Thursday, November 09, 2006

Managing communities of practice in organizations

Of late, I have printed more articles than I can read, so maybe I should stop printing them... But I have read one article written by Joeri an Laere called Managing communities of practice in organizations. I don't know how I found it, but had a hard time finding it back on the internet (googling didn't work).

He writes about the management dilemma: should a manager interfere with communities of practice (rule them or support them) or would it be wiser to leave them in peace? His paper based on research within the Amsterdam Police Force suggests that 'managers should not make a choice, but rather manage the competing values of different strategies'. The manager could both guide and facilitate the community from time to time rather than only support it.

He did 3 years of action-research including a simulation game. He noted down 4 coordination problems with the CoPs of the Amsterdam Police Force:

  1. Work for the CoP (called regional projects) has low priority, participation is hence unreliable.
  2. Intranet only supports formal, static information (eg. on laws) but there is a need for technologies that support informal coordination mechanisms.
  3. Police culture; policemen are selected for their self-conceit, but don't often show their weaknesses and thus do not consult others very often.
  4. The central coordinator is the only reliable source of information.

At the same time he does report that part of the members is very enthusiastic and they often work for the CoP in their free time.

He recommends that management can make a big difference by rewarding the preferred behaviour (consulting, reflecting, spending time with communities, focus on quality instead of quantity). CoP Coordinators have a lot of freedom, and might benefit from stronger monitoring.

A great explanation is given on the possible strategies of managers, from defensive blocking strategies, via neutral nurturing strategies to active interference strategies. (check that out if that is an area of interest to you).

I really liked the explanation of the possible strategies of managers, I think I will use it to analyze the behaviour of managers vis-a-vis a community of practice.

I think in this case of the Amsterdam Police Force, the CoPs work within the setting of a general organizational culture which is not favourable to the kind of knowledge sharing within CoPs. So I agree that managers can (and should) play a strong role there to turn the organisational culture around. On the other hand, I have a question about the role of CoPs themselves in turning the organizational culture around. In my own experience in West Africa the CoP created a completely different culture (much more positive) than the organisational culture.

Lastly, I would recommend coaching the coordinators, in addition to monitoring the results. Also, I would recommend to pay attention to the group of members who invest free time in their community of practice. Those are the people who are probably very passionate about the domain of the CoP because they experience it in their daily practice.


hoong said...

When I was working in the technical world (based on 2 international organizations I worked for), managers or directors were generally promoted because of their excellence in their technical performances. Once they were promoted, their technical skills become secondary importance, and spent most of part of the day dealing with the 'unpredictable human behaviours'.

I am sure mine story is not unique. And I always wonder what would be the best mix, and what kind of additional skills a technical engineer should acquired before becoming a people manager?

So, if we expect manager to deal with CoP, what kind of skills would these new-age manager need to know? What would be the expectations from the organizations from these managers?

Joitske said...

I like these questions, I read a lot on self-managed workteams, when I worked in Ghana (in a self-managed workteam). A new role was demanded of the teamleader, but it was never really clear what kind of skills and role would be needed, making it hard for the team leaders/managers.

I guess it depends whether you have a 'collaborating team leader' in Dutch meewerkende voorman, taking part in the team work, not just managing fulltime. It will be easier for them to understand the practice issues than for fulltime managers.

hoong said...

Without going into great details, I think the prespectives of training and hiring, just to name two of HR management functions, I think skills and knowledge inventory are very important. One would need them for year-end assessments, promotions, even firing etc. And of course it is important for people who are looking for work.

Normally we see a list of skills that are required for receiptionist, check-out girls/boys, or even a train conductor? It is intersting that there is seemingly free-falls for such an important function?