Silos—whether across business units, functions, projects, or geographies—are a top source of frustration for most organizations. If not effectively managed, silos can slow operational efficiency, reduce morale, and contribute to the demise of a healthy corporate culture.
Workplace silos are often formed by organizational decisions to group certain employees in a specific way. While the intent is to hopefully support key business goals, such groupings may inhibit employees from knowledge sharing and other healthy and beneficial interactions with other members of the organizations.
In an effort to reduce and manage the impact of silos, the best organizations benefit from cross-silo communities of practice and of interest.
Communities of Practice
Communities of practice (CoP) are defined as groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. They operate as learning or action systems where members connect to share ideas, solve problems, set standards, build tools, and develop relevant relationships.
While the term may be new, the concept definitely isn’t. Humans have long formed communities and groups that sought to share and receive information to better themselves. CoP expert, Etienne Wenger put it best, “Knowledge of an organization lives in a constellation of communities of practice, each taking care of a specific aspect of the competence that the organization needs.”
Without the ability to effectively identify communities of practice, we limit ourselves in what we can achieve and learn as an organization, and we inadvertently contribute to the silo mentality.
Communities of practice are everywhere. They can be found in schools and universities, in the workplace, at church, and even in the home. You likely already belong to one, even if you don’t know it or didn’t label it as such. Examples within the workplace may include a design team, or a project management team that carry their expertise over to different departments.
Communities of Interest
Another type of community is a community of interest (CoI). While less structured than communities of practice, CoI is a community of people who share a common interest or passion. CoIs tend to be narrower, with a specific focus in exchanging information.
For example, in high schools and universities, there are groups and communities for students to participate in. This could be a choir club, coding club, or a running club. Everyone that belongs to these clubs shares a common interest, and likely seek to improve their knowledge or skill of interest within that community.
An example in the workplace could be a group of employees who share an interest in food, and exchange nearby restaurant options. CoI play a valuable role, especially in the workplace where they help support staff engagement objectives—and increase connections on a personal level. All employees have interests inside and outside of the company and want to feel connected with what’s going on around them. Allowing employee interests and hobbies to be easily discovered by others goes a long way in engaging employees and building solid trustworthy relationships.
Why are Communities of Practice important in a workplace?
Among the many challenges managers face today, one is becoming increasingly important: How to make the best use of the all the knowledge within each employee. After all, even the most astute and educated employee doesn’t have all the answers.
However, not all workplaces are social or collaborative. And not every employee is in the same office—or even the same country. This creates pockets or silos of information where employees are unaware of who knows what, also known as undiscovered communities of practice.
Not all silos are accidental. An organization may discourage sharing knowledge when the information is classified, or a potential threat to security. Or, silos may exist in cultures or groups that view retention of information as a form of power or self-protection.
Within the workplace, employees require information and knowledge to help them complete their tasks, and deliver value within their organization. Since learning plays an increasingly vital role in an employee’s success, it is imperative that knowledge or expertise is opened up and available for employees to access.
CoPs are beneficial because rather than having employees learn individually (through study, lectures, etc) they learn by the osmosis derived from everyone working and collaborating together.
How to Identify Communities
Defining communities isn’t always easy. Especially in large matrix based organizations where multiple employees or departments working on similar concepts are unaware of what others are doing. For example, a project manager in a service group and in a product group, or designers working on the marketing team and designers working on a product team. CoPs can help play a strong role in matrix organizations where there exist resources with similar titles spread throughout the company. A good place to start in identifying communities of practice is to look at titles in your organization to identify common roles that may be isolated within silos.
Both a CoI or CoP can operate in person, or through electronic mediums such as email, internal social networks, and social media. Most organizations today rely on a combination of tools and technologies like forums (to ask questions), microblogging (to engage in quick discussions), group pages (to find communities and content) and an employee directory (to locate experts).
Communities play an enormous role in reducing workplace silos. In fact many organizations likely have no idea they are already benefiting, or can benefit, from communities of practice and interest. It is therefore necessary to design a digital workplace that enhances communities to come together and thrive, and for knowledge to flow freely. When a workplace intentionally creates opportunities for collaboration and learning, they position themselves for efficiency and high growth.