Internal Communities Do the Heavy Lifting

When I started working with my first large-scale change team at the World Bank, we decided to go looking for where deep, honest, candid conversations were taking place – we wanted to find out where the heavy lifting was done, applying know-how to get results.

We found the best interactions happening in the cafeteria, the smoking-room, the bar across the street after hours. This is where people with passion in their hearts gathered to say what had to be said, whether or not it was politically correct.

Shortly afterward we discovered the work of Etienne Wenger, who had helped coin the phrase, Communities of Practice.  We started reading his books and talking with him.  Soon we realized we had to find the Communities of Practice inside the Bank, wherever they were.

A Community of Practice is a group that not only shares an interest or profession, but they are practitioners. I.e., they are applying their know-how and expertise, chalking up experience.

We found five CoPs in the World Bank. They had been operating in existence long before we arrived. We studied them to learn how a CoP could thrive in what seemed an environment that was toxic toward communities. We learned a great deal.

Communities often do the heavy lifting in organizations, taking up the slack when the hierarchy drops the ball or the project teams can’t quite close the loop. Here are four basic questions we asked when we wanted to learn more about communities that had figured out how to live in our culture:

  1. What communities are doing well, thriving that we don’t yet know about?
  2. Who runs them? One person? Two? Three?
  3. Where do they congregate, and when?
  4. What can we learn from them about how to get things done ?

– Seth Kahan helps leaders improve performance. His book, Getting Change Right, will be published in May of this year.


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