Building the Case for Your Community of Practice

In the spirit of IYOTSA 2014,the International Year of the Secretary and Admin. Assistant, Exceptional EA continues to explore how assistants can go from good to exceptional. This is the promised follow up to Becoming Exceptional: Communities of Practice.

Jackson St Bridge Chicago Copyright Shelagh DonnellyBuilding a network, or community of practice, is somewhat akin to building bridges – bridges that help you make your collective way to enhanced levels of professionalism. You may already belong to a thriving network of peers outside your office walls, but have you considered the opportunity for leadership within your organisation?

Establishing an internal community of practice (COP) for administrative staff takes time and thoughtful planning. When effectively undertaken, it can empower colleagues, reduce operational silos, and benefit your company in succession planning and much more.

I’m anticipating here that you’ve already considered why there’s merit in empowering yourself and others through a network or Community of Practice (COP).

You may have undertaken your own informal environmental scan. You may intuitively recognise that there must be a better way to work together to share insights, cultivate expertise, problem solve, and generally offer one another the benefit of your collective experience. Lovely.

Your COP is led by peers, who adhere to Terms of Reference endorsed by management

Or, you may already be part of an internal group that is a community of practice (COP) in everything but name and structure. You may belong to an internal committee, and this may be your opportunity to help elevate its focus and outcomes. The beauty of a community of practice is that, while it keeps a watchful eye on what’s best for the company, it is led from within, by a group of peers.

How, though, do you begin? It helps if you work in the C-Suite, with direct access to your CEO, COO or another senior executive, but you don’t have to be at the top of the administrative hierarchy in your organisation in order to contribute to the greater good.

If you don’t work in the C-suite, approach a colleague there to help champion the cause

If you don’t report to an executive in your organisation’s C-suite, your goal may be well served by identifying and approaching an administrative colleague from that office to help champion establishment of an internal network or Community of Practice. You’ll also want to make your own executive aware from the start that you’re exploring the matter.

Begin with your employer’s perspectives in mind

No matter how supportive a boss you may have, s/he will be better positioned to support establishment of a network or community of practice (COP) with some form of business case in hand. Your proposal will ideally be no more than two pages in length. Remember, you’re appealing to busy people with demanding schedules; if you can’t make the case in more than a couple of pages, executives are unlikely to invest time in a thorough read.

Articulate the COP’s alignment with the organisation’s strategic plan and goals

Strategic Context: Begin by reviewing your organisation’s strategic plan, and its mission statement or values. Provide a concise description of how the proposed COP meets business needs by articulating the COP’s scope of purpose and its alignment with the strategic plan. For example, does your organisation’s strategic plan include employee engagement, development, mentoring, empowerment or innovation among its priorities? Do the phrases succession planning or internal leadership appear in the Plan? If so, these are logical starting points.

Identify criteria based on strategic context, and provide brief analyses of options you’ve considered and discarded

Analysis: Do your homework. Wherever possible in your analysis, strive to reflect the following.

  1. Alignment with strategic plan, as above
  2. Articulation of business need to be met by formation of such a network or COP
  3. Costs involved with establishment of a COP, bearing in mind that time away from members’ primary responsibilities can be regarded both as a cost and as an investment
  4. ROI– a brief statement reflecting a costs-benefits analysis/return on investment (ROI); this needn’t imply a deep dive into budgets so much as articulating the benefits to your organisation
  5. Risk management – are there any risks, reputational or otherwise, to the organisation? If so, how might they be mitigated?
  6. Advantages and disadvantages of options or models you’ve identified and assessed

Alternately, you may have identified a group within your organisation that already meets occasionally, albeit informally or with a different purpose in mind. Provide assessment of how that group might evolve to better align with both the needs you’ve identified, and with your organisation’s strategic needs.

Anticipate and take into account any sensitivities that colleagues who are already part of such an existing body may have to reorganising and welcoming newcomers into what may be a tight knit group. Individuals and groups can be resistant to change, and you’ll want to be prepared to help people understand how such a change benefits them.

Recommendations: Identify and justify your recommended approach

Recommendations: Articulate your recommendations, and provide justification. Does your organisation already have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to which colleagues turn, or might this COP support development or review of such standards that could benefit the organisation?

