Making Communities of Practice work

Last month I attended the Canadian online Knowledge Mobilization Forum and particularly enjoyed a discussion on the topic of Communities of Practice (if you’d like a little primer on what a CoP is, click here).

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to persuade the presenters to do some short interviews to share their experiences with us, which I hope you’ll find useful.

Travis Sztainert PhD

Firstly, then, I’m delighted to introduce you all to Travis Sztainert, Knowledge Mobilization specialist.

Hi Travis, welcome to Knowledge4Lawyers!

Tell me a bit about the Communities of Practice (CoPs) that you are involved in. What is your role in those communities and how does this fit with your “day job”.

I have been involved with a number of CoPs over the years. I started with simply attending a local CoP focused on Knowledge Mobilization (similar to Knowledge Management, but concerned more with sharing knowledge to external stakeholders). When I moved to a new city for work, I joined another local CoP focused on Knowledge Transfer (similar to Knowledge Mobilization) and was part of the leadership committee. As part of this committee, we were responsible for revitalizing the CoP (it was dormant at the time), planning meet-ups, determining the focus of the meetups and helping to host the meetings. I also attempted to lead and revitalize an international CoP called the Knowledge Into Practice Learning Network.

There are two main reasons that I’ve chosen to join and lead these CoPs:

  1. To help me improve my ‘day job’ and improve the day jobs of others. Given that the focus of the CoPs I’ve joined was Knowledge Mobilization/Transfer, I am eager to learn from others  and I am happy to share my own knowledge about how to do our work better – a  rising tide lifts all boats.
  2. To help contribute to, and gain experience with, the ins-and-outs of CoPs. CoPs can be a valuable tool in change-makers toolkits, but only if used effectively. I am interested in the factors that lead to a successful and prosperous CoP.

What is it about CoPs that that particularly interests you? What prompted you to want to share your experiences with the Canadian Knowledge Mobilisation Forum this year?

CoPs are one of the few methods that allow for deep, meaningful and ongoing engagement in specific and (often) complex topics. For this reason, they have always been appealing to me as a tool for change, and I’m fascinated by the (often) organic nature by which some CoPs develop.

It has also been extremely interesting to see the shift to virtual CoPs given the current context of a global pandemic. At a previous CoP, I gave a talk with colleagues about virtual communities, and I specifically questioned whether virtual CoPs allow for a safe space where members could discuss failures and lessons learned (as opposed to focusing on successes). This idea led me to share my experiences failing at revitalizing a CoP (the Knowledge Into Practice Learning Network) at the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum – I want everyone to know that failure is common, and is often just a First Attempt In Learning (FAIL). 

What top tips do you have for people who participate in a CoP so that they can get the most from their involvement?

The first thing I would encourage people to do is to try to make connections in your CoP (especially if it is big). Talk to different people at every meeting – resist the temptation to sit beside your colleagues or those you know well. Related to this idea of actively participating, is to try to overcome imposter syndrome. This is the feeling that everyone else in the CoP knows more then you, which results in an irrational fear that you have little to contribute (or will be found out as an imposter in the CoP). Know that most other people in the CoP are feeling the same thing, and work to overcome this fear so that you can step out of your comfort zone and more actively engage with other members. Often, the best ideas and knowledge shared in a CoP is done informally, through the connections you make and the people you talk to while grabbing a coffee. Given the current pandemic, this may be a little more difficult, but using the private messaging feature during Zooms and chatting offline (through LinkedIn or even Facebook messenger) are great methods to starting informal conversations.   

What top tips do you have for those who are responsible for supporting and organising CoPs, rather than participants? Do you have any advice for those trying to manage the knowledge that gets shared within the group and trying to support improved accessibility and action on the knowledge that is shared there?

