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Communities of Practice

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Knowledge management is one the fundamental quality tools – the better people know how to do their jobs, the better their output and the less mistakes they will make. Finding ways to sustain knowledge is therefore a critical job for the quality manager.

There are two types of knowledge that require two very different methods of management. First, explicit knowledge is that which can be written down and so may be communicated to others as needed. This is the knowledge that quality professionals often work with when they are mapping processes and structuring documentation systems. The second type of knowledge, tacit knowledge, is less tractable in that it is difficult to write down and capture. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge of the expert, the person who has spent years learning on the job or training as an apprentice under a master.

So how do you manage tacit knowledge? If you cannot write it down, how do you preserve it, spread ‘best practice’ and teach it to new people? There is no easy answer to this, but one tool you can use is ‘Communities of Practice’. In keeping with the different nature of tacit knowledge, it is not like the ‘normal’ quality tool, which is itself structured and explicit.

A Community of Practice (CoP) is, in its simplest form, a loose collection of professionals who occasionally meet up to share ideas and ‘what works’. It is not a normal part of the day job and may fall under the radar, unnoticed by managers and HR. They may not even be realised as a critical knowledge tool by their members. Yet these groups are often crucial for sharing knowledge and sustaining professional development of their members.

So how do they develop and how can you help them? Internal Communities of Practice happen within companies where ‘birds of a feather’ find one another and ‘flock together’ perhaps initially for chats over lunch and later in meetings to help one another out. An important point: you cannot force such groups and if you try to ‘manage’ them, their members will drift away. They have to be self-managed. All you can do is create the conditions and prompt people to collaborate. Importantly, such meetings must allow very free, trusting and open conversation, including criticising the organisation and its managers.

As an example, a quality manager might go around the security managers in the organisation, each of which may be working independently, then introduce them to one another. Suggestions of ‘getting together’ might be a good idea and you can even find an excuse to fund them travelling all to one place, such as for a ‘joint security review’ of one facility, putting them all up in a single hotel and organising dinner just for them (making your excuses not to be there).

External Communities of Practice mean connecting with people with similar interests in other organisations. Fortunately, there are a number of routes to do this. One way is to send people on open training sessions, where they will meet and can network with others (such as a ‘business continuity’ qualification class for your BC manager). Another route is sending people to conferences. A third and important route is to encourage people to join their professional institute (such as the CQI, of course!), where ideas can be exchanged and good practice learned. Much also can be done online these days and there are groups on websites such as LinkedIn who discuss and share the esoterica of professional subjects.


Next time:  Bodies of Knowledge


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


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