Finding Help in Building Your Community

This story was written to accompany the feature, "A Helping Hand," from the June 2001 issue of Knowledge Management magazine.

Building a community of practice may sound simple enough, but identifying those individuals with knowledge to share can be a tough task.

"It's very much like a scavenger hunt," says Nancy Dixon, professor of administrative sciences at George Washington University and co-founder of Common Knowledge, a consultancy in Washington, D.C.

Dixon notes that a community of practice may include people dispersed across the organization that all do the same kind of work or who all share a similar task, such as working on a particular marketing or budgeting problem, or on a particular kind of equipment. Yet similar issues grow out of these specific tasks, and a common knowledge base is there to be mined. For example, Dixon cites an organization with 60 engineers who deal with horizontal drilling in an oil company and the related issues that come out of that.

"Within that group, some are coming and some are going," she says. "Some are across the world, while you may already have small pockets of people who are sharing information with each other. So who do people go to? Who are the thought leaders? Who is out of the loop altogether?"

Consultants have devised ways to minimize the scavenger hunt aspect of learning this information, and Dixon is no exception. She makes use of technology programs that mine e-mails, much like those that mine resumes, and looks for key data. She may also go to people outside the company and ask who from the company comes to them for information. "People will identify each other, but it's very much a searching-out process," she says.

Dixon also relies on a social network analysis, which is a survey of a certain group of people to find out where they go for a particular kind of knowledge. "The key is to ask the questions around a specific issue," she says. "It can't be general. It must be, Who do you go to when you need to find out more about replacing the second valve on the third pipe?"

That information can be the source for a diagram drawn with arrows from one person to another related to this knowledge. "It's a visual image that gives you a way of knowing where the particular knowledge is in a particular organization," says Dixon.

That in turn helps form a nucleus of a core group of people with leveraging points of knowledge, and they can then begin to help identify what the transfer mechanisms are for this knowledge and where money can be saved, she says. After that, she adds, "Build on what exists. Support it, nurture it and help it grow, so that people who aren't connected, get connected."

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