Based on my past failures and experience, I have 4 tips for those organizing CoPs:

  1. Use tools that allow members to communicate and share knowledge easily. This is especially important for virtual CoPs, you’ll want to think about how members may keep in touch outside of formalized meetings/activities. There is now a plethora of free tools to help you do this, and it may include Slack, Discord or even using Google Drive or Microsoft Teams – a platform by which people can chat and share files/information and that is easy to use.
  2. Create opportunities to socialize. This may include using fun/interesting ice-breakers, implementing Randomized Coffee Trials (see this example), using a fireside chats method of engaging, or even using informal locations for in-person meetups. You want to create and allow for a space for serendipity to emerge.
  3. Ensure consistent interaction, regular meetings, and engagement.  Leading a CoP is very time-intensive work, and requires real commitment (it is not something to be done off the side of your desk). Running a CoP is like a dance – it takes a while to find your rhythm, and once you have it you need to work to keep it.
  4. Encourage participation in meetings/activities. This is best done though example. Be a champion and identify/grow champions that you see naturally emerge in the CoPs.

Some argue that CoPs need to be allowed to develop organically by the members/participants and too much organisation and control can kill them off. What are your views on this? How much support and/or control do you advise organisations to offer, to get the most benefit from CoPs?

In my experience, you can’t rely exclusively on the organic nature of CoPs. The need for a CoP can (and often does) develop organically, and same for the content/focus of the CoP as it evolves. However, without purposeful leadership (e.g., a few champions willing to take on the administrative tasks of running the CoP) they can easily lose momentum and fizzle out. To get the most out of a CoP, I would encourage organizations to offer hosting support, and where possible administrative-type responsibilities (e.g., send out e-mails, doodle polls, booking rooms, acquiring catering, etc). With solid back-end support, CoPs can flourish.

Do you have any other practical tips for those working in knowledge and learning, to improve the flow of knowledge around their organisations through communities and conversation?

My main tip would be to walk-the-walk. If you’re looking for people to share knowledge openly, you must lead by example. Make yourself vulnerable – humans have a need for reciprocity, so you’ll see that same vulnerability mimicked and passed back to the group. Also, it helps to be a network leader or matchmaker. Knowing the members in the CoP, their issues, and who they might be able to work with (or learn from) is a valuable task that is often overlooked (i.e., be a connector).

What’s next for you and where can we find out more about your other interests?

I’ve been very interested in un-learning and de-implementation as of late. It seems that it’s relatively easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but virtually impossible to un-teach it a trick it already knows. So I may start learning more about this emerging field.

If you want to keep up with me, add me on LinkedIn and/or Twitter (@DrSzt), or visit my infrequently updated website I’m also continually teaching the Certificate in Knowledge Mobilization, and would love to see more diverse audiences learn about Knowledge Mobilization! 

Thanks very much for sharing your experiences, Travis, much appreciated!

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Knowledge sharing in liminal spaces

I’m delighted to welcome Ian Rodwell, Head of Client Knowledge and Learning at Linklaters, to Knowledge4Lawyers. Ian provides training and guidance to the firm’s clients – global corporates, banks, governments – on an extensive range of business skills topics. Ian is also undertaking part-time doctoral research at City University on the role of liminal space in organisational storytelling, which he has kindly agreed to tell us more about.

Ian Rodwell

  • Hi Ian, tell me a bit about your research into knowledge sharing in liminal spaces. To start with, what is a liminal space and what kind of knowledge sharing occurs there?

Essentially, my doctoral research explores where in our organisations people tell stories — and to what extent storytelling might be drawn to the liminal spaces in our organisations. So what do I mean by liminal spaces? Well, originating in the world of anthropology, liminal refers to the middle stage in a rite of passage. It’s a ‘betwixt and between’ phase of uncertainty, ambiguity but also one of possibility, creativity and transgression. As a concept, it spread across multiple academic disciplines, including that of organisational studies. When we apply it to space, it means those mundane, overlooked, marginal or border spaces. So, in organisations, think of those spaces that we don’t usually associate with the core work of the business. For instance, corridors, toilets, lifts, stairways, receptions, smoking areas outside the building, kitchens, cafés etc. These are rarely the spaces that feature on corporate websites but they may be more important than we assume.

The basis for my research is that there’s been comparatively little research on the spatial aspects of organisational storytelling. But, if we ascribe a value to storytelling in terms of the work it performs, surely we should be paying attention to where it takes place? And if it does involve these liminal spaces — spaces ‘that hide in plain sight’ — perhaps it may encourage us to view them in a different, more valued light.

  • What is it about this topic that particularly interests you?