Can formation of such a group splinter or even shatter operational silos? That would be a major win, for colleagues and for your HR leaders, whose support you may wish to solicit.

Apart from knowledge sharing and development of best practices, a COP is an ideal in-house, cost-efficient form of professional development (PD). Built on a foundation of respect, you’ll find that a Community of Practice can lead to mentoring partnerships that may be formal or informal, and also support succession planning.

All these attributes also imply potential to reduce employee attrition and the subsequent recruitment and development costs; this is just one example of ROI (return on investment) for your employer.

TOR: Articulate membership and how the COP will function

Draft your Terms of Reference (TOR) for management’s consideration and recommendations: Whether you call your group a community of practice, a network, a working group or a committee, you’ll want to propose a governance structure. This can be spelled out within a draft Terms of Reference (TOR), which you may wish to append to your proposal.

Membership: In the case of the two COPs I’ve helped launch, we took the approach of identifying the most senior administrative support role in each department and operating area – typically the person who serves as the right hand of a manager, director or executive. In the educational sector, this includes one assistant per faculty. In the draft TOR, you can spell out proposed membership on a role-driven basis, and outline practices.

Oversight, Operating Practices, Risk Management: What kind of oversight do you envision for this body? Will it provide brief but regular reports to Human Resources, and/or to executives? Will the body conduct annual self evaluations, or regular meeting evaluations to assess its progress, or will it operate within a more informal structure? Risk management is a factor with which many of us are familiar, and a well written TOR can serve to mitigate risk in that it outlines and limits authority and scope of responsibility.

Support of Change Management: When developing your proposal, speak to the COP’s capacity to support change management. It’s quite likely that such a COP can serve as an effective information conduit and support management’s roll-outs and implementations of new or evolving practices. Get your COP up and running, and you’ll likely find management seeking your group’s help in then launching new initiatives. COP members are well positioned to help ease introduction of new undertakings within their respective areas.

Projects: Anticipate that your new group may be asked to take on responsibility for specific projects.

Articulate executive structure and term limitations: You’ll want to define leadership of the group, and terms of office for elected officers. When considering officers, think about the merits of setting limitations on terms of office; perhaps you and your colleagues will want to limit individuals to a maximum of two consecutive terms, or a maximum of two terms in total. This helps to ensure your COP benefits from new blood, which often implies new or different ideas.

Procedures and Reporting Practices: Define opportunity for sub-committees or ad hoc committees, and articulate reporting structures. Consider whether the group will follow Robert’s Rules of Order, or take a more relaxed approach.

Focus on Efficiencies: Are you weary of seeing people re-inventing wheels? You can stipulate intent that members will share best practices and templates with one another, and then communicate such knowledge within their respective areas. This can represent huge savings of time and goodwill for your organisation; the draining of such resources is often not recognised until reaching a breaking point.

Building the Framework, and Presenting Your Proposal

Don’t be a Lone Wolf or Focus on Your Ego; Think About the Team: As with anything worthwhile, launching and maintaining a community of practice requires investments of time, thought and energy. I recommend against going it alone, for a few reasons. While it makes perfect sense for those of us who have access to power within the organisation to lead or actively participate with colleagues in the launching of a COP, my view is that – once established – it’s ideal to encourage leadership from within.

If you’ve taken the lead in launching a COP, it may be natural that your colleagues consider nominating you as Chair or Vice Chair. In both instances where I helped launch such a body, I instead encouraged the concept of encouraging others to step forward. In my eyes, this was an opportunity for others to shine in leadership roles on a broader stage than the department or faculty level.

Let other colleagues have their turn in the spotlight, and hone their leadership skills

A COP provides people opportunity to head committees, facilitate presentations and exercise leadership skills. You may wind up serving a term as the inaugural Chair or one of the inaugural Vice Chairs, but encourage others to also put their names forward for elected office. There are many ways to help influence positive outcomes; empowerment of others, openness to setting aside titles and learning from peer groups are chief among these. A few years ago, after relocating to Vancouver, I bumped into a younger colleague whom I’d nominated as Chair of the first such COP I’d helped form. She was effusive in expressing her appreciation for having been tapped for such a role, and for the growth opportunities it afforded her – both personally and professionally.

Interested in exploring the launch of a COP in your workplace? Watch for an upcoming article with sample content for your business case and draft TOR.


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