Supply-chain leaders know the importance of collaboration better than most.
A well-ordered supply chain involves coordinating with stakeholders from multiple functions and geographies across and beyond the enterprise. Without cross-functional collaboration, leaders will struggle to solve problems in real time, track metrics, and implement process improvements across the chain.
And yet, many leaders find that their current tools and approaches do not foster sufficiently open and persistent collaboration. E-mails, meetings, and instant messages are good for ad hoc needs, but they don’t create a structure for ongoing teamwork and knowledge sharing. Cross-functional teams encourage this type of close collaboration, but they’re not very open. These teams comprise only a small number of experts and managers, some of whom see the team as an unwanted addition to their busy schedules.
Supply-chain leaders need a collaboration pathway that’s accessible, purposeful, and offers a clear impetus for employees to stay involved. The solution? Communities of practice.
What Are Communities of Practice?
A community of practice is a network of employees who come together to learn from one another face-to-face, virtually, or both. Communities are held together by a common goal of sharing experiences and insights related to a topic. The topic can focus on:
- a process (e.g., sales and operations planning),
- a discipline or functional area (e.g., manufacturing),
- a methodology, (e.g., Lean), or
- a cross-functional goal (e.g., innovation).
Communities engage in a variety of activities to help their members share knowledge and collaborate around the topic area. Most use their company’s existing intranet or enterprise collaboration platform to create a virtual hub. This hub provides a space for members to ask and answer questions, share tips and resources, find experts and other collaborators, and collaboratively solve problems. Most communities also host webinars, summits, and face-to-face or virtual meetings to bring members together.
Communities of practice benefit employees at every stage of their careers. New employees can use community resources to get up to speed faster and meet important people across the company. Aspiring mid-career employees can hone their expertise and take on community leadership roles to gain recognition. Communities also reduce the burden on long-tenured experts. Instead of answering the same questions over and over again, experts can share their knowledge in the community where a broader base of employees can easily find and use it.
How to Start Your Own Community of Practice
Before launching your own community, first seek out any community of practice resources that might be available in your organization. If you have an enterprise knowledge management (KM) program or communities in another area of the business, you can use their templates, guidance, and tools to jumpstart your community launch process. Bear in mind that some organizations focus KM efforts only on technical or engineering areas. Although your community may focus on a different topic, you can still use resources from other communities in the business.
If your organization does not yet have KM or communities, reach out to the I.T. organization about using existing tools to create a community hub. At minimum, you’ll want the ability to store or share documents and have discussions (e.g., a discussion board or chat feature). I.T. can also help you to define access rights and establish guidelines so that members can collaborate without creating security concerns.
After you’ve done your homework on available tools and resources, select a topic and define the target audience for the community. A community’s greatest strength is its members, so build yours on the foundation of existing networks and relationships wherever possible. If some supply-chain stakeholders already have formal or informal groups, incorporate these into the community. Existing networks can also help you pinpoint employees with the motivation and social capital to serve as advocates and leaders in the community.
Communities are always more successful when they have a clear game plan that’s aligned with tangible business objectives. Create a community of practice plan or charter that defines:
- community goals,
- how community goals support business objectives,
- the approaches and activities the community will use to reach its goals, and
- the people who will lead and sponsor the community.
Consider piloting the community with a small group of engaged employees before launching to a broader audience. This helps to refine the community plan, surface potential issues with the community hub, and establish a core group of “super users” to spread awareness and assist others.
Once you’ve worked out any kinks through the pilot, it’s time to launch the community to a broader audience. If possible, ask your marketing or design team for help creating a logo or “brand” for your community. Create messaging campaigns that explain the benefits employees will get out of the community, and the different ways they can participate. Launch the community with a virtual or face-to-face kickoff event where well-known organizational leaders voice their support.
Case in Point: Communities at Syngenta
Agrochemical company Syngenta uses communities to facilitate collaboration in its production and supply (P&S) function, which includes 9,500 employees. Syngenta calls its communities of practice “networks.” They provide employees with opportunities to connect with experts, share tips and ideas, and access the organization’s Supply Chain Academy for internal and external best practices. Each network must have a clear business purpose, such as helping members to solve problems, identify best practices, innovate or steward knowledge.
Syngenta’s P&S networks are cross-functional and cover 10 operational areas in the end-to-end supply chain, including procurement, sales and operations planning, compliance and risk management, supply-chain design, and more. Each network also includes multiple subnetworks that specialize in more specific topics related to the network’s broad discipline area. The networks and subnetworks often collaborate and share relevant best practices with one another.
Each network has its own customized SharePoint site with a wiki, member profiles, document-sharing tools, and discussion boards. These sites are open to all Syngenta employees and linked so that employees can navigate to relevant subtopics and people from each network. The sites are also integrated with enterprise social networking tool Yammer, which members use for quick and informal collaboration.
Network leaders keep their sites active by posting publications and initiating discussions. The networks also host regular learning and networking activities, such as lunch-and-learns and webinars, to keep members engaged. Networks send out e-newsletters to inform members about upcoming events and important discussions in their topic area.
According to Brian Steenson, knowledge manager at Syngenta, the company’s P&S networks are active and vibrant. With the help of consistent communications and strong branding, all employees in the function are well aware of the networks and their benefits. Employees know they can save time by turning to the networks when they have a question or problem, and that they can grow their careers by networking and participating in discussions. P&S leaders see that the networks help the function increase innovation capabilities and retain talent.
The Takeaway: Start Small, Start Now
As Syngenta’s example shows, a thriving network of communities helps employees to grow their expertise, connect with others, and be more productive. However, it’s important to know that you don’t need multiple communities to derive benefits. It’s smart to start with a single, focused pilot group in an area that really needs to collaborate. Then you can build on your success to grow a community program that helps employees share resources and strengthen relationships across the entire supply chain.
Lauren Trees is principal research lead, knowledge management, and Mercy Harper is a writer analyst for APQC.