Communities of Interest and/or Community of Practice


Definition: A Community of Interest (CoI) and/or Community of Practice (CoP) is a group of people operating within or in association with a client, customer, sponsor, or user in MITRE's business realm or operating sphere of influence for the purpose of furthering a common cause by sharing wisdom, knowledge, information, or data, and interactively pursuing informed courses of action.

Keywords: community of interest, community of practice, group dynamics, information exchange, mission success, mutual trust, shared goals, systems integration, terminology, user involvement

MITRE SE Roles & Expectations: Systems engineers are expected to participate in CoIs or CoPs associated with their projects. This will assist in harmonizing domain terminology, exchanging pertinent information, and looking for and acting upon issues and opportunities in their project's enterprise. MITRE staff in CoP or CoI settings are expected to bring the corporation to bear by providing the greatest value to our clients, customers, sponsors, or users, in conjunction with other government contractors.

Characteristics of CoIs and CoPs

The terms CoI and CoP are sometimes invoked interchangeably. However, there are distinctions:

Communities of Practice are "groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in the topic by interacting on an ongoing basis." They operate as "learning systems" or "action systems" where practitioners connect to solve problems, share ideas, set standards, build tools, and develop relationships with peers and stakeholders. A CoP is typically broader in scope and tends to focus on a common purpose, follow-on actions, and information exchanges. CoPs can be both internal and external to MITRE including various government, industry, academia, and MITRE participants.

A CoI is typically narrower in scope and tends to have a specific focus, such as information exchange. COIs typically tend to be a government organization approach (particularly in the Department of Defense [DoD]) to bring together individuals with common interests/references who need to share information internal to their community. They also need to provide an external interface to share with other communities (e.g., allowing a community-based loose coupling and federation as highlighted in other "Enterprise Engineering" articles.)

The MITRE business realm, program, or project context may determine which term is used more prevalently according to these characteristics.

The characteristics of CoIs and CoPs are discussed below in terms of social interactions, operations, longevity, and commitment.

Operations

A CoP may operate with any of the following attributes:

  • Some sponsorship
  • A vision and/or mission statement
  • Goals and/or objectives
  • A core team and/or general membership
  • Expected outcomes and/or impacts
  • Measures of success
  • Description of operating processes
  • Assumptions and/or dependencies
  • Review and/or reflection

Often CoIs span similar organizations (e.g., DoD, particularly when there is a common interest in an outcome).

Individual members may be expected to:

  • Support the CoP through participation and review/validation of products
  • Attempt to wear the "one hat" associated with the CoP while maintaining the integrity and autonomy of their individual organizations.
  • Participate voluntarily with the blessing of their organizations that determine their level of participation and investment.

Sponsoring organizations might provide a nominal budget needed to participate in CoIs/CoPs, make presentations at external organizations, or support meetings of the core team. Thus, MITRE staff participating in CoPs must be mindful of the time and effort they contribute, and ensure that their participation is an appropriate and justifiable investment of project resources.

Longevity

The "practice" part of CoP relates to the work the community does. This includes solving common problems, sharing ideas, setting standards, building tools, and developing relationships with peers and stakeholders. Collective learning takes place in the context of the common work. These groups learn to work not so much by individual study, lectures, etc., but by the osmosis derived from everyone working together—from experts to newcomers—and by "talking" about the work. This provides value to all organizations represented. MITRE participants should attempt to contribute their best ideas to the CoP and bring back good practices to share with their project teams and colleagues.

Like many other communities, a CoP grows based on the increasing benefits individuals or organizations accrue from participating in the activity. Sometimes these rewards include personal satisfaction in contributing and being recognized for adding value. A CoP that has a positive impact by helping to solve important problems not only retains a substantial percentage of its members, but attracts new ones.

Social Interactions

A CoI or CoP can operate in various interpersonal modes, including face-to-face or via video/audio teleconference, telephone, electronic mail (email), and website access devices. MITRE has been operating in all these modes for some time; it is becoming increasingly immersed in the virtual environments. It behooves us to become familiar and adept with the newer, more pervasive and effective methods.

Important Topics Relevant to CoIs and CoPs

Terminology

One important goal of any community is to achieve a shared understanding of terminology, particularly community-specific terms of art. It is not unusual for different stakeholders in a CoI/CoP to start with different meanings for a given word, or different words for something with a common meaning. Because MITRE is frequently in the position of providing technical support to different constituents of a CoI/CoP, we are in a position to assess whether a common understanding of a term is important to achieve and, if so, how to achieve that harmonization. For example, it is critical that the term "identification" has a commonly understood meaning between the military tactical situation awareness community and the intelligence analysis community when the two communities are operating together.

