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Communities of Practice: Military intelligence and death by irrelevance

In 2010 the Centre for New American Security (CNAS) published ‘Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan‘, a fascinating read from a KM perspective.  Couple this with the HBR ‘Conflict keeps teams on top of their game‘ and ‘Adaptability, the new competitive advantage‘.  Add a sprinkling of complexity, where predators are needed, and we have an interesting view to consider when managing/developing Communities of Practice (CoP).

Many organisations struggle with CoP, throwing good money after bad, watching them endure a slow lingering death.  Questioning their value.  Questioning their relevance.  My grandmother was from Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys, a now defunct mining community where they speak as they find, and she would have looked at many CoP and said “if you were a horse they’d shoot you” – something experiencing that much suffering should be put out of its misery.

I’m lucky, as a researcher I get to study how a wide variety of organisations develop and use these communities, and as a consultant I run diagnostics and help design their architecture.  What I find interesting is that I have had very few conversations where organisations have described their need for CoP to be driven by a need to become more dynamic, agile or adaptive – a major concern for organisations today (see the HBR article above or others, such as the Deloitte Shift Index 2011).  In the vast majority of the cases they are about being reactive, as opposed to proactive.  Often they are built around a group of experts that police deviations from the norm, maintaining ‘the way things are done around here’.  Many CoP are far too large, much like  a sprawling metropolis, it is difficult to find the boundary for the community; this results in low levels of trust and sub communities that create their own ‘neighborhoods’ with interesting sub cultures.  Others are devoid of purpose, well intentioned in their conception, but reduced to a shell, tumbleweed blowing down dried up knowledge flows; a creaking sign blows back and forth over the community portal:

“Technicians CoP, Established 2008, Population 120, 86, 51, 26″

I recently listened to a presentation by a large UK company on the success of their organisation wide CoP .  For me, it summed up the problem when it comes to knowledge flows and the organisation’s need to develop a fertile ‘adaptive’ breeding ground for dynamic and agile individuals, groups and teams.  This CoP was presented as a panacea for problem solving, but it was built upon community leaders who were chosen by the organisation for their high level of expertise, which in this case also meant they had been with the organisation for a long period of time.  I was left to wonder whether this was a community at all, or whether it was just a problem solving network.  I asked how they surfaced new ideas, how they encouraged variety, how they used signals from the front line to make wider strategic or operational decisions?  Did they use the community to monitor the type/nature of problems that were emerging and how community leaders were responding?  Were the problems signalling disturbances in the environment that required a strategic response?

The answer… “We hadn’t thought of that.  Perhaps that’s something we can take back”


Community or Network?   Organic or stagnant?  Are you focused on solving the problem, or what lies behind the problem?  Reactive or Proactive? Ask yourself, what is the purpose for CoP and how do you know if they are working?  This is where there are lessons to be learned from the CNAS intelligence report.

First and foremost, commanders, including The President of the United States, are not getting the best informed intelligence from which to make decisions – The report says that decision-makers are more inclined to trust newspapers than the ‘ground truth’ available from their own people.  My question, for organisational CoP, is how that ‘ground truth’ is being surfaced, analysed and presented to decision makers?  A challenge for the US intelligence community is not only to become ‘stronger‘ but more ‘relevant‘; for this to happen in organisations there is a need to understand purpose, the needs of the individual, the needs of the organisation and the types of systems required to bind the two together.  Relevance is driven by the fact that the knowledge/expertise/intelligence required to guide strategic direction/operational response resides at grassroots level.

“The soldier or development worker on the ground is usually the person best informed about the environment and the enemy” (p. 12)

The question for organisations then has to be, what is being done to surface, analyse and act upon the emergent signals from the grassroots?  Communities built upon control of the norm are suppressing the variety that informs dynamic capability, agility and adaptive capacity.  It never ceases to amaze me how some of the most seeming complex presenting problems are resolved through a relatively simple solution.  In the CNAS report, US Army officers overcame the lack of relevant intelligence through fireside chats – they solved the problem by enabling conversation!  David Gurteen would have held a Cafe, but that is another story.

“The battalion intelligence officers refused to allow the absence of a data network to impede the flow of information. Each night, the deputy intelligence officer hosted what he called “fireside chats,” during which each analyst radioed in from his remote position at a designated time and read aloud everything learned over the last 24 hours” (p. 14)

The lesson to be learned for those operating CoP in organisations is to by all means use community ‘leaders’, but use them not as community police, or regulators, but as catalysts to surface relevant intelligence for the organisation.  I would argue that you will start looking for different types of people, with different skills sets – networkers, collaborators, communicators – people who know how to have a good conversation; who understand the relevance of the conversation to the individual and the organisaiton; who are credible enough to be listened to as they travel between levels of the organisation; who are trustworthy and able to communicate a message and influence leaders.

This blog is in danger of taking off in too many directions, but look at the HBR articles on adaptability and competition, and take a look at my previous blog on the need for predators.  I would argue that there is a need for a shift in focus for many organistion CoP.  We often talk about the value of CoP, but first we need to talk about their relevance or accept suffering and a long lingering death by irrelevance.

4 comments on “Communities of Practice: Military intelligence and death by irrelevance

  1. Peter Francis
    July 4, 2012

    David, as ever an excellent article. The US as well as the UK Mil have spent a lot of time, energy and money looking at spreading information and understanding very quickly. DCDC wrote JDP 4 Understanding; , it is an excellent read and is used in certain aspects of military work.

    However, commanders at the grass roots find it very hard to react to all the info and intel that they have at their level, hence a few decisions are made on good old military judgement and the moral compass that we all have, as well as the binding principle, Can I, Should I, Must I, therefore if they have develop a CoP, policing is the last thing on their mind, they system are monitored for legal reasons.

    I do believe a large issue with Company CoP is the old adage of trust and freedom you can speak your mind with no reprisals from Senior managers. It would be interesting to see how many work mates are friends on facebook, the true CoP of most organisations.

    As with many things in life, we have to remember; we are judged not on what we say, but what we do, hence free up the CoP and allow people freedom of speach and action. Company’s may be surprised at the results, as Flynn states, the bloke at the grass roots knows the problem and has the solution, just the system will not allow them the chance or freedom of thought and action. Regards Peter Francis

    • David Griffiths
      July 4, 2012

      Peter – First of all, great to hear from you! Seriously, one day we have to make some time for a beer…I’m going to be working out of London as of the middle of August and so you’ll have to let me know if there’s an opportunity to meet.

      Thank you for signposting JDP04, I hadn’t seen it before and it is turning out to be an interesting read. Also, I think you hit the nail on the head with this “as Flynn states, the bloke at the grass roots knows the problem and has the solution, just the system will not allow them the chance or freedom of thought and action”.

      Hope to get to meet up sometime soon…


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