Improve Your Intranet with a Community of Practice

Since our Movable Type-powered intranet went live back in November 2004 we have been adding sites and authors at a fair clip. We’re now up to around 60-70 authors.

One problem that soon began to emerge was the variety in the quality of these sites, both in terms of IA, content and general web best practices.

We attempted to tackle this issue by developing a community of practice for site authors in order to provide them with the knowledge and support to better manage their sites.

Naturally, all site authors go through an initial training session on using Movable Type as well as some basic principles of writing for the web and creating useful web pages.

I’ve always recognized that this alone isn’t enough, and it’s been my goal to provide ongoing education to these folks and to encourage them to maintain and develop their web sites through the creation of some sort of user community.

This is how the idea for the Community of Practice was born.

Here’s a definition of a Community of Practice that applies well to our application of this concept:

A group of professionals, informally bound to one another through exposure to a common class of problems, common pursuit of solutions, and thereby themselves embodying a store of knowledge. ~ Peter & Trudy Johnson-Lenz

Given the limited resources of the web team to support this effort, our strategy has been threefold.

1. Community of Practice Meetings

We hold these on a quarterly basis and try to center them around a theme in order to provide some focus and make them more appealing to site authors. Our most recent one centered on usability testing.

We started by explaining why it was so important to carry out ongoing usability testing and how easy it is to run usability tests.

Then the web team did a demonstration of how to conduct a usability test which was followed by a Q&A session to make sure that the audience really got it.

During our quarterly meetings we also provide the audience with the opportunity to ask questions about any subject relating to their sites, which helps share knowledge on subjects that otherwise might not have got mentioned.

We hold these meetings in our main auditorium during the lunch hour (we actually take 90 minutes) and we provide lunch, which really helps attendance.

After the meeting we follow up with an email recap and use an online survey tool to capture feedback.

We’re up to about 50% attendance at the moment, which isn’t bad for a meeting that’s in addition to everyone’s daily duties. Hopefully, as we get better at running them and the word continues to spread this number will continue to rise.

2. Content Author Labs

Rather than run ongoing formal training sessions, we decided to set up informal ‘labs’, which we hold in one of our computer training rooms.

The idea is that site authors can come and make updates to their site and that members of the web team will be on-hand to answer questions and offer advice and instruction as needed.

This is much easier for us to support than ongoing formal training sessions and is more beneficial to the authors as they can work on something that is specifically relevant to them.

3. Online Bulletin Board

Our intention is to develop this into a knowledge repository along the lines of the official Movable Type bulletin board. However, it hasn’t been that successful so far.

We only have about 25% of authors signed up to use the board, with obviously fewer people actually posting questions.

I don’t delude myself that bulletin boards and the online communities that support them are easy to get going, and thus we recognize that this effort is going to take time. We are certainly going to have to put some more work into this tool if we are to make it a success.

One thing the web team does is to post tips and tricks on a regular basis, in order to encourage people to come to the board to read them.

We also require authors to post any questions on the bulletin board rather then email the web team directly.

We make sure that we answer these questions as quickly as possible, and thus the author gets their answer and the knowledge gets captured.

In Addition…

I also send out (semi-)regular emails to the author community encouraging them to keep their sites current and reminding them about the tools and resources available to them.

It’s a lot of work, even when it’s stripped down to what we’re doing, which I see as the bare minimum to have a hope of developing a successful Community of Practice.

However, I do think the establishment of such a community is an essential part of creating a useful intranet, and so it’s work that is well worth doing.

Further Reading About Intranet Communities of Practice