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How to avoid siloed villages of practice

Communities of Practice are great, right? Whether you call them Guilds, Centres of Excellence, or Special Interest Groups — it is good to create a space for people who share a common discipline to support their joint professional development. But what happens if these sit in isolated pockets? Welcome to the headache of Villages of Practice.

The benefits of communities of practice

In mature organizations, communities of practice have become a vital part of how they support continuing professional development in their staff. They can provide a key way of capturing and sharing tacit knowledge, that often used to be handled out of context by HR or learning and development teams.

Some common benefits of communities of practice include:

  • Helping new employees become productive and effective much faster
  • Ensuring a common playbook that reduces rework or multiples ways of getting the same outcome
  • Resolving those harder problems that arise from their stakeholders and often customers too
  • Innovation and improvement in how they work

When communities are isolated

So what happens in larger organization, where people come together to develop their practice, but do this in isolated pockets?

Imagine, if you will, a large multi-national corporation, with offices in Europe and the US. Each office employs from several hundred to several thousand people. In each office there are teams that include business analysts, project managers, software developers, quality assurance engineers, user experience designers, etc. etc.

Back in May 2016, some of the QA engineers in Europe went to an after-work Tester’s Meetup and decided that they want to invest more time in improving their practices. They set up a Test Guild, and over the months up until the Christmas break they made great strides, and the number of defects founds after release to market dropped significantly.

In August 2016, some of the QA engineers in the US attended a conference, and felt that they needed the same thing. They formed a Quality Community of Practice, and implemented a number of new testing practices that also changed the way that business analysts defined the work and how software developers built it. Throughput of those teams increased dramatically.

The efforts of both groups resulted in improvements. Now imagine that the CIO, who is UK-based, has seen this improvement and mandates that the Guild’s approach be rolled out across the whole company.

Yes, before you ask, this is entirely fictitious — but what would you expect to happen? Of course, the US engineers would have been resistant, their morale and engagement would have been damaged, and all the improvements they made would have been steadily eroded.

Avoid isolation, find ways of coming together

Avoid these sorts of problems. Ensure that you share practice improvements across multiple sites.

  • Where possible, hold simultaneous practice meetings across all sites, with video conference links.
  • Even when you cannot do that, build a common backlog of improvement ideas, create cross-site working groups that can collaborate on the ideas, and then roll them out to all sites.
  • You can still look for small innovations: pilot an idea with one team at one site — then share the learning from that and roll it back or roll it out as swiftly as possible.

If you have multiple sites, do you have separate or integrated communities of practice? What has worked? What hasn’t? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

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