Friday, March 25, 2005

Communities of Practice at the Federal Highway Administration

Hey! You know those rumble strips that are on the side of the road that wake you up when you drive off... the implementation of those are credited to communities of practice at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FHWA is an interesting agency, in case you are wondering what the W in their acronym stands for its for Way in highway. That one got me too.
FHWA does not build the roads, they oversee the safety aspect for land, air, water, and railroads. They ensure that the nation’s transport system is safe for public use, or they oversee the safety of civil aviation, and they monitor and operate the waterways for trading. It's like that BASF advertisment that used to come on, "We don't make the product, we make the product better."

So knowledge is their only asset. They have knowledge of how to build safe roads and waterways and their job is to impart that knowledge to agencies at the local level so they can comply with the safety requirements. FHWA therefore chose communities of practice as their approach of choice to enable this knowledge transfer.

Well, they have all the good habits of other successful best practice partner organizations, such as executive buy-in, strong community administrators, etc., but FHWA has two things the others don’t have. One is public communities and two is a balanced scorecard for measuring the effectiveness of their community program. Being a government agency they want to engage their constituents and hear what they have to say and they do that through their communities. For instance there is a community that caters to people who are going to be displaced as a result of land acquisition for highways. The community gives its constituents a forum to express concerns. So FHWA has spent some time figuring out how to interact with public forums and has had to deal with educating its workforce on what can and cannot be shared on public forums.

The Balanced Scorecard approach, (they call it that and they have tried to keep the quadrants as close to the "original" balanced scorecard as possible) has four quadrants. Customer results, Business results, Initiative growth and processes, and outreach and leadership activities. FHWA captures results under each of these quadrants and tries to quantify as much of it as they can very conservatively for reporting purposes. As a result of their structured approach to measuring outcomes, communicating with senior leaders about the continued effectiveness of communities of practice has become very easy. After all if saving lives is in your mission statement, you have to find every possible means of making that happen.

Hope you all have a great weekend and a Very Happy Easter to all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Communities of Practice at Arup Engineering

Have you heard of Arup Engineering? If not, look up the Sydney Opera House, Arup made that design happen. I don't know if it’s the nature of their business or if it’s their founder that makes Arup one of the most innovative organizations I have been to. To give you a sense of the legacy left behind by Sir Ove Arup, here is an excerpt from his "retirement" speech that is handed to every new employee walking in the door.
"There are two ways of looking at the work you do to earn a living:
One is the way propounded by the late Henry Ford: Work is a necessary evil, but modern technology will reduce it to a minimum. Your life is your leisure lived in your “free” time.
The other is:
To make your work interesting and rewarding, you enjoy both your work and your leisure.

We opt uncompromisingly for the second way.”

Sir Ove Arup’s firm belief was that his company would not make money at any cost. A legacy like that creates a natural culture of sharing and “small company” feel even though Arup is 7,000 employees strong. Its no wonder then that communities of practice thrive at Arup. But don’t get me wrong, its not all “huggy-kissy,” its still pure business. They are a highly matrixed organization just like many others today but their communities break down communication barriers and create an environment for sharing.

One of the keys to Arup’s success with communities is not just its culture but the recognition of several roles that have to exist within a community in order for it to thrive. In most organizations you will find a community leader/administrator, members, and subject matter experts. Other peripheral roles such as content manager or librarian will crop in and out as the community needs it. At Arup, roles such as political champion, activist, and technology leader also exist to ensure that the community has the support it needs to function.

An example of innovation is one of “Fire Engineering.” How many organizations can say they influenced the creation of a whole new field of engineering. Arup can. And that too with one person. One engineer who found it very important to study the “fire load” on structures pushed Arup to create a practice in that area. The idea is that buildings should be tested for fire load just as they are tested for structural load. Fire Engineering is a new discipline being taught in universities today.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Communities of Practice at Air Products and Chemicals Corporation

My next stop after Ernst& Young was Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, PA. Brrrrr... boy it was cold. I almost lost my fingers that night. That's because I am after all a summer baby, having lived in Mumbai India and then warm Houston, Texas all my life I had no gloves with me. So of course when I had to walk outside for 10 minutes trying to find and then drive the rental car around town I sat warming my poor blue hands for at least 20 minutes before I could do anything. So much for that.
Air Products and Chemicals (APCI) is an interesting organization. They have been APQC members and study participants for a long time. Air Products is one of the largest industrial gas producers, supplying a broad range of industrial gases, mainly oxygen, nitrogen, argon, hydrogen, and helium. These gases are used in most industries, including food and metal processing, semiconductor manufacturing, healthcare, aerospace and chemical production.
Communities of Practice are the primary approach for knowledge sharing at APCI. They have an interesting model of Communities of Interest, Communities of Practice and Centers of Excellence. Each level of community addresses a particular need within the organization. This is based on their realization that even in communities one size does not necessarily fit all so they created three buckets to fit the needs of their organizations. Their advice to us was the same. Understand your organization, its culture and the needs of your employees and then design the best KM solution to suit their needs. APCI presents at some of our conferences so keep an eye out, they are worth listening to.