Social media tools can help create a more dynamic community of practice and provide an ongoing and searchable conversation to benefit others. To successfully introduce social media into a community of practice within an organization, there are several factors that need to be addressed and questions to be asked.

Communities of practice are valuable resources for employees and enterprises, providing an outlet to share information and capitalize on knowledge within the workforce. According to a study on communities of practice presented in the Journal of Managerial Issues, "committed, engaged, and well-connected members are the heart of successful communities." However, many actual community user experiences are difficult, disjointed, or seemingly irrelevant, reducing the likelihood that a project or community will succeed and grow. Simply put, the easier it is to access, navigate, and add to a community of practice, the more likely it is employees will stay engaged. For this reason, social media is becoming a vital key to success for communities of practice.

Social media tools can help create a more dynamic community of practice and provide an ongoing and searchable conversation to benefit others. To successfully introduce social media into a community of practice within an organization, there are several factors that need to be addressed and questions to be asked. The answers will help organizations achieve the greatest value and institute an invigorating community of practice using social media.

  • What kind of corporate culture does the organization promote?
  • Who are the audiences that will use this tool?
  • Who will champion and create content for the community of practice?
  • What are the benefits for the employees and are they aligned with business goals?

Context Matters

Communities of practice have traditionally consisted of connecting community members in person and through email. While this approach has been used for years, being added to some list is not the most inviting way for new members to join a community. The old ways also make it difficult for members to include context to content, leading to untimely or irrelevant conversations. If membership in a community of practice becomes an onerous task of going back to update information after the fact, that work will likely not get done.

Without context, valuable information is lost. Context can reveal the thought process behind decisions and provide the complete picture of an initiative. Social media can enable members to provide this context and make a community of practice valuable to a wider audience. Social media can also provide community members access to each other regardless of time zone or geographic distance and can even provide near real-time collaboration with easy to use tools that are likely already available to the members.

How We Can Better Use Them

Communities of practice have been a cornerstone for employee growth by enabling employees to learn from and help each other. Given the recent economic climate, companies have been concerned with getting the job done with minimal resources - not with employee growth. In this environment, communities of practice are needed now more than ever because employees may not be receiving traditional mentoring and training. The introduction of social media can provide an easy, low maintenance, and cost-effective way to spark life back into a community of practice.

Effective communities of practice require purpose and structure. Defining and establishing one requires strategic planning to ensure the highest ROI, otherwise you're just getting people talking in a new place with a new inbox to check. As with other major initiatives, determining the business goals and aligning with them is important. To create an effective social media environment for employees, organizations must consider several issues.

Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is a crucial consideration for any initiative. The openness and transparency of an organization must be taken into account when developing a social media strategy. Some questions to ask when you start out:

  • How open are the employees to each other?
  • How open would the organization like them to be?
  • What topics of discussion are taboos?
  • Is the corporate culture open to dissent?
  • Are new ideas actively sought out, no matter the source?
  • Are you open to improvements in time honored processes?
  • How regulated is your industry?

Other considerations include how employee contributions to a social media site will be viewed by others, especially their management. If employees feel they can't participate because they will be seen as "not doing their real job" then building a community of practice becomes difficult. Like any organizational change, managing and understanding the culture is sometimes the hardest but most effective way to ensure a lasting effect.

Audience

Communities of practice use different methods of communication that are best for the group. The same goes for social media. It is important to examine which audience will be using the tools and the desired outcome. While a microblogging or status update type of tool is useful for some, it is not useful for all employees. To use the medium to its fullest extent, the attitude and knowledge of the user must be evaluated. Those who are at ease using Twitter may not feel the same about other tools and vice versa. Choosing the right social media tool is crucial to not only encouraging involvement but also to achieving success.

After the particular tool is determined, the organization must look at how it will be governed. Will senior leadership have constant access to the community's social media tool? Does senior leadership usually have access to content created by these groups? If not, then it is likely that the group will not take kindly to new "prying" eyes. All of these components must be established ahead of time, so as to give the members clear direction on how to use the tool and how it will benefit them.

Top-Down Approach

Another critical point to consider is who will be the driving force for the social media initiative.

  • Who will encourage the community of practice to adopt the medium?
  • Who will create content for the group using the tool?
  • Who will continue to promote its use?

Often this is more than one person, but there needs to be an enthusiastic leader of the initiative to keep participants engaged.

Similar to gardening, one cannot merely plant seeds and walk away. The garden must be tended, weeded and encouraged to grow. The same goes for the use of social media. A champion of the tools within the community can encourage and enable others. She can use social media to disseminate information to the group and encourage others to join the conversation. However, without some attention and continuous evaluation, the tool will cease to be valid and relevant for the employees.

People crave structure, especially in unknown territory. Structure can be introduced by the champion or leader of the social media initiative. With structure, employees can get their feet wet with the new tool and allow themselves to get comfortable before diving in. The more structure an organization can provide in the beginning of these initiatives, the more employees will thrive. However, after six to eight months, the guiding hand must let go. Members need to be identified who will serve as community leaders. After these leaders become comfortable with the tool, structure can be governed within the group.

This handoff is critical, not only for the sanity and resource constraints of those leading social media efforts, but also for the long term success of the community. The key roles of taking ownership of the new community, creating rules, ensuring the quality of content, and enforcing standards must be taken on by the community members. This ensures that the content store and active discussions are respected as a community asset, not something someone from corporate forced on them.

Bottom Line

Social media can provide numerous benefits for employees participating in a community of practice; the most important being context. Previously, when new employees joined a traditional community of practice, context around a given topic was lost either in old email exchanges or haphazard and undocumented conversations.

With social media the context is readily available for all to see months after the initial discussion is over. Also, searching is improved because random bits of information returned in a search can be shown in context to provide greater meaning. A new member can see and search previous questions and answers. This saves time and resources because issues that have been covered do not need to be discussed again by the group. As resources have become limited due to the economy, social media implemented in a community can save an organization money, while benefiting employees.

Social media, when integrated and used in a way that best maps with the organization's needs and culture, can give a community of practice the collaborative spark it needs to realize its full potential. However, this endeavor must not be taken lightly. An organization needs to consider many aspects and implications of the introductions of a new tool. Without careful attention and planning the value of social media will be lost on the community - and the business as a whole.


Scott Palmer is principal technologist for research and development at RWD Technologies.