Agile Teams: Beyond Functional Silos with Communities of Practice

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… An organization decides to align its operation around business products. It organizes all of its product development into cross-functional teams with each team focused exclusively on one product. The business likes the focus, but soon people start to complain. Functional experts feel isolated and aren’t able to tap into their technical peers who are now isolated in other teams. Common practices and standards become difficult. Functional managers feel left out, as they don’t have much of a role now that their people are permanently assigned to specific business units and are dedicated members of a cross-functional team. Overall, the organization certainly sees advantages to the re-alignment, but they can’t help but feel they are neglecting their institutional knowledge and have reduced some of their technical capacity to solve problems. You might think I’m talking about an Agile development team, but actually I’m talking about Chrysler in the 1990’s when they re-organized their engineering around auto lines. (Wenger et al, Cultivating Communities of Practice 1)

Indeed, the challenges that agile organizations have been facing as they embrace team centric work have actually been confronted by numerous organizations prior to Agile. Automobile companies, professional consultancies, oil companies, and even the world bank have encountered this challenge where their technical experts have become ensconced in cross-functional project silos. Looking at how these organizations have addressed this challenge offers us some interesting insights. The successful organizations didn’t try to bolster their functional silos or build standards groups, but rather they embraced a more informal and organic model for sharing knowledge, solving problems and even making strategic investments: communities of practice.

What Makes a Community of Practice?

It can be easy to misconstrue a community of practice with other similar constructs such as functional silos or centers of excellence. When well implemented, communities of practice are meant to be distinct from these other entities, offering them certain advantages. Etienne Wenger identifies communities of practice based on three primary attributes.

Domain

Communities are defined by a common interest that defines the boundaries and interests of community members. The domain indicates precisely what that shared interest is. It may be functional in nature, such as a development or QA community, but it could also be based on other shared interests such as a market, geography or even a specific technology or skill. The domain represents that shared interest in which community members are looking to support each other, build more knowledge and capacity.

Community

Unlike functional silos, communities are informal and social in nature. They are based on the connections that are built and cultivated between community members. As such, membership is optional and people’s level of involvement will vary by person and over time. Within a community, some people may serve as outspoken experts, others may be involved and make regular contributions, and still others may simply quietly consume information. All of these roles are acceptable and individuals may even more from one to another over time. This dynamic nature means that membership is fluid and dynamic. The social structure means that involvement in a community is defined by people’s interest, rather than explicit role or function. This offers a dynamism absent in formal structures as new members can join bringing new energy and people who are less interested can disengage easily.

Practice

Communities of practice differentiate themselves from centers of excellence by being focused on practice. Namely, community members participate in a community as a means of furthering their skills and solving problems. Good communities produce interest and engage people by solving problems. This also provides an elegant way to prioritize and focus the energy of a community, as it is organized around the problems that community members bring to it. This is a critical distinction and success criteria for communities. I have seen numerous communities form based on a top down directive and then try to organize around establishing a body of knowledge or standards that appeared to be valuable to the organization, but were distant from the day to day demands facing community members. Unfortunately, working groups like this frequently run out of energy and disband. In order to be vibrant, community members need to see immediate value from participation in communities.

Why Use Communities of Practice?

So what are the benefits that we get from communities of practice? For people who have existed within cross matrixes organizations, excessive formal hierarchies can become very cumbersome and take time to adjust. A given individual may have interest among more domains than an organization can provide formal structures for. In any organization using cross-functional project teams, each person has at least two: a functional specialty and a project team. Thus, communities of practice allow for informal structures to interweave people into multiple domains without carrying the burden of additional structures. This is not at all unlike the concepts of “meta-scrums” described described in several agile scaling approaches. The focus on practice is also a key advantage, as it balances interest in a domain with practical and tactical benefit. If a community can not deliver value, then members will stop showing up and the community will end. This provides an elegant model for the creation and destruction of communities over time based on where the interest and energy is within an organization and it requires no formal organizational intervention.

I must confess that I didn’t first appreciate the value communities of practice could play in an agile organizational transformation. This was a fortuitous discovery for me when I began working with the PMI Agile Community of Practice and began to learn more about communities of practice in general. Let’s take a quick look at some of the value communities offer and how it aligns with agile organizational transformations.

Functional Specialization vs. Team Focus

Invariably, every organization I have worked with encounters this problem when they charter cross-functional, dedicated project teams. Communities of practice allow for functional specialists to remain in contact with one another, share experiences, coordinate effort, and maintain their own sense of identity. In the case of Chrysler and several other organizations, as project teams reduced the need for functional managers, many of them become more involved as community coordinators, playing a more facilitative role to cultivate and develop vibrant communities of practice around their specialties (Wenger et al, Cultivating Communities of Practice 81).

Building Expertise & Standards

Another chronic challenge that faces agile organizations is how to help grow functional expertise across teams and agree on standards. Communities of practice provide a powerful engine for sharing experiences and learning. The social structure of a community plays a key role in allowing information to spread quickly. The most formal example of this being in Xerox, where repair technicians created habits of socializing with other technicians in order to share stories and experiences. This provided a rich body of informal knowledge that made the technicians significantly more effective at their jobs (Brown & Gray, 1995). In fact, Xerox has since gone on to implement online tools to allow technicians to communicate and share expertise from any geography.

Impediment Resolution

Good agile teams need to be aggressive and methodical about solving problems, and communities provide additional resources to help people do just that. In fact, if you look at the informal nature of communities of practice, and the shared domains they use, this model is ideally suited for creating a sense of ownership of these problems and their solutions by the people doing the work. As removing impediments is a critical role of Scrum Masters and agile coaches, I frequently set up a such a community at clients to help give these people within an organization a common forum to support one another and bring more force to bear in removing obstacles for their teams.

Self Organization

Following concepts from complexity theory, many agile organizations look to move decision making to the lowest responsible level, as those who are closest to the domain are frequently in an excellent place to make informed decisions. But how exactly can you build constructs that allow individual contributes to make strategic decisions like where the organization should invest its finite resources for future products or services? McKinsey offers a powerful example where they actually built service offerings and pursued business based on consultants working within informal communities of practice to build knowledge and capabilities around new services and markets (Wenger et al, Cultivating Communities of Practice 17).

As you can see, the informal, member driven nature of these communities of practice aligns very much with the challenges that organizations embracing agile practices must confront. I hope to write much more about this later, as I’ve already seen some interesting patterns using communities of practice at clients as well as quite a bit of impressive activity with the PMI Agile Community of practice. For now I’ll just have to leave this as an introduction to the concepts. I would love to hear what types of experiences you have had with your own communities and informal structures, whether called communities of practice or not, at organizations using agile practices.


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