Developing a Community of Practice


June 2004

Developing a Community of Practice

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

At the recent STC Annual Conference in Baltimore, I heard much discussion about the future of the organization. As many of you may already know, STC has lost membership in the past few years, not surprising given the economic downturn in the US economy and the outsourcing of technical writing jobs to countries with cheap labor. Perhaps more than membership, the attendance at the STC annual conferences has declined precipitously since 2001 because of reduced support from companies for training that involves travel.

As a result, STC leadership is actively engaged in trying to redefine the organization and provide alternative forms of membership. They hope to encourage more people to join on their own, without support from their companies, because they find what STC offers to be valuable. It is still not clear to many exactly what the STC leadership intends to do in this “transformation” effort. The leaders need to communicate with members more effectively about the steps they intend to take. I believe that STC has an opportunity at this point to become more business oriented, especially with respect to government and business activities that do not appear to be in the best interests of members. STC also has an opportunity to embrace a global focus, given the globalization of the profession. I urge STC to embrace its long association with Intecom, the international steering committee that is made up of all the international technical communication societies and was founded by STC. Given the globalization of the US economy, it would be a wise move.

One interesting point of debate, however, focuses on the attempt by STC to build communities of practice, associated as this point with the Special Interests Groups (SIGs) that now represent a high percentage of the members. As STC president in the early 90s, I was instrumental in giving the SIGs board-level representations and increased status, at a time when the STC leadership was actively trying to get rid of them. I even started the Management SIG so that managers might have more representation within the STC structure.

The SIGs have since increased in number and membership. I think I belong to four or five myself. Apparently, many members find it valuable to concentrate their interests in such areas as usability studies, management, independent contracting, information design, accessibility, and so on. These SIGs are now being labeled “communities of practice” and being asked to take on a larger role in the future of the society.

When we started CIDM nearly 6 years ago now, the focus was to develop a community of practice among experienced information-development managers. The intent of the community has been to exchange management insights and best practices among the members and to promote professional management perspectives.

At this stage in CIDM development, I think it wise to revisit our mission in terms of a community of practice. Here is an interesting definition that appears on the Web site of an organization called Community Intelligence Labs.

“Bonding by exposure to common problems”
There are many shades of definition of this concept

[community of practice], but we define it as ‘a group of professionals, informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge.’ Peter & Trudy Johnson-Lenz, Awakening Technology”

I think this definition embodies the intent of CIDM for information-development managers, including those engaged in technical publications, training, and customer support.

John Seely Brown notes that those engaged in a community of practice share a common sense of purpose. His article on the communities of practices appeared in the November 1995 issue of Fast Company He explains that people in such a community want to know what the others know. The emphasis in Brown’s remarks and the others quoted on the Community Intelligence definition page is on learning. CIDM, as a community of practice, actively emphasizes the importance of sharing knowledge. We bring members and others together in conferences, workshops, and forums. We continue learning outside of annual meetings by participating in benchmark studies. We promote innovative activities in information design and development. We assist members in improving their practices and processes. We engage in practical, industry-focused rather than academic research. We publish benchmark study results through white papers, a formal newsletter (Best Practices), and the monthly e-newsletter. The focus for CIDM is solidly grounded on continuous learning and professional knowledge sharing.

George Por, who started the Community Intelligence Labs that I’ve been quoting, makes the same point about more formal exchanges when he writes that “…a community of practices is also a ‘community that learns.’ Not merely peers exchanging ideas around the water cooler, sharing and benefiting from each other’s expertise, but colleagues committed to jointly develop better practices.”

As a “community that learns,” CIDM presents a strong perspective. We select a theme and a work to read in preparation for the Best Practices conference. The theme books are selected to help expose us to the ideas that are being discussed in the corporate executive suites of our companies. By understanding the mechanisms of Six Sigma, building upon the FISH philosophy, learning how to construct a Balanced Score Card, and focusing on Change Management, we hope that members learn the executive language that will enhance our ability to communicate the value of our work to others.

In 2003, we instituted the Innovator’s Forum, a small group of members willing to commit a full year to work on new practices, share challenges with Forum members, and assist us in forming a change management agenda.

This teaching/learning perspective is critical to the success of CIDM and differentiates us considerably from the water-cooler perspective of the special interest groups. Certainly, the STC Management SIG is valuable for members to exchange informal thoughts, but genuinely valuable information must be more carefully vetted. That means selecting strong presenters at the conferences, planning the presentation of topics together, and encouraging active participation in the planning and delivery of information at the conferences. We also ask members to participate in surveys and benchmarks that build a body of knowledge that is important to our members and their growth within their organizations and within the profession as a whole.

Do remember that CIDM membership fees contribute to the practical, industry-focused study and activities that underpin building a professional body of knowledge. Thank you for contributing. CIDMIconNewsletter