How does your Community of Practice or Professional Community work?

For the last wee while, I've been thinking about how we should be using our Professional Communities to share knowledge within the company; that brought me to thinking about how effectively our Communities function.

BT has an Open Source arm  called Osmosoft; this is a bit of a departure for BT, and it's managed differently and does things in different ways. The guy who runs Osmosoft is Jeremy Ruston (@Jermolene), and he tried to explain "What is the point of Osmosoft".

A couple of things came out from that, the first being:
  • exploring the central question of how innovation occurs in communities
Since I was thinking about communities, I took the opportunity for a chat with one of their guys who helps look after the community –  @FND – and explored how their community worked.

I asked him to talk a bit about their community; he described the 2 main reasons for joining communities as being
  • Self interest
  • Gaining respect – from others [or even yourself]

The community he deals with have a small number of developers for the core; more plugin developers,  rather more folk who will contribute tips & tricks, and a much larger number of users/help seekers.

Leadership within the community really comes via self selection; leaders have to have credibility within the community and not just be "this guy who's telling me what to do". The leaders have to effectively establish what's going to be best practice, and a general direction for the community.

Leaders can be direct Subject matter Experts (SME); the "go-to guys" for technical issues; they'll often get a personal kick out of being able to do a tailored solution; other leaders can be the codifiers, or knowledge gardeners – they'll maintain FAQ lists to make everyone's life easier – keep an eye on what questions are being asked.

This community is a developers/open/external community; I asked @FND about his Professional Community within the company. I liked his answer so much I tweeted it "The internet is my professional community". That had resonance with @Jermolene 's other phrase
  • Communicate with our colleagues across BT using the public internet to ensure the widest audience
@FND indicated that one of the strengths of their community was the ecosystem they worked in – "Redside", or outside the corporate firewall; Google Groups host their End-user discussions   and Developers Group. Discussions regularly took place as to whether they should work with other larger communities – for example, the jQuery teams who do many clever javascript things, like the TiddlyWiki team do. That would give them more people to work with – but communities are fluid.

Communities of this nature have very diverse populations by age, occupation, geography, background; managing a group like this requires differing approaches. The concern for the core architecture vs. the never ending quest for features causes discussion; fortunately there appears to be little/no trolling. The approach taken to discussion is to embrace difference and discuss patiently. It seems to work for them.

There are, of course other places to go to for support – StackOverflow hosts a lot of Q&A on Tiddlywiki; another community where people answer questions and get pretty rapid feedback on their answers

A community like this has a lot of competent people who work within it; they all need literacy in their subject matter, but they have differing skills and seem willing to share.

I asked for views as to how this could be applied to our Professional Communities; it seemed likely the best way would be under the radar, doing it via a piecemeal approach. If it works, we'd see a change in the way people were working.

While I was documenting this, my attention was drawn to an excellent  Communities Manifesto piece by @stangarfield – the Osmosoft guys do a lot of that; I think maybe I need to audit my Professional Community!