I think I’ve always been interested in stories — and by stories, I mean those informal examples and anecdotes that emerge in everyday conversations — and how we use them to learn and share knowledge. My dad started work on his grandfather’s farm in Suffolk when he was fourteen and I loved to hear his tales of the old boys, the horses they worked with and also the stories he’d heard — some stretching back generations. It was clear such stories were used to diagnose and solve problems, share farming knowledge, let off steam and provide an understanding of ‘how we do things around here’. And I don’t think it’s any different now as it was then. Muddy field or state of the art office building. People still tell stories.

  • What did you find in the initial stages of your research?

So, my first phase research has been relatively small scale and was designed to explore my initial assumptions and test my chosen methodology. Working with two contrasting organisations, a professional services firm and a chartered institute, I asked my participants to take photographs of the five spaces where they heard the most and the best organisational stories.

The photographs I received were almost exclusively of what could, in some shape or form, be defined as liminal spaces. I was intrigued by how many were outside the main office: a corner where smokers gathered, the pub, a pavement where a group walked to the get their lunch, the train journey home, the streets where people went for a team run, an annual summer BBQ at a colleague’s home. Another thing that struck me was what people were learning from the stories. Much of the knowledge shared derived from personal and non-work stories. But rather than viewing this as inconsequential and trivial, my participants suggested that such stories performed valuable work by improving team performance through building rapport, engendering trust and developing relationships. As one observed, such stories help in revealing the ‘real’ person behind the corporate mask.

  • How was your research affected by Covid-19 and what does that mean for knowledge sharing in the “new normal” that everyone keeps talking about?

I was fortunate that my initial research concluded pre-Covid. But, as I had asked people to take photographs excluding people (it made the ethical approval easier!), they now unwittingly stand as an unsettling portent of what many workspaces were to become through lockdown: spaces empty and absent of life.

Less fancifully, one characteristic identified from the research was the importance of neutral spaces or those that were on the border between different groups. Spaces, as one participant put it, ‘of gatherings and paths crossing’. A great example is a communal kitchen where different groups randomly mix. Such serendipitous encounters have long been recognised as a source of innovative problem-solving (indeed in a recent speech, Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, spoke of serendipity as the ‘cradle of creativity’). And, I was struck, from the early days of lockdown, how many webinars, articles, blogs etc. referred to the loss of these random ‘corridor collisions’ and how vital they were for swapping ideas, learning stuff and generally building relationships. It was if the world had suddenly woken up to how important these activities were! And, of course, as people quickly found out you can’t really do serendipity through Zoom, Teams and WebEx.

So, I think stories are still being told (and therefore knowledge is still flowing) but not, I suspect, to the extent they were. Working remotely, everything becomes more structured and scheduled which acts, I believe, as a bit of a straitjacket on informal interaction. It happens but it’s harder and, this is a personal view, it’s more emotionally 2-D than 3-D.

  • As a result of your findings, what tips do you have for those working in knowledge and learning in the legal sector, to improve the flow of knowledge around their organisations?

I think we have — perhaps! — quite a narrow view of KM in the legal sector. The focus, and quite rightly I guess, is more on the formal, systems side. However, I have always been more drawn to the ‘dark side’ of KM — what ISO 30402 on KM refers to as the ‘co-creation of knowledge flows through conversations and interactions’ (hence, the interest in stories). I think this side of KM is more problematic as this is knowledge that eludes formal capture and collation. So, the focus becomes more one of nurturing the environment and culture in which knowledge flows can more easily occur. I see this as the border zone — or perhaps the liminal space! — between KM and learning and organisational design. Consequently, we should reflect more carefully about physical space in our firms —does it facilitate interaction and interactivity? Do we purposefully create liminal spaces that encourage ‘lingering’ and informal conversations? And, in case anyone thinks that’s a bit ‘fluffy’, that’s exactly how businesses like Apple and Google design their buildings (although Steve Job was, apparently, persuaded not to put all the toilets on one floor!). Like law firms, they essentially sell knowledge and recognise that material space has a strong influence on how that knowledge is created.

Also, as I have found, the knowledge created and exchanged is not just transactional and related to pure work projects. The personal insights we gain about each other are actually key in developing the social capital that facilitates the transfer of more formal knowledge.

