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Compartim: an example of high-intensity community of practice in the public service

This post is part-payment for help received :-).

Late this week I was lucky enough to address the annual gathering of the Programa Compartim (the “We share” programme) of the Justice Department of the Generalitat of Catalonia.

The Generalitat is a government body with a very large degree of autonomy and authority on most public services in their territory, and the aforementioned department runs a host of services from prisons to social and family mediation to legal libraries, plus the administration of justice as such. They also play host to the Compartim initiative, which has been running for over three years now and aims to bring knowledge management, through communities of practice, to the public administration. I had been aware of some of their meetings, courses and initiatives, and knew that they were among the most serious players in our country. But I didn’t know them in detail. I’m not especially familiar with communities in a government setting, even if I am familiar with local and regional government operations.

So when they asked me to give the talk at their annual meeting, I was a bit rattled. The whole point of giving it would be aiming to help them with proven practices in the field, so I needed to check the applicability of my perspectives… and to get hold of examples, many examples, of what had worked and what had not. So I asked friends, some of which I’ve helped set up projects in those fields. And some others whom I know have built nice initiatives. And some whom my friends pointed out as relevant experts. You could say I called on the network :-). And it answered.

And I found that yes, most of my experiences apparently translate very well. The driving forces and the obstacles to participation are marginally different (sometimes in interesting ways) but quite recognisable. The causes of failure are definitely familiar. So I built a presentation to address issues such as the management of expectations, how to make a CoP relevant to the wider organization, and the classics (motives, opportunity, means), plus some proven tips and tricks to free participation in different types of online community. Nothing too new, if probably interesting to people who are starting to move CoPs online.

Or so I thought.

Teaching grandma to suck eggs

I arrived early to meet, chat, and get to know the people face to face. Soon, stories were coming forth. And I found that Compartim was a different bird from what I had thought. In fact, it’s a centrally-coordinated system of communities of practice that share resources and support, but span dozens of wildly different areas with their own working methods and goals. They’re essentially presential, low-membership communities that resemble more “project communities” that “communities of practice” in the more amorphous, open-ended sense. Participation in some reaches 30% of membership according to their measurement.

Those groups form in order to find a desirable knowledge-sharing task (periodically, and with a delivery date), and ram into it until they produce a definite, useful, value-adding, change-enabling piece of new practice. “Knowledge creation”, indeed. Done by teams of volunteer enthusiasts, supported by “moderators” integrated in the Compartim programme. The moderators get some practical reward out of their intensive work – so intensive that about half of the communities have instituted the practice of changing moderators every year.

Now, if that was all, I’d say they were project groups. Notable for the use of volunteers, yes. But those communities add much more than simply their target “knowledge object”. They’re both a continuous, ongoing professional talking shop and a means to diffuse the implementation of the best practices and references they identify. And they’re expanding their reach beyond the tightly-knit team that meets regularly, using increasing numbers of social media tools to (for instance) raise proposals. Or, as in one case, they gather best practice proposals using a forum, debate the fused text using a blog, and finally bind up a solid community product.

Beyond that, they use the diffuse networks based on the Generalitat collaboration tool like feelers. Not established, vertical forums, but sparks coming and going and sharing information. That underlying cross-community is thickening and gaining drive, and the Compartim leaders are clearly hoping to build on this, even if it’s early days.

In a fashion, the emerging online model may resemble our old philosophy of project groups spawning as transient sub-communities from the wider online fora. We couldn’t do it very well because it requires an enormous amount of energy and work, which we can’t afford. But they can. Then again, they may go in a completely different way.

Distinctive and accountable

So it’s not your grandpa’s CoP. Or maybe it is, in the sense that it’s mostly presential, if based on a very sophisticated framework.

But the key point, and something I came to appreciate more and more the further the day’s conversations proceed, is that the Compartim CoPs are absolutely targeted towards accountability. There is no problem of explaining how conversations about problems help improved practices. There is no semi-formal system to gather cases of succesful application of CoP knowledge. No, the Compartim framework skips that need by defining itself around actual deliverables. The psychologist CoP in the prison system group is bent on producing a manual (as it happens, one the management is not asking for nor acknowledging). Most CoPs were able to report at least a couple of significant “knowledge objects” created, items designed to improve the practice and the efficiency of their field. Whatever else they do (and they do a lot), the focus is on those targets.

After the first twenty minutes of informal chat, it was plain that simply trying to explain engagement methods for open-ended online communities to these über-focused experts was not going to cut the mustard. Which is saying a lot about their ability to transmit ideas, too. Thankfully, there was a lot to say on their actual pain points and the slides were built to serve as a general backdrop, so it apparently went well… in spite of the fact that I was (and still am) busily revisiting many ideas I took for granted.

Because Compartim works. That’s the issue. They’re enormously energy-intensive, and they need to find a way to affect their constituency further and faster, and there’s a lot of things that can be improved. But their energy-intensive, results-focused, mainly presential method works. And it looks like being exportable.

It’s so very different from the classic online CoP model, in every way. I think I’ll be writing a lot about them as I find out more details of their working practices… and I look forward to seeing them evolve. It’ll be an adventure worth watching.

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