Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Facilitating a culture of innovation through NRCan communities of practice and employee networks

Originally posted on an internal blog on 03/03/2011

There's a Dilbert cartoon I like in which Asok, the naive, Indian intern asks, "Who wants to share knowledge with me via our new intranet collaboration software?" After Dilbert dismisses Asok with a quip about his not having any knowledge to share, Wally, the completely shameless employee with no sense of loyalty confides, "I'm hoarding my knowledge in case I ever need it."

The cartoon points to the importance of organizational culture and trust in knowledge sharing – the activity through which knowledge (i.e., information, skills or expertise) is exchanged among colleagues, a community or an organization.
Photo credit: Roberta Gal

Organizations have recognized that knowledge constitutes a valuable intangible asset for creating and sustaining competitive advantage, and companies and governments have made considerable investments in IT infrastructure to promote knowledge sharing. In Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), we have a wiki, blogs, forums, SharePoint, and other tools. But, as Dilbert and Wally point out, technology constitutes only one of many factors that affect the sharing of knowledge in organizations.
Photo credit: Roberta Gal

That’s why I assembled a small, but ambitious, team of like-minded volunteers (link internal to GoC) to organize NRCan’s first Knowledge Share Fair (link internal to GoC), held on January 20, 2011, in Ottawa.  I wanted to explore ways to enhance the culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing in NRCan. In particular, I was interested in the role that communities of practice and employee networks play in fostering a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Communities of practice are groups of individuals who share a common interest in a specific area of competence and are willing to work together. Communities tend to be made up of employees who, unlike Wally and Dilbert, are passionate about a subject and who often work off the side of their desks to make a contribution. These employees are engaged in the sense that they are using their discretionary time to contribute to results that benefit the organization. But communities are hard to maintain. As a member of several communities of practice, I felt that there was value to be gained from just bringing communities together to share experiences in how they formed, sustained themselves and, in some cases, dissolved.
Photo credit: Roberta Gal

Based on feedback we received, the Share Fair was a resounding success, bringing together 80 registered participants, 16 diverse communities and networks active in NRCan, and four guest experts. Through presentations, panel discussions, training sessions, and a “community marketplace,” participants had the opportunity to find and connect with communities and networks to share their knowledge and experience about being in a CoP or network, and to better understand the relevance of CoPs and networks to NRCan.

The bilingual morning session, which was also webcasted, featured a keynote presentation by Dr. Kimiz Dalkir – an expert in knowledge management from McGill University – and a panel discussion featuring three leaders from CoPs active in NRCan:  Philippe Dauphin (Learning Organization CoP), Mark Kennedy (Managers’ Community) and Douglas Bastien (Web 2.0 Practitioners CoP). These speakers touched on the short-term and long-term value of CoPs and networks to both the organization and individual members – values that include improving business outcomes, developing organizational capabilities, improving the experience of work, and fostering professional development.

In the afternoon, participants broke into focused discussion groups to identify “quick wins” to maximize the value of CoPs and networks for both the department and the individual members. Quick wins were defined as things that could be done right away, with existing resources and that would have an impact in the next 6 months. Dozens of ideas were generated such as using collaborative tools and Share Fairs to share, learn and grow; incorporating CoP membership into learning plans; and telling success stories via our internal newsletter, at the management table, or via social media. Of particular note was the call by CoPs for senior managers to more explicitly recognize the successes of CoPs and networks and support practitioners’ participation – in essence, to create the space for CoPs and networks to flourish.
Photo Credit: Bruno Blanchard-Pillon

On the last point, it appears that the message has been heard at the most senior levels. Both the Share Fair and CoPs and employee networks were cited for their contribution to creating a collaborative and innovative workplace in the recently released Deputy Minister’s Report to the Clerk of the Privy Council on Natural Resources Canada’s 2010-11 Public Service Renewal Action Plan Achievements.  

For me, the discussions and outcomes from the Share Fair reinforced a view that despite all the technological tools at our fingertips, public servants are, more than ever, clamouring to be connected to one another in meaningful ways. This, for me, is the longer term legacy of CoPs and employee networks. They help foster a culture of collaboration by forging relationships that produce results and that integrate a diversity of experience and perspectives. They help engage employees by connecting people’s passions to their work and by fostering professional development and leadership experiences beyond the sector level. And they strengthen knowledge management by enhancing and deepening skills and expertise in the workforce and strengthening a culture of sharing that complements our wiki, blogs, forums and other tools that facilitate sharing.

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