I like the phrase “community of practice.” It captures togetherness and the idea that we are practising something. We might not have it down pat. The notion has continual appeal, too, as an approach to knowledge sharing. 

When you try to create a community of practice within a single (very) large organization, you can put certain infrastructural supports in place to promote the community, assuming you have the resources).  This article in the Harvard Business Review describes that classic corporate approach. But in the nonprofit, small business and educational sectors, communities of practise have a wild and woolier life, especially considering all the virtual ways of connecting. And there is extra pressure on many of us to try out these networks in lieu of attending actual meetings, workshops and conferences.

If you think back about eighteen months or so to the start of the great recession, you may remember lots of grief about the loss of face-to-face time that came with the cutbacks in many of our travel budgets. I think this gap in periodic face-to-face check-ins has dealt a real blow to many people’s capacity to participate in community.

Chicken and Eggs

What does this mean? We know that we have things in common and that we could gain something by sharing ideas and experiences. However, it takes effort to engage, and until you yourself need something, it’s hard to make that effort. Working teams often find a collaboration tool that at most of the members like, and because they need it to get their work done, there’s less of a problem with enticing participation. But without that built-in motivator, the single most compelling element is content. It’s a chicken and egg problem: you need people to create content, and you need content to draw people.

I’ve concluded that the solution is to bump it up to the network level. In other words, to access the ideas and participation of a much larger group of people, even though that means diluting the expertise and specialization we have when we are just talking within our own little world. So, I’ve been experimenting by participating in several network-level communities, including Twitter’s project management group (#pmot), and LinkedIn’s PM ToolBox and Digital Libraries groups. LinkedIn has, at my last count 2,211 project management groups, which makes picking the “right one” a bit tricky. Just paging through that many groups is onerous (you can’t search within the search results), so I admit to having given up after looking at a few hundred. Clearly the possible sources of PM community within LinkedIn are woefully fragmented.

The same might be said for Twitter, because it’s certainly the case that not all project managers know about the project management group, nor is there any kind of formal group structure, of course. But here is where the power of network-level operations comes in. Because there is such a large number of participants, once you do find out about the hashtag convention and “sign on” to use it, you tap into a real wealth of information exchange. It is by far the liveliest discussion arena about project management I’m participating in right now.

I’m not saying it’s the best ever or that it will last forever, but it’s an idea generator an a solution provider. That’s a great place to start practicing.