  • What advice do you have for anyone reading this who would like to start a research project related to knowledge or learning inside their firm?

I guess I should stress that my research to date has been part of my doctoral research at City University, so it is independent of (but invariably informs) my work at Linklaters. That caveat aside, I would definitely encourage people to do their own research. As well as providing me with a unique source of data to analyse and interpret, it has helped me be more reflective about the research I come across in articles, books etc. (and to be more aware of its context — objectives, sample size, research methods etc.). So, go for it!

  • What’s next for you?

I am finalising the report based on my initial research and then I will be planning the next stage. And I think Covid has presented an opportunity to explore the extent to which organisational storytelling has survived in this new world; the spaces to which it has migrated; and the nature of the work it now performs. Lots still to do…

  • Where can we find out more about your research?

If you’d like to know more about the world of liminal spaces (with a bit of organisational stuff thrown in), I suggest you visit my blog — or follow me on twitter — @liminalnarrate.

If you find this topic interesting, Ian will be the practitioner keynote speaker at the online Knowledge Mobilisation Forum in March 2021 (one of the conferences that I help to organise). You can find out more information here.

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Psychological safety for knowledge sharing

It’s a simple truth that no one will share their knowledge if they don’t feel that it is safe to do so.

And, as you can imagine, without this sense of safety, the sharing of knowledge about failures and near misses will be pretty much impossible.

Interested in improving the levels of psychological safety in your organisation?

I’m running an online workshop on Thursday 17th December at 12.30-1.30 GMT. More info and bookings here –

There’ll be plenty of opportunities to share experiences and ideas with your peers and other knowledge and information leaders and practitioners, and consider psychological safety for knowledge sharing in a very practical context.

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Feeling confident?

Confidence is ignorance.

Who should feel confident? Who is an expert? Some more musings here.

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Collaboration, conversation and knowledge sharing … in a pandemic

It was a delight to speak with Dave Wilson of Tiger Eye Consulting earlier this month on the topic of collaboration, conversation and knowledge sharing in these difficult times.

Our full interview is online (KM Conversations: Exploring KM and Collaboration), but I thought I’d also share a few thoughts here…

What problems are many law firm KMers experiencing at the moment?

Initially many law firm leaders and KMers struggled with getting all their fee earners working safely from home – getting decent, healthy, safe office spaces set up and connecting them appropriately and safely to the confidential and other information/knowledge necessary for their work.

Now that the vast majority of organisations have overcome this challenge, they are turning their attention to challenges of a completely different kind – how they can improve the trusting networks inside their organisation when people can’t interact in their usual ways.

We can’t rely on the informal interactions that happen naturally when people work together in the same office: the commuting buddies, the conversations in lifts/loos/kitchens/corridors. And we are realising how important those “in-between interactions” are for supporting and building the kind of trusting networks where knowledge can flow.

It is very natural, when most people in an organisation are working virtually/from home, for strong relationships to get stronger and weak ones to get weaker and even sometimes fall away and fail completely. If we are to connect people to the best experts and encourage the most complex knowledge to flow around our organisation, we have to be far more deliberate in our network-building and trust-building activities than we have needed to be previously.

What can people do to boost the strength of the network and relationships inside their organisation?

Some of the simple things that people can do to improve the reach of their network and the numbers of links between people are:

  • Entirely random connections – RCT (Random Coffee Connections 101) or “pass the parcel” networking (a variant with fewer and slower connections, which might suit some businesses better) or lunch fours (random lunches rather then coffee, with larger groups);
  • Team connections – tea & biscuits Thursday – a short team meeting with no work-based discussions, just catching up and getting to know each other, and, in difficult times, support for each other;
  • Cross silo connections for other purposes – make full use of other in-house groups (women lawyers, BAME networks, yoga Tuesday etc) and charitable fundraising groups;
  • and of course there’s nothing wrong with a traditional in-house newsletter/e-mail.