Information Sharing

One of the primary CoI/CoP functions is to share information that is important to the common purpose of the CoI/CoP. There are forces at work in organizations that may discourage information sharing, either explicitly or implicitly. The reasons for this are many. Some are legitimate (e.g., sharing has the potential to compromise classified information or threaten network security) while others are an artifact of organizational cultures that see the retention of information as a form of power or self-protection.

Trust

Good relationships are built on interpersonal trust. In the context of CoIs/CoPs, trust assumes two forms. First, information provided by an individual must be true and valid (i.e., the individual is viewed as a competent source of information). Second, a trustworthy person is dedicated to the goals of the CoI/CoP and treats others with respect. Trust is an important ingredient in the facilitation of information sharing.

Group Dynamics

Effective participation and operation within a CoI/CoP is highly correlated with good interpersonal skills in group settings. This requires an awareness and understanding of human motivation and behavior.

CoI Lessons Learned

Value and Focus

  • Purpose. Start with a clear purpose and informed understanding of the requirements. Lack of a clearly defined requirements can cause restarts. Define the scope early, work closely with the formation teams to ensure all necessary information is included, and prevent "requirements creep."
  • Passion. Known consumers with known needs are important for CoI success. Programs of record that have an imperative to deliver capability to the warfighter and are dependent on CoI products to do so can be used to drive toward results.

Strategy

  • Objectives. Define the terminology, goals, and constraints, and understand the problem and objectives so people are willing to participate. Ensure there is a well-defined purpose addressing a scoped problem relevant to the participants and tackled in achievable increments/spirals to adapt to changing needs. Select a scope permitting delivery of useful results within 9 to 12 months. Try to adopt a common model and avoid generating unique vocabularies and schema across domains to prevent an "N-squared problem" of communication among participants. System builders are usually important contributors to CoI vocabulary work and should be encouraged to drive the common vocabulary activities. Most CoI efforts do not have time to create or learn large new vocabularies, so leverage past efforts.
  • Stakeholders. Address cross-organizational and cultural challenges through structure, partnership, and transparency. Any issues and competing agendas need to be addressed directly, seeking common ground and win-win solutions. Institutionalize the CoI through creative friction and an adaptable system of rewards/incentives.
    • Invite key stakeholders to help ensure broader acceptance of results. Identify organizations willing to contribute early in the process and those with a vested interest in the outcomes. It is better to get diverse inputs to surface showstopper issues early, so they can be dealt with appropriately as the work progresses.

Governance

  • Leadership. Ensure that there is strong leadership and commitment to success. Both attributes are important to keep the team engaged and moving in a common direction. There is no substitute for governance, self-policing, and personal relationships.
  • Commitment. Prepare for long-term commitment. CoIs are non-trivial and require significant levels of participation over time. This has the potential for significant unfunded costs to support and implement. Assess and continually re-evaluate the return on investment of MITRE's participation in the CoI.
  • Procedures. Each CoI must establish its own operating procedures. Though other CoI procedures could be used as a basis, each CoI needs to tailor its norms and procedures to the organization (and culture) and objectives.
  • Have a set of exit criteria. Develop a set of criteria and exit strategy for disbanding the CoI (or for MITRE to cease participation), using the CoI objectives and our intended role.
  • Limit attendance to one or two representatives per organization/program. Try to limit attendance to key players (e.g., an authoritative manager and a technical expert).
  • Limit teleconferences to preparing for meetings or reviewing status. Face-to-face meetings are required to get the work done. Teleconferences have limited benefit for working through complex issues.
  • Have important tasks and announcements distributed by a high ranking leader to those with authority. This tends to get people's attention and increases the level of cooperation. For example, official "taskers" need to be sent by a government representative to other government representatives when many of the CoI players are contractors.
  • Have fewer but longer meetings. This improves the chance of retaining the same players and helps eliminate the problem of restarting and retracing steps and agreements made at previous meetings for the benefit of new players.
  • Take real-time minutes to ensure agreement on issues, results, and action items. Take minutes and document significant happenings as they occur. This provides a tangible track record that helps prevent disagreements later.

Conclusion

As you participate in the CoI/CoP process, leverage the lessons learned in this article and identify additional ways to enhance the CoI/CoP efficiency and effectiveness. Equally important, share the lessons learned and best systems engineering practices that you experienced through participating in CoIs/CoPs.

References & Resources

Advanced Distributed Learning, "Simulation and Training Community of Practice," accessed January 22, 2010.

Generation YES Blog—Thoughts About Empowering Students with Technology, accessed January 22, 2010.

Glasner, S., Fall 2000, "The Fine Print."

"Knowledge Management," accessed January 22, 2010.

Land Grant University CoP, "Applying to Become a Professional Development Community of Practice," accessed January 22, 2010.

Medric, L., February 9, 2007, "Communities of Practice (CoP)—An Overview and Primer," CEM Forum.

The MITRE Corporation, "Leveraging the Corporation," MITRE Project Leadership Handbook.

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