Communities of practice are a traditional form of collaborative learning in which individuals within a certain industry or field meet to collaborate and develop personally and professionally. With the advent of technologies such as knowledge repositories, these communities can move online. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in fact, recently announced a partnership with Blackboard to use the Blackboard Learn LMS to support its move “from an instructor-led, physical environment to a learner-driven, online environment.” That environment includes role-based communities of practice within Blackboard Learn.

In an organization like JPL, a scientific organization, it is perhaps especially important to ensure that knowledge can be shared easily and efficiently. It’s “difficult to scale learning in the traditional or e-learning sense,” according to Tony Gagliardo, director of technical learning and development at JPL. Instead, employees “require a way to interface and distribute learning at lower cost and expediency than custom learning development.” In the new communities of practice, senior employees serve as experts and mentors, sharing ideas with coworkers in their disciplines. This “structured knowledge exchange,” says Gagliardo, will enable “enculturation and technical knowledge transfer” now and into the future.

Research shows that nurturing these types of communities can improve organizational results. One recent study of employees at HCL Technologies, an IT and software development outsourcing company, found that employees who were connected to coworkers via knowledge management and collaboration systems “felt more highly engaged and productive.” What’s more, when organizations organize and actively manage communities of practice, they’re more successful. “Learning cycles are increasingly measured in hours, and not weeks, months or even years, so a structured model is needed to keep up with the pace of discovery and demand,” says Chad Kainz, principal strategist for enterprise consulting at Blackboard Inc.

Planning and Managing Online Communities of Practice

“Technical relevance and authenticity matter above all else,” says Gagliardo. “The most beautifully developed and well-structured curriculum fails when it loses the respect of a technical workforce.” Make sure your subject matter experts are truly experts and that what they share is accurate and relevant to your workforce.

Here are some more tips:

  • “Have a clear vision” of what your organization’s e-learning should look like and how to get there, says Kainz. This vision includes the reason for training; different purposes or topics will necessitate different strategies.
  • Make sure you understand your organization’s culture. How do employees collaborate, learn and share information?
  • “Create a learning ecosystem” that aligns with your organization’s vision and culture. This ecosystem, according to Kainz, should “provide much more than a service or help desk.”
  • Invest in the right technology. “In the rush to meet the needs of the operation or management,” Gagliardo says, organizations often purchase or develop a product “that doesn’t consider the learner as a consumer.” Learners might participate, but you’ll lose credibility.
  • Train the leaders of the community in skills such as “how to find pockets of knowledge and expertise, how to engage volunteers in activities, how to grow membership, how to work with members external to the company, and how to influence operating groups when you don’t have direct authority,” write Richard McDermott and Douglas Archibald in a Harvard Business Review article.
  • McDermott and Archibald also recommend holding periodic face-to-face events to build trust and rapport.

Leading knowledge workers, like the scientists and engineers employed by JPL, often requires a facilitative approach that, according to Marshall Goldsmith, Alan Mulally and Sam Shriver, “encourages team members to assess and articulate their own level of performance … and be open to help from people at any level of the company.” In creating online communities of practice, Gagliardo says, JPL is “essentially shifting from an approach of managing training to enabling learning.” Done right, this strategy can support more effective knowledge sharing among experts throughout an organization, improving productivity and performance.