Killing Communities - and other obsolete business metaphors

In my ongoing series of mea culpa posts, (still doing penance for portals), it's time to retire the phrasing:  "Communities of Practice (CoPs)." (And its siblings: Communities of Purpose, Communities of Interest - although that last may live on.)

Within the Knowledge Management (KM) discipline, there has always been a conviction that if we stitch together practitioners across a firm; we will recognize indirect value through unanticipated innovations, higher retention, faster problem solving, and all the good things that networks deliver to people and businesses. To be clear, this is still my conviction - and this leads to all manner of happy insights regarding a network-centric approach to KM.

Except we didn't call them networks, we went with Communities. Great early work by Etienne Wenger and others recognized that most learning and increased proficiency happened as a result of connections among apprentices, and not at the feet of the masters. His definition: "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."  When did this become a problem? When businesses decided to replicate the observation. "Ok, so now we need Communities of Practice? Got it!" 

While Wenger cautioned that a website was not a community, technology vendors began offering CoP templates, blogging platforms, groupware, and the like. Companies began assigning people to "Communities" and providing metrics - x number of blogs per month, noted participation as part of the job description, etc. Employees were told that a new way of work was here, and sharing was a goal unto itself. Internal Community Stewards tended to the content, convening of the people, and the refreshing of the interface; until these teams became prime targets for cost-cutting measures.

Wenger was not wrong, in my view - what went awry is, as ever, was the implementation. We picked up the usual management controls, and aimed them at "setting up communities" at work. We observed something useful about masters and apprentices, through (in one case) the informal network of repair professionals; and decided to formalize and scale for business value using the same mechanisms that we apply to most business problems.

My comparison here is the loathsome Homeowners Association (HOA) model. HOAs are crafted based on the notion that if everyone adheres to the same color scheme in painting their homes, keeps their lawns trimmed, and uses only approved trash receptacles; everyone will enjoy a better life and higher home values. The HOA can't do anything to directly influence home values (or happiness), and so the focus is entirely on enforcing agreed-upon process metrics. The "Association" is to an actual association as an overnight jail lockup is to a happy hour. People do not congregate joyfully at the HOA annual meetings. Homeowners do not use the HOA as a way to solve neighborhood problems, other than through passive-aggressiveness. Attending to HOA affairs is an 'additional duty' for the beleaguered homeowner. Actual neighbor networks emerge, where they do emerge, from the community principles Wenger observed. Shared concerns or passions, or banding together to help a neighbor in need or on fire. 

Human networks in businesses do not form so that a business can make its quarterly numbers. They form to facilitate problem solving, they form as a natural phenomenon when people interact. When businesses adopted the Community approach to work, they immediately struggled with metrics that demonstrated a causal link to the bottom line. We put aside what we knew about networks ('management' should be limited to providing generative and scaffolding capacity and monitoring patterns), we instead focused on blogs, wikis, discussion fora, and interaction metrics. The metaphor led us astray. 

This is our fault. Business leaders asked us - "am I just rewarding people for setting up a Toastmasters board?" and we responded with "trust us, the overall culture shifts to becoming more open and collaborative if you let this happen." The message should have been "you need to become intentional about the networks within which your people live. They work in teams and crews, but engage in informal networking to learn their craft, get ahead, and satisfy an inherent need for socializing. You need to embrace these networks, provide conditions for their growth and monitor patterns to understand where investment may be advisable." One aspect of these conditions, depending on the nature of the specific firm, may be to allow for Communities of Interest such as Toastmasters. But the value there will be too indirect to measure, and you may need to monitor for excessive waste in some circumstances.

Enough with Communities. The metaphor is admirable and accurately describes what Wenger observed. But the focus - usually technology-led - has distracted from the means by which we can replicate these observations. The CoP has become a corporate HOA. It's time to get past obsolete metaphors.