 10 CSFs for Keeping the Faith

Blog Topic: 
Sustainable Communities

Launching and getting up and running is only half the battle when it comes to CoPs.  CoP pundits are constantly advocating new social technologies, new processes, and new metrics. But for a CoP (and its members) to thrive requires embracing a few simple organizational change ideas, and making them concrete, authentic, and fun. The “Sustainable Communities Critical Success Factors” do just that.  (This blog post previously appeared with graphics in the IBM blog) Katrina Pugh, July 19, 2010.

A sustainable Community of Practice (CoP)demonstrates measurable value to both the organization and CoP participants – contributing relevant knowledge, and nourishing lasting and productive relationships.  Any CoP, by definition, convenes to cross organizational boundaries, to build a shared body of knowledge, and to network.  But a sustainable CoP comes together with a shared sense of passion and applies that to practical outputs. While most COPs fade, sustainable CoPs endure:

  • Members express a spirit of volunteerism that beyond their personal objectives and “WIIFM”;
  • CoP “working groups” generate relevant products that integrate diverse insights; and
  • CoP outcomes show up in corporate metrics, and, ultimately CoP ideas influence corporate planning. 

The virtuous cycle above came to me over ten years of trial and error as a member or leader of about 50 CoPs. I found thatgetting the CoP started was just the tip of the iceberg.  To endure, a CoP must have both the fortitude to withstand criticism, and flexibility to evolve as the market changes.  That requires a regular tuning to the corporate goals (in green, “strategic alignment”), a great sense of process (“facilitation”), and even a bit of shameless self promotion (“recognition”).

Sustainable CoPs begin with a common sense of need.  Members believe that the community is essential to their individual effectiveness (e.g., market presence, knowledge currency, sounding board), and that wholeness of the community is essential to their own wholeness.  For example, a member’s departure represents a loss of insight or perspective. Effectively, members share a sense of “fate.”  Sustainable CoPs transform that sense of fate into a shared personal commitment.  That is, beyond charters and metrics. Reaching across boundaries, members gain a certain “faith” that the CoP is a worthy haven, e.g., for courageous work and unprecedented outcomes.

This sense of “faith” is not always dependable, and it is certainly not “free.”  Where my CoPs have found this, they’ve been intentional about how they build, engage, or restore that CoP commitment.  Over time, I’ve come to believe in this simple equation: 

Shared Fate + Intention = Shared Faith


Sustainable Communities’ Ten CSFs

I’ve tried to boil down CoP practices that I’ve picked up along the way into “Critical Success Factors,” or CSFs.  I’ll share the highlights.  I’m not putting them in any particular order, except, perhaps how they became apparent to me as I failed at different ways of managing and participating (sometimes taking rejection too personally), and rethought my approaches.  Here are the Ten CSFs, in brief[1]:

