Yesterday I saw an interview with Ron Fouchier, a professor in molecular virology about the search for vaccines for the swine pest (you can still watch the interview with Ron Fouchier in Dutch here). He works for the Erasmus University, one of the centres that will get the virus to start cooking up a vaccin.
What's interesting is how he phrased the collaboration with other centres. In the case of SARS, they were one of the 6-7 centres of excellence working to find a vaccine. He calls it a 'fair competition' between the centres whereby the Erasmus had won some 'small competitions'. I can imagine the centres are in close contact, but try to be smarter than the others. You could see them as a community of practice, exchanging information and ideas and trying to innovate. Or you could see it as a project team with a clear aim- finding the vaccin.
What strikes me is that he could so clearly articulate the resulting benefit of the process. In the end, they will contribute to public health by finding a vaccine that will help control the swine flu. Nobody will contest the fact that they need to collaborate and exchange.
In a lot of communities of practice though, participants find it hard to articulate the benefits. As a result, exchange in the communities is sometimes seen by managers and sponsors as unnecessary waste of the practitioners time. In this case, it is amazingly clear, and it would be weird if anybody would object to exchange of information. Not in all communities it might be possible to stress the added value so clearly, and to have such a compelling goal. Nevertheless, I think it is important to try and make a similar case. Which vaccine are you hoping to develop with your community of practice? What will this bring to your organisations and sponsors?