Most of my recent posts have been focused on enterprise search, so I thought I would take a break from that topic and write about another area of focus in the last several years – communities of practice (CoP) and the business problem of metrics associated with CoPs.
My current employer has had a CoP program for several years now (initiated under the direction of Ray Sims when he was Director of Knowledge Management here), though in recent years, investing in the formality of the program has dropped to almost nothing. I believe the strategy is that we were successful in initiating the program, so the CoPs should be able to self-maintain now. To be honest, I remain suspect of that, but it’s tangential to what I wanted to share here.
A Question of Membership
What I do want to provide here is some insight on some of the metrics we have provided to support this program and focus on one area in particular that might be of interest – membership in the communities. To support the business’s need to understand the communities, a common set of questions we were asked were: “How big are these communities?”, “Are the communities growing?”, “Who are the members of community X?”, and so on. Not necessarily really that pertinent to the success of the communities but those who were sponsoring and / or leading the communities wanted to know this type of information.
When we first launched the program, one of the activities we undertook was to understand the infrastructural needs of our communities and what technologies we had in place to support them. The company had a number of communities that had grown up over the years, primarily around the creation of products and delivery of services related to those products, so we had a start on this effort already – several communities were already in place and simply needed to be acknowledged.
Due to the history of the corporation, we have a rather distributed employee population, especially in the services area, so much of the interaction among community members needs to be electronic. Part of the infrastructure review was to understand what was already being used, but also to understand what the communities needed to succeed.
Among the many various tools we found people using within the company, a common thread was the use of an internal mailing list server for communication. As we worked through the current state assessment of technology and also had to address the question of membership, we struck upon an answer that we found very useful:
The membership of a community would be defined by the membership in the related mailing list(s).
We generalized to multiple lists instead of defining the (narrower) approach of a single mailing list to a community because another track of the CoP initiative was to align our communities with the solutions in which we positioned our products. So, for example, we might have a resource management community which encompasses a number of products and each of those products might have one (or more than one) mailing list associated with it. We would include anyone who was a member of any of those mailing lists as a member of the resource management community.
This provided a means for communities to have a broad spectrum of interest groups and allowed for people to involve themselves in any one in which they might be interested.
Because this is a self-subscription mailing list server, it provides people with the ability to involve themselves in whatever community(ies) in which they have an interest. There is no need for a gatekeeper / manager or in any way involve someone else to join.
Challenges with Membership through Mailing Lists
Of course, this approach was not without its issues. These included:
- It can (and was) argued that this approach leads to many people being considered “members” of a community of which they are not even aware. This is due to the historical nature of the mailing lists (pre-dating the CoP initiative).
- Simply because someone subscribes to a mailing list does not really imply that they want to take part in the community at large – they simply want to find a way to discuss “product X”.
- On the technical end of things – it often happens that someone may subscribe to a list, but their subscription is not removed when they leave the company. This leaves the potential for including members who are not “real”.
So, with the definition for community membership in place (albeit not perfect), what kinds of insights were we able to draw from this? Look for my next post where I’ll start to delve into that area a bit more.