Matteo Betti

by | Jul 3, 2019

Agile: knowledge sharing and CoPs.

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Hi guys, in this blog post I’m going to explain how to enable knowledge transfer within companies.
As you know, the speed of our society and market volatility is a big challenge for companies worldwide.
It’s incredible to think that, until a few years ago, companies like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon did not even exist, and look at what they have become in the past few years. 
Lots of startups are born every day, so companies that are already on the market must strive to be always innovative, improve their products, and come up with new ideas to satisfy their customers. 
To meet these challenges (and survive!), today’s companies shall create Learning Organizations“, and that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today. 

Let’s make it by the book: Senge’s Five Disciplines of Learning Organizations. 

In literature, several examples have highlighted how the “continuous learning” of individuals and groups is fundamental to any successful organization that continues to expand the ability to create its future. 
Among these, an important example is Peter Senge‘s book: The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization“, first published in 1990. You got it right: 1990, almost 30 years ago and ten years before the Agile Manifesto. And despite this, certain concepts are still relevant and perhaps not yet fully understood. 
 
To understand this theory, let’s start from what holds all the five concepts together as a coherent whole, Systemic Thinking. According to Peter Senge, in fact, instead of focusing on individual issues, we should think of an organization as a set of parts that, once combined, reveal qualities that cannot be found in the singular components. Simply put, it’s a way of moving the focus and attention away from the pieces and the fragments to look at the interrelationships that shape the kind of behavior and the kind of outcomes generated in an organization.
 
We should then try and challenge our mental models, ie deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations that influence how we understand the world and how we take action as individuals, teams or organizations, and should be always questioned because they risk “plastering” our behavior.
 
We should build a Shared Vision (as opposed to the imposed-from-on-high vision statement). If genuine and really shared, the people will be encouraged to learn in order to achieve it, not because they have to, but because they want to.
 
Finally, we need to concentrate on Personal Mastery, everyone personal growth and the discipline of continually deepening our personal vision, also essential to creating Team Learning, the capacity of members of a team to enter into a natural process of thinking and talking together. 
 
You will understand the stringent need to implement these principles if you think that an organization’s capacity for learning can be no greater than that of its members.

From theory to practice: building organizations that learn

If you think about it, what Peter Senge calls “Disciplines” don’t differ much from the principles of the Agile manifesto. Quoting the introduction:
We are discovering better ways to create software, by developing it and helping others do the same.”
The word “discovering” means “learning”, and learning can only be collaborative since we have to pass on knowledge to others.
It’s not surprising, then, to see what the first statement of the Agile Manifesto tells us:
“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”
Okay, I know: that’s the theory. But how can we put it into practice? 
How can we nurture an environment where learning becomes a consistent practice and ends up being an integral part of the corporate culture?
 
There are several ways to create organizations that learn. In the case of teams using Agile and Scrum (such as the Imagicle R&D team) you may find the so-called Innovation Sprint, or simple talks on new technologies and practices around the dining table. Sometimes organizations choose to set a budget for individual training, but, in my experience, what works best is the Community Of Practice

Communities of Practice.

Community of Practice is not a new concept. Cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger had already coined the term in 1991: “A Community Of Practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

 
In the age of Agile, this concept has become popular because it embraces the principles of self-organization and empowerment and promotes the knowledge sharing through the company, essential as companies become bigger and are faced with the need for alignment, especially concerning architecture and the use of technologies. 
 
And now let’s dive into the real concept of CoP.
CoPs are not simple networks of people sharing something: they must have a common domain of interest and a common goal, such as achieving knowledge and expertise in a specific field. 
Here at Imagicle, some of them are related to Software Craftmanship, User Experience, Security, and Agile Methodologies. 
 
The identity of the COP will be defined according to the interests and goals of the people in the group, and members will be committed to acquiring shared expertise in the area and becoming a reference for others. The CoP will take charge of activities, develop new ways of dealing with issues (which often lead to innovation), engage in dialogue to share their skills, and learn from others. 
 
Obviously, besides being a community with shared interests, a fundamental element of the COP is practice. Only discussing one particular topic is not enough; COP members will have to be practitioners who apply the things they learn through COP in their daily routine.
You may be wondering how to fit the CoPs into a company organized into many small Agile teams, but see, the concept of Community Of Practice is parallel to the work of the development team. Participation in CoPs is totally voluntary, and the effort to devote to it is assigned to the self-organization of teams and people. 
 
Obviously, the way each member participates may vary. Some will join regularly and be super active; others will follow the discussions without ever taking the lead; others won’t participate at all until they touch on a topic that is of particular interest to them. Anyhow, all levels of participation must be welcomed within the community. 
 
Just to give you some ideas on how to build a CoP, at Imagicle we decided to share knowledge and best practices through our virtual collaboration tools (eg Cisco Webex Teams or Dropbox) because we like to be able to exchange quickly and have an eye on what we are building day by day in a shared location. But it doesn’t really matter how you decide to implement your communities of practice: what makes a Cop successful is simply the ability to bring value and enthusiasm to its components. A good example could be the co-creation of guidelines regarding the user experience or software architecture, or a shared vision of what software quality means. 

Why is community of practice important?

There are a lot of benefits to having Communities of Practice, both for the people involved and for the entire organization. In companies using Agile methodologies, you typically work with cross-functional teams, already containing all the skills needed to release value at a constant pace. In these contexts, it may be challenging to have interaction between members of different teams who share the same role.
In such circumstances, Communities of Practice can come to the aid of bringing people together, enabling knowledge sharing, creating guidelines, and gathering everyone experience to solve complex problems
Imagine a development dept. with 12-15 teams working on the same product. If at least one member of each group was part of the same CoP, important architectural decisions could be made and shared with everyone, while if everyone does it his own way problems can easily arise.
 
Besides, building a community of practice helps to create a safe environment where people are free to grow, get inspired by most experienced colleagues and come up with new ideas to generate innovation for the company. 
We grow in the group to grow as individuals, while the company will find itself composed of motivated and enthusiastic people who love what they do because they have a say in their work.
 
And now raise your hand if you’ve never heard some of your colleagues refer to another saying “Those of support”, “Those of development” as if they worked in different companies. Encouraging cross-team and cross-department communities as well as improving communication for the whole company is another magical CoP power, and makes it a vital part of a real Agile organization.

Laying foundations.

The first thing I can suggest to start a CoP is not to force things from above. 
You will only get an opposite effect: poor participation, demotivation, difficulty in having productive discussions and therefore no results. This CoP will die soon. 
A Community Of Practice must arise from a need. When people look for an answer, they’ll be more likely to connect with others, and that’s a good time to start a Community Of Practice. Start with volunteers who want to participate and contribute, help them create a shared environment (virtual or real), give them visibility within the company and let them find ways to make it work. 
If you’re lucky enough to have a CoP expert already working in your company, he could become the mentor or moderator.
After that, just trust them and be patient: you’ll get unexpected results before you even know. 
So, what are you waiting for? 
The market has changed, and companies can no longer afford to make decisions centrally: it would be too slow and ineffective.
T
o keep up with the future, we must create companies that learn, and companies learn through their people.
Which, basically, is us.

 

#stayimagicle

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