Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Making organizations sticky: communities of practice in the wired world
Abstract Business communications technologies are leveraging intellectual capital by freeing people from their desks, reducing turnover, and boosting productivity. Telework, mobility, and unified messaging solutions confer enormous benefits, but they also impact human resources policies, organizational memory and learning, and the way companies are managed and led. Communities of practice can provide virtual gathering places that build social capital and facilitate communication.
Keywords Organizational culture, Organizations, Knowledge management, Society
The telecommunications revolution has changed everything. Where the workplace used to be brick and mortar, it's now as likely to be "click and port'er" over the network. But where there is progress there are also unintended consequences.
Between a rock and a hard place
The traditional office has its disadvantages. In the metropolitan areas, commuting takes its toll on the environment as well as employee morale and productivity. The Information Age makes attracting and retaining human assets the critical path, but the best and the brightest don't always want to live wherever headquarters is, much less relocate there. And, the cost of office space isn't expected to get cheaper any time soon.
"...Communities of practice can offer status that is not available in the shade of the ancient pyramids - outside the 'chain of command'..."
Remote access – teleworking, mobility, dispersed organizations – has addressed many of these issues. The virtual office stretches productive time, from the road warrior to the dedicated worker bee who slips in a few extra hours at the computer after dinner with the family. It helps keep sales folks in front of customers. It enables experts from Armonk to Zambia to rub their IQ points together on real-time problems. It allows mildly ill employees to stay abreast of their projects while resting at home, and lets moms and dads work from a sick child's bedside. It is highly attractive to knowledge workers. It reduces the wear and tear of commuting and prevents the worsening of air pollution. It's pretty much Mom and apple pie hybridized with the ultimate strategic defense system.
But, there's a dark side.
Communications solutions make the "virtual" or "dispersed" organization tenable, but they don't necessarily make it robust. As Gertrude Stein famously observed: "There is no 'there' there." It's harder to bring new people into the business and culture when there's nobody physically in the office, or when the manager is not only "out of the office," but also out of the state. Instructions and processes are all very well, but the "way things work around here" is not documented anywhere. We learn a lot by just hanging around, by overhearing, in casual conversation, in line for the shuttle, in friendship. Helping a colleague with a paper jam may one day help get you out of a jam. Organizational memory and sharing of tacit knowledge take a hit when people can't rub shoulders with each other. Communication is trickier – sparks don't exactly fly over the teleconference bridge – and social capital is harder to build.
The work of knowledge managers and organizational communication consultants is cut out for them: build a toolkit for making organizations sticky by cultivating connections. Wires aren't enough; you need glue, too.
The virtual water cooler
At Siemens Information and Communications, we are experts in the anytime/anywhere/anyone organization. Our broadband, unified messaging, cellular, teleworking, IP, and converged network solutions have positioned us to lead the field in living by these two-edged swords.
And a complex and rapidly changing business environment drives us to redeploy around new markets regularly. Our offices in over 200 countries around the globe give us a universe of ideas and experience to share and build upon, electronically, of course. Obviously, our way of doing business is a high-tech experience. So, we are developing ways to make it "high touch" as well.
Communities of practice are virtual gathering places that can shape this new organizational dynamic. Although usually touted for their ability to leverage and diffuse tacit knowledge, communities of practice can fulfill two other roles in the information age. First, they add a social and professional richness to the workplace, putting the "there" back into the office, even in the absence of the traditional altar of office communication: the venerable water cooler. Second, they are ready-made and highly effective communication networks.
Communities of practice build social capital. With the best companies opening their wallets for the brightest minds, it's a challenge to attract and retain the best workforce. But money isn't everything. Organizational culture and close association with the other sharpest minds in the rack can be powerfully attractive. Participation in communities can give exposure and validation to professionals' ideas. Often experts in a highly specialized field, professionals can feel isolated and undervalued in a cross-functional team environment. A dispersed organization exacerbates this effect. Communities of practice and related initiatives such as mentoring programs fill the bill for building a professional and social structure in the workplace that can sustain employees through unpleasant times. Research shows that people who have warm relationships with their colleagues are far less likely to seek another job.
"...Although communities of practice can seem like a not quite necessary frill, . . . in fact, they can be harnessed as stewards of organizational culture and communication..."
Providing recognition is a necessary component of retaining talent, but most people don't make it "to the top" because there simply isn't room. Organizations are, to a large extent, shaped like pyramids – big at the bottom, small at the top. How do we reward (and retain) valuable contributors who have the law of numbers against them? Communities of practice can offer status that is not available in the shade of the ancient pyramids – outside the "chain of command." This approach is both effective and economical. People who have leveled out in their climb up the ladder do one of two things: leave the company, or turn outward to find stature in community groups, mentoring relationships, or other social structures. When communities of practice fulfil this "recognition" role, the employee and the company both win.
Communities of practice can alleviate some of the headaches of communication in a dispersed environment, and good communication fosters social capital and keeps people aligned with the organizational mission. But, getting the right message to the right people has never been harder, despite the glut of media and communication devices. In fact, some difficulties stem from that overabundance. Perhaps the largest problem is how to sound a note that stands out from the babble but harmonizes with the receiver's experience of the world.
Much has been written in communication journals about the effectiveness of managerial communication and whether first-line managers are the messengers of choice. "Ambassador" programs have been implemented that establish an expert, or champion, to serve as liaison with a group or location in order to best carry the water down the communication bucket brigade. Communities of practice can do much of what managers and ambassadors can do, and more.
Communities of practice are the Cadillacs of communication networks. They often maintain distribution lists and sponsor face-to-face events. Members tend to like and trust one another and share some perspectives and habits of mind. Communities of practice can help with garden-variety communication problems such as:
Coverage. How do you know that you've covered all the groups of people you need to reach, how do you select subsets of the whole organization, and how do you maintain distribution lists for them? It's impractical to think that an organization could cover its entire population by using the distribution lists of communities of practice alone. However, knowing your communities and cultivating relationships with them can improve coverage in a communication campaign. And where communities exist, they are particularly good at keeping in touch with one another. They have tried-and-true distribution lists and communication practices, so it's clear how to ensure that members get the message. They are knowledgeable about which media channels are best used with the group, and because they communicate regularly, it can be effective to piggyback on a newsletter or make a guest appearance at a community event.
Targeting. How do you avoid contributing to the infolanche by broadcasting your message too broadly? Communities are a naturally "targeted" group, especially useful if the message pertains to their area of interest. Because members are familiar with one another and share something important, communications within the group have special interest and are not likely to be shucked onto a pile of "to read later (never)" as the employee magazine might be.
Credibility. Why are you to be believed? If you represent the official position of the organization, your audiences probably don't entirely believe you. It's nothing personal, it's just that most people are pretty sophisticated consumers of information, and they know that for strategic reasons the "official" word is, by necessity, not the whole truth. Informal (water cooler) communication is more revealing, but less reliable. That's why a mix of official position and grapevine is best. Communities of practice are the ideal grapevines. Members know and trust one another and make highly credible messengers.
Articulation. How do you make your messages fit in your listener's world? Because community members have similar interests, they are good at interpreting high-level news in the context of their role in the organization. This can be useful before a communication campaign is launched, since communities can give communicators insights on how news is likely to be received. And afterwards, they can give feedback on how things are going. In this way, they can become part of the communication team.
Any employee survey will tell you that communication is key to employee morale and alignment to company strategy. Although communities of practice can seem like a not quite necessary frill – what is this "tacit knowledge" anyway? – in fact, they can be harnessed as stewards of organizational culture and communication.