  1. Regular Real-time Meeting: Meeting regularly in person or virtually creates connection, a sense of belongingness, and an experience of “showing up for each other.” For both participant and listener, the real-time conversation -- with its cadence, inflection, and direct interaction-- goes far beyond text-only dialogue to help transform interaction into co-creation.
  2. Role/Charter-Clarity: Avoiding two common CoP hazards, ambiguity and scope-creep, requires role clarity for the community. The charter clarifies where you are going (and why a CoP is suitable for that journey).  Role definitions succinctly show the workings of the CoP operation to any member or onlooker. Role definitions are just as essential for community members at large, as they are for the Core Team, the working group leaders, and the Sponsors.
  3. Leadership and Facilitation: To hang together, all communities need some form of governance.  An effective leader-group generally includes the Sponsor, the Core Team, and Working Group leaders.  The Core Team is like the power company.  Facilitating, networking and representing the community to the Sponsor, they open the current, light up new houses, and provide a sort of grid for finding members’ energy. The Working Group leaders are like electrical switches. They play a crucial role in directing community members’ energy toward agreed-upon CoP “products.”
  4. Practitioner-Led: CoP's are considered effective and “value-added” only when they are led by the practitioners. In other words, even while social media experts may step in to help jump-start the group’s formation, practitioners are the most credible leaders. (Just a note of caution: Make sure that a enthusiastic [read: dogmatic] subject matter expert is not also the facilitator, lest they dominate the thought and crowd out the learners or explorers.)
  5. Establish Rapport Explicitly: To build CoP member engagement, leaders use facilitation moves and off-line check-ins with participants. For example, my Core Teams have “dialed for dollars,” each of us checking in with a handful of members at random between full-membership meetings. I’ve often come out of those calls with improvement ideas, working group volunteers, and new member candidates.
  6. Ground Rules:  Just as the routine meeting is critical, so too are ground rules -- the conduct and overt expression of shared values in the meetings.  For example, IBM’s Rawn Shah identified nine “guidelines” at the E2.0 meeting in Boston June 14th, including such unconventional “rules” as “Be the first to respond to your own mistakes,” and “Be who you are.”
  7. New Member On-boarding:  Formal onboarding accelerates the time to make the “newbie” feel a sense of belonging , and for them to contribute productively.  I’ve used simple new member virtual “packets,” containing things like CoP charter, workspace or microblog sign-on instructions, meeting schedules, leader profiles, working group information, and ground rules.
  8. Measure and Continuously Improve: CoP measurement has two major goals: 1.) Keeping your Sponsors on-board; and 2.) Enabling members to periodically celebrate or make course-corrections.  Even while hard numbers for CoPs’ impacts on revenue and productivity are hard to come by, such formal business measures can be shown to correlate with member counts, meeting participation, people-finds, docs-shared, and focused deliverables of working groups.  Anecdotes about knowledge-reuse are also useful for representing the CoP’s impact.
  9. Use Technology Effectively:  Before talking about technology, first some definitions: “CoPs are the human beings.  Tools enable their processes and connections.” CoPs are NOT the tool. (Nothing irks me more than when someone points to the computer monitor and says, “See the CoP?”)  With humans in mind, the tool(s) must be easy to integrate into life. More is not better. The CoP needs to size up the typical members’ capacity to engage with technology, and then prioritize among things like shared doc-stores, RSS feeds, Threaded Discussions, LiveMeetings, Microblogs, Social Bookmarks and Wikis.
  10. Get Recognition/Give Recognition: Recognition is not only fun. It also makes sense. Community-pride and cohesion grow with recognition from the organization, and individuals’ CoP loyalty grows with authentic recognition by the CoP members.  Effective CoPs I led were routinely nominated for corporate awards, and we also took meeting time to recognize members’ valuable actions, such as leading working groups, contributing discussion threads, and welcoming new members.

The ten CSFs can be a good way for CoPs to do a self-assessment, and consider course corrections.  More, using the CSFs to benchmarking across CoPs can lead to good learning and cross-pollenization.  

Where from Here?

Sustainable CoPs who practice the CSFs are those where members get value.  Specifically, members…

  • Come together around a goal that they’re passionate about;
  • Think across functional or divisional or organizational silos;
  • Test ideas in safety, and grow a sense of trust through a shared track record of debates, explorations, and truth-tellings;
  • Experience collaboration without hierarchy or judgment;
  • Serve as a powerful, cross-organizational voting block for topics that don't have natural support from silo-owners; and
  • Tap into a network of supportive problem-solvers.

When members’ feel their CoP participation is worthwhile -- when they share a “faith” -- the CoP can also grow into a business-critical corporate asset.  Productive relationships result in outcomes like smarter selling, faster delivery times, faster integration of new employees or new (acquired) businesses, and greater safety.  CoPs are not for the faint of heart.  I’m the first to admit that working the ten CSFs can be challenging. But the rewards are tremendous. 

[1]Note that these CSFs, developed initially in 2006, have a lot in common with the Communities Manifestopublished by Stan Garfield (Deloitte) in 2010.

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