According to then World Bank president Jim Wolfensohn, communities were “the heart and soul” of the bank’s Knowledge Management (KM) initiative in the mid-1990s. Inside the bank, we called them Thematic Groups.
I was on the team that championed KM and when we started the initiative, we found five communities inside the organization that had figured out how to survive despite what I would call a community-toxic environment—one that was hostile to groups of people getting together outside the hierarchy to discuss what mattered most.
Our team saw the potential in what were then being called communities of practice, a new idea that identified the power in groups of people who share a common set of goals. We set about building a community-friendly environment, and within two years the organization had over 120 communities.
People everywhere were advancing KM in the course of their work. Best of all, there was almost complete alignment. This means they thought not so much about KM but about what they wanted to achieve in the context of Knowledge Management.
By virtue of the ways communities operate, they pushed forward on thousands of fronts simultaneously, shifting the culture and taking the people along with it. This was a mighty force, accelerating change not just within the organization but also throughout the world because many of the bank’s communities crossed the organizational boundary.
Imagine this working for you: a new kind of community in which people work together with colleagues, stakeholders, business partners, and in some cases even competitors to share what they know, achieving results far beyond what any one person can accomplish alone.
Members determine the community’s concerns, representing their combined interests and goals. This is where the value resides.
The concerns of the World Bank’s Highways Thematic Group included everything from the deterioration of asphalt in high humidity to the development of intelligent policy for using roads to enhance economic development, and everything in between. For this community to be happy, healthy, and productive, they needed to be sharing experience, know-how, and information on highways. They wanted to see the impact of their work on knowledge in their field. Very little could come between them and these activities, or they would quickly become concerned that their community was deteriorating.
Here are three ways to channel your community’s value to serve your business
1. Create a statement of purpose and a set of goals tied directly to community concerns. These are all effective forms of a community mandate. The process of creating the mandate is an exercise in itself. Valuable issues will be raised, such as, Who is in and who is out? What constitutes progress? What are the limits of our reach?
2. Anchor all activities specified in the document to the community’s concerns. For example, it is not enough to specify, “Build a Web site. ” The value of the Web site needs to be primary(that is, more important than the site itself). Instead, the activity should be specified in this way: “We will build the relationships among our members, improving our capacity to share what we know and contribute to the field. This includes the development of a Web site that will provide a directory to all of our members as well as an initial document repository for papers past and present. ”
3. Use the community mandate as a tool. Turn to it to periodically evaluate progress and raise issues of innovation, new circumstances, trends, and expanded or contracted scope.
Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, Project Management Institute, and NASA. He is the founder of Seth Kahan’s CEO Leaders Forum, a year-long learning experience for CEOs in Washington, DC. His next book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, will be published in Spring 2010 by Jossey-Bass. Visit his other blogs, GettingChangeRight.com for content from his upcoming book, and FreelanceFortune.com for techniques on how to succeed as a free agent. Follow Seth on Twitter. Learn more about Seth’s work at VisionaryLeadership.com.