Cycle 4: IF I BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?
We are an international organization with more than 50,000 employees in more than 400 sites. There are a number of users of the Articulate software in our organization. They are geographically dispersed. My goal was to create a “best practices” site for Articulate users. This is an online site built in SharePoint, a technology approved by the organization and available to all potential members.
From a pragmatic perspective, the site offers help to the occasional user who needs assistance. It is also a good way to network and get to know other developers in the organization. My goal was less pragmatic in terms of business objectives, and focused more on building a practice that actively shares and learns from each other.
The reason I believe that this approach was more consistent with communities of practice is varied. Going back to the definitions of communities of practice, the users are “informally bound…and exposed to common problems…and a common pursuit of solutions…thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge (Manville & Foote, 1996).” Wenger (1999) says, “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” In addition, Lesser and Prusack (1999) offer that they imply “knowledge in action.”
The Articulate best practices site is open for membership. Through interaction, time and experience we will develop collective meaning and levels of expertise. In addition, the online site allows us to reify our interactions and create a historical record of our activity. Not only is this a great resource for future assistance, it also provides a means to educate potential new members.
In addition to constructing the site, I believe that it can be a model for my immediate team. I opened participation for all teammates and actively recruited them to help. While I am building the site around Articulate, I actually built it inside a placeholder master site broadly focused on multimedia, where Articulate is just one element. It is my hope that my activity inspires others on the team to do something similar with their skills and passion. In our interviews, they all alluded to sharing and learning from one another. It is possible the activity with the Articulate site could become a catalyst for activities in other areas. If we want greater social connection, then we have to take the step to do so. I cannot make the connections for my teammates; however, I can proactively connect myself and model the activities that they say they would like to be part of.
I developed the Articulate best practices site using SharePoint. It is a collaborative technology that is available to all, generally easy to use, and integrates well with other software already employed in the organization.
The site is functional and made up of a series of sections. It includes:
- The ability to upload and share multimedia objects
- A FAQ section
- A repository of resources and sites
- Samples of work done
- A discussion board
It is searchable and users can subscribe to alerts, which allow them to be notified of updates or changes to the site. In addition, I created two unique areas. First, I created a “job board.” The idea is to get others to post requests for help and see if the request can be fulfilled by a different team or individual in the organization. Second, I created a survey that collects information about the experience and expertise level of participants. This is a good way for visitors to learn who has experience in specific areas.
Assessing the site development
Instead of trying to create a “community of practice committee” to determine how to best build a site, I decided to build the infrastructure myself. I did this for two main reasons. First, I wanted to get something up and running in a manner quick enough for me to implement and evaluate for this research project. If I had depended on some sort of collaborative effort, it might have taken too long to implement. Second, I am starting to believe that the focus should be less on “creating a practice” and more on what I can do to share what I know with others who might want to know it, and vice versa.
To get a sense of what people might want on the site, I became a regular reader and contributor on the Articulate vendor’s online forum. This gave me some insight into what types of issues users have and what type of help they are looking for. I was also able to glean information from the site and transfer it to specific areas on my site.
Not knowing how to use SharePoint, I did collaborate with one of my co-workers in learning it. She was also a novice user, so we learned together how to navigate the software and created a site for a joint project. Once I developed the skills in SharePoint, I began to create the site. Based on my observations on the Articulate forum and my experience fielding calls, I created a site that provided tools to get work done, samples to learn from, and resources for additional help. I also incorporated a mechanism to capture the experience level of the site members. As it is now, it is provides the basic technological infrastructure to facilitate community of practice activities. It is just the framework, and I anticipate that over time it will be populated with all types of information and represent numerous contacts and interactions.
Cycle 4 Reflection
To create a practice, people need to be linked together. From the previous cycles, it is evident that those on my team desire a connection to what they do that is greater than just completing projects. During this cycle, I was able to connect with one of my teammates. Not only did we complete a project, we shared a common learning experience.
There is something to be said about sharing the experience of learning. It contributes to a mutual feeling of accomplishment and strengthens the social connection. Each activity and conversation is sprinkled with little anecdotes and personal stories. Thus, our understanding of SharePoint will forever be bound to stories of work projects and off topic family conversations.
In addition, the activities to create a SharePoint site are similar to those indicated by Hildreth, Kimble, and Wright (2000) when they discussed how to identify communities of practice. To learn SharePoint, we were in regular contact, had many informal cubicle chats to solve problems, and shared our learning with each other and our team.
With my involvement on the Articulate forum, I also gained some insight into social learning. I made a deliberate attempt to post daily and to answer requests of users. In a matter of a few weeks, I was ranked number three in total posts. Many times, I proactively offered information or tips so that the information became available to the forum’s participants. I found that when I did this, I got a lot more informal conversation in the forum than when I just answered specific requests. In the course of this activity, it became apparent who the experts were. When looking at the site statistics, there is a correlation between the experts and their activity. The more activity, the more influence on the community. Thus, it holds that to have recognized expertise in a community requires participation and engagement.
I think an important part of the learning process is time. It takes time to establish a practice. It takes time to grow in expertise. It takes time develop relationships. From a corporate perspective, this is a challenge as there is not a lot of patience when it comes to implementation and development of skills, at least in the context of the training environment. Going forward, a consideration for me is how to strike a balance between the social aspects of learning in an organization with the need to deliver information in training modules.
Action for next cycle
The site was live but had no activity. I needed to recruit others to participate in the site. My next cycle involved the recruitment of members. How do I get others to join and actively participate?