We also need to work on the quality of those links and boost trust between people. Some of the things that we can do to improve that are:

  • Communicate openly, making information symmetrical, and have a clear shared-purpose with explicit standards and expectations to minimise politics.
  • Share credit and recognition and model best behaviours for others. People take their lead from what is tolerated, rather than what is written or said about how behaviours ought to be.
  • Focus on similarities rather than differences, but remain open-minded about how very different people’s experiences can be of the same role in the same company at this time. People used to be able to separate their work and home issues, but they simply crowd together now. People’s homes may be very different to yours (affecting ability to work comfortably) and their families and support network may be very different to yours (working with toddlers, teenagers or a difficult partner in the house) or they may have worries that you hadn’t realised they had (grown children at a covid-hit University, elderly parents in a care home, dear friends who are cancer-survivors etc). The more diverse your organisation is, the more likely you are to understand these differences, but even in less-diverse organisations, you can take the time to consider how your actions and expectations might be affecting these types of situations (and *ask* people).
  • And when things get difficult, coach each other kindly but openly and utilise all resources inside the organisation, delegating and calling on support as needed. Don’t be shy about it, people like leaders who admit to not knowing and being human.

For more help on creating trust, read “Smart Collaboration” by Dr Heidi Gardner and “The Fearless Organisation” by Dr Amy Edmondson. Neither books are specifically on trusting KM networks, but both are great books on (respectively) successful collaborative teams and creating a culture where people can fearlessly speak up*.

There was more in our recorded conversation, but in the meantime, what are you doing to improve the trusting network inside your organisation, to improve knowledge sharing and collaboration? I’d love to hear in the comments.

The dreaded Zoom call …

* Both of these books were part of the 2020 Book Club. If you are interested in receiving a carefully chosen book each quarter, which have links to learning, knowledge and innovation, and discussing it with like-minded people, think about joining us. More info here.

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How do you spot a wise person?

(Also works for wise women!)

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Where innovation can make the difference between success and failure, it is not enough to hire smart, motivated people.

Knowledgeable, skilled and well-meaning people cannot always contribute what they know at that critical moment on the job when it is needed.

Sometimes this is because they fail to recognise the need for their knowledge.

More often it’s because they’re reluctant to stand out, be wrong, or offend the boss.

For knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people feel able to share their knowledge.

This means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and half-formed ideas.

This is from the introduction to The Fearless Organisation by Dr Amy Edmondson (p.xiii-xiv) which we are currently reading in the Knowledge and Learning Book Club.

I’d be really interested to know what you are all doing to help your peers to:

  • recognise the value of their knowledge and when it is needed,
  • ameliorate a fairly natural reluctance to offend the boss (or be wrong or stand out), and
  • share concerns, questions, mistakes or half-formed ideas.

Thoughts in the comments (don’t be afraid of being wrong, offending someone or standing out and remember that we all want to benefit from your knowledge!) or if you can’t share, spend some time today thinking about what you can do differently to support people in their fearless knowledge sharing.

Everything will be fine (neon sign)

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Practice what you preach

“Practice what you preach”.

I’m sure we all know this saying.

It’s an important one for getting people onside and building trust. If you can’t practice something yourself, you shouldn’t be preaching it to others.

But what about preaching what you practice too?

You need to lead by demonstrating the importance of a work practice (such as curiosity about negative events or taking time for knowledge sharing) but you also need to ensure that people *hear* about this practice too.

This isn’t about excessive pride or crowing about your successes, it is about sharing best practices, making sure that everyone understands how to achieve the most that they can in their work and helping your organisation to deliver on its strategy.

If you want to improve how you make your work more visible, start here:

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And if you like the idea of KN-UK, drop me an email and I’ll let you know all about it. It’s a great way to get affordable training and discussion opportunities, and to build a supportive network.

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Knowledge rests …

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Virtual collaborations – making them work

Virtual collaborations are necessary now, but how can you make them work?

I’ve been gathering some thoughts from practitioners and advisors about how to make virtual collaborations work well in these difficult times.

These are some of our conclusions, but what are your experiences? What tips do you have to share?

  1. Be upfront and honest about the challenges and try to understand other people’s difficulties
  2. Make expectations clear and leave no room for politics
  3. Limit video conferences to occasions when they really add value and make it clear which tool is for what task
  4. Ensure there is plenty of training available so everyone can make best use of the available tools
  5. Use champions to reinforce behaviours
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