How does a company move from communities of interest to communities of practice? Since, after all, isn’t it ultimately the goal to build practice communities? That’s the question Steelyblades asked in response to my last post in which I reported on Mike Gotta’s session about social networking in business here at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston. In that session, Gotta related his research that showed that communities of interest tend to be more successful than communities of practice. So what does that mean for a company that wants to use the social networking effect to uncover practice expertise within their organization?
There wasn’t much talk in today’s sessions specifically about the evolution from communities of interest to communities of practice in the way of a prescription — nothing along the lines of do abc, wait three weeks, do d. But I think I can provide an answer here. The thing to remember is that the goal is to create a culture in which socialness thrives — so socialness, independent of classification (socialness around practice, socialness around interest). First, just get people comfortable connecting, sharing, helping one another, seeking one another out to exchange value. That culture becomes the foundation on which the socialness around practice can rest. But you need the culture first. If the culture is one of sharing and the social networking tools are present in the same space as the tools people use for their practice work, communities of practice can emerge. Letting people connect first around interests gives them a chance to get comfortable with the openness of social networking and they will be more likely to share professionally once they have that comfort level and an assurance that sharing is valued in the organization.
To the point of the social networking and the practice tools being present in the same space: The key, ultimately, is to integrate social networking activity into the professional practice areas where people already exist, rather than to ask them to stop carrying out their practice in one place and start doing it in another. For example, there are ways to integrate social awareness and social context into email (something Xobni does by giving you social graphs of your email habits and patterns of connection, or OutTwit that integrates Twitter and Outlook). The question was asked in the session today “How do we get people off their existing behaviors like email and get them to start using social networking.” Gotta research shows that companies that succeed at social networking adoption often don’t get people off existing behaviors and lead them down a new path to social networking. They bring the social networking to the place where people are already doing their work and mix it in.
In some respects, the emergence of communities of practice out of a culture first characterized by communities of interest is an organic emergence. As it happens, I think we have a successful example within my company, Allyis, to some extent, with what we call our Fun alias. That’s an email alias that was originally formed as a place for the handful of people who liked to play video games after hours to communicate. Over the years, it’s evolved to the point it’s at now where people talk about fun diversions, but are also just as likely to put out a call to the community about looking for a doctor, charity donations, furniture sales, and even questions searching for professional expertise.
The fun alias, is a community and it took shape organically. It was about a specific interest, but once people learned it was a safe zone in which to share, they began to share more and to share about other things. That’s the model we should be after when creating social networking communities in businesses. Create a culture of sharing, create a safe zone for people to share about their interests, integrate those social zones into existing work spaces where people are doing their practice work, let the trust and the relationships built through the sharing about interests shift the use of the space into sharing about practices, innovation, etc as the community wishes. It was pointed out today that this does take time, but there’s a tipping point after which the community has it’s own momentum and the returns that were slow to materialize increase exponentially.
There’s a lot here, and while giving communities a chance to grow organically is important and takes time, there are ways to help that process along strategically by aligning social networking activity with the goals of the organization and the professional goals of employees (I’ll get into that in a blog post in the next day or so). As a guide, though, I think it’s helpful to think about the fun alias at Allyis and how it’s evolved, and just as helpful is thinking about Twitter and how our uses of it have evolved. Most people I know on Twitter use it for the exchange of professional information, it is related to our practice work and makes us better by giving us access to expertise from throughout the network. But most people I know started out on Twitter posting about what bus they were riding, the movie they were going to see, or their lunch. They started their sharing personally, then evolved into sharing professionally as they got more confident, developed relationships and experienced value, but it’s the same space – it’s a single space that integrates interest and practice conversations. It still allows for both to whatever degree the community wishes and will allow.