Communities of Practice: Collaboration Tool for Long-Term Engagement in Process Improvement

In a recent survey on how organizations use process frameworks, APQC found that only one in three organizations have a continuous improvement culture where employees proactively look for ways to improve current processes and meet strategic goals. Furthermore, the majority of survey respondents indicated they don’t conduct ongoing process performance monitoring or use a process performance tracking tool.

So how can organizations ensure they have the best possible processes to accomplish their goals?

In my previous Articles on crowdsourcing and hack events, I discussed the limitations of traditional process improvement efforts and explored solutions to engaging employees in process improvement. Both crowdsourcing and hack events provide opportunities to establish two-way communications, create enthusiasm for process improvement, and tap into a wider source of ideas. These approaches are great tools for driving or renewing interest in process improvement, but once they finish and the dust settles employees tend to go back to business as usual.

So how do organizations tackle the hardest part of engaging employees in process improvements – keeping the momentum going?

To truly engage employees in process improvements, organizations have to make it part of how employees accomplish work. Communities of Practice (CoP) are one approach that creates an ongoing, employee-led forum focused on knowledge sharing and improvement.

Communities of Practice

APQC defines CoPs as a network of people who come together to share and learn from one another face-to-face, virtually, or both. Common goals and purposes supported by a desire to share experiences, insights, and best practices hold communities together.

CoPs are nothing new; most organizations include some form of CoP for knowledge management. Like the hack events and crowdsourcing activities, they usually have an initial flurry of activity only to die off due to address their daily work. To ensure CoPs provide the benefits the organization is looking for—including process improvements – organizations have to integrate CoPs into how employees accomplish day-to-day work activities. The following examples illustrate how some organizations accomplished successful integration.


Just because you build it does not mean they will come. To perpetuate momentum, PETRONAS integrated CoPs and knowledge into how people accomplish work and built process improvement requirements into its CoPs.

To begin, PETRONAS’ knowledge management team developed a five-step process to build knowledge management into project workflows.

  1. Process workflow—the development and management of technical standards, standard operating procedures, guidelines, and manuals on the current process workflow.
  2. Project execution—cross-disciplinary teams carry out a given project using the relevant process workflows.
  3. Peer review/Learning review—once the project is complete, the cross-disciplinary team meets and debriefs on the project to identify best practices and lessons learned. The team members then share what they learned within their CoPs.
  4. Best practices—at this stage, the CoP members take the information from the review sessions and create process improvement working groups to update the standard operating procedures or workflow processes.

To ensure adoption of the five-step process, PETRONAS includes process improvement in the CoPs’ terms of reference. Each CoP must include a commitment to process improvement in its initial business case. In addition, PETRONAS requires each CoP to develop an annual activities and outcomes plan, which is submitted for approval and resource allocations, which must include process improvement activities (either work groups or process improvement documents).

FMC Technologies

FMC Technologies developed three pilot CoPs—called the “global design drafting network”—for the organization’s knowledge management (KM) program. It initially created buy-in on the CoPs by engaging key people in the organization with subject matter expertise, experience, and influence to champion collaboration.

Though one-on-one engagement was useful for establishing champions and generating initial momentum, conducting this level of “hand-holding” was not feasible for every FMC Technologies employee. Instead, the KM team looked at other ways to integrate collaboration tools and make the CoP the “one-stop shop” to accomplish work. Hence, the team migrated email chains and consolidated the organization’s SharePoint sites and content into the CoP. However, building the infrastructure was not enough; it also required seeding discussions to bring people into the CoP.

FMC Technologies chose a strategically important and controversial subject for its first effort—how to layer computer-aided designs. There was no standard within the organization and, in many cases, there were differences within the regions. However, layering was an important factor in how the designers accomplished their work and proved to be a topic that inspired passion. So the KM team posted a comment on the standardization of layering, got 22 immediate responses, and started a conversation on the topic. The KM team then leveraged the respondents to create a work group (a subset of the CoP where small teams can collaborate on a specific topic) to further investigate the topic. The development of these work groups drew even more collaboration into the CoP. The KM team moved email chains into the work groups, which now serves as a definitive source of project documents (no version control issues and everyone can see changes or edits), and they now have over 500 active work groups.


Both examples illustrate how an organization can ensure CoPs provide a venue for employee-led process improvement and integrate the CoP into how employees accomplish work. Both PETRONAS and FMC Technologies were able to leverage the collaborative nature of CoPs to generate buy-in and engagement, support vertical and horizontal collaboration, and uncover process improvements in real time.

However, CoPs are not the only answer to employee engagement in process improvements. Instead, organizations should include a mix of tactics and tools that will provide:

  • initial engagement in process thinking (e.g., crowdsourcing),
  • establish a culture of collaboration and improvement (e.g., hack events),
  • tap into experts for specific problems (e.g., brainstorming or workshops), and
  • establish ongoing forums for collaboration and problem solving (e.g., CoPs).
Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland is a research specialist at APQC, with over ten years of business research and consulting experience. Her focus has predominantly been on best practices in business processes, corporate strategy, and R&D. She can be reached via email at and on Twitter at @hlykehogland.


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