Over the last few years, we’ve been building a strong engineering community of practice in DWP Digital. The practice consists of around 1,000 colleagues from a diverse range of engineering professions who work together to build and maintain digital services, applications and systems for DWP’s 20 million customers and 80,000 colleagues.
What is a community of practice?
A community of practice is a group of people who share a common concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better. Communities of practice are essential for any organisation employing people with specialist skills and capabilities, as it allows them to work together, sharing their ideas and knowledge while helping to break down silos. It’s a safe space for members of the community to share best practices, ask questions, scale approaches and provide support for each other resulting in happier and more engaged employees.
How does a community of practice work?
Community members mutually guide each other through their understandings of the same problems in their area of shared interest and this way they indirectly share tacit knowledge. This prevents knowledge silos like the character Brent in the novel The Phoenix Project: a self-appointed (or self-declared) expert who monopolises the possession and creation of knowledge as their source of power.
Community of practice members experience a sense of togetherness (or community) when facing similar real-life problems. They organise themselves around a technical challenge that they all share and identify with.
In an IT landscape as varied and as large as DWP’s, it’s essential that we foster and support how and what people do together as part of the practice, so that they have agency in self-organisation around a set of problems or challenges that they care about, and that they then benefit from the shared concepts and artifacts that they generate as a result.
Each member of the community redevelops the knowledge that is discovered by them and subsequently shared, therefore ideas and solutions quickly mature allowing the practice to respond and pivot quickly as they learn together from one another.
Here are my top tips for building an engineering community of practice.
Set out your intention
A clear vision will help you understand exactly what it is you want to achieve from your community of practice.
Our vision for the DWP Digital Engineering practice is to “provide industry-leading technical expertise” to the department. We aim to do this by building internal skills, recruiting new talent and fostering a culture of collaboration and shared knowledge to support best practice.
Establish a set of core values
As 24/7 digital services become the norm for DWP, practice members use their professional discretion and subject matter expertise, to decide how best to build, test and release systems.
Having clear values in places helps ensure that all practice members are working towards the same goals. We decided to adopt the five scrum values for our Engineering community of practice: commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect.
Understand the value of your members
A community of practice exists around a set of shared interests or problems. It’s important to remember that the level of participation in the community can and will change for individual members as additional groups, or communities of interest exist within the practice community and across it. Therefore, some members will want to lead on a particular topic at a given point in time and take a seat at the periphery at other times.
An individual’s engagement with the practice brings benefit, no matter the level of engagement. Some members of the community will act as bumble bees, flitting between topics, cross-pollinating ideas as they go, helping to aid the transference of tacit knowledge.
A healthy community will support and even advocate a level of engagement that, from the outside, may appear to be informal.
Build relationships across the organisation and beyond
A community of practice means having the right people working collaboratively in the right roles with access to the right support network.
DWP Digital’s engineering practice members work closely with product owners, business analysts and delivery managers, usually in multi-disciplinary teams, taking user needs and turning them into working systems and services. Seeking advice from beyond the practice is also key to building a successful community.
Regular face-to-face events for practice members are the ideal opportunity for sharing and collaboration. However, the events of 2020 have shown that online tools are invaluable for keeping our community of practice connected.
We use a number of tools to keep connected and collaborating, including Slack to keep everyone working, sharing and learning, effectively and securely whatever the lockdown rules. We have dedicated channels for job families, help and support for IT issues, and each of the various tools and technologies that we use have their own focused groups.
Share knowledge and experience
Bringing people together who do similar or connecting roles makes it easier for them to support and learn from each other, and provides the opportunity to foster stronger working relationships, build a greater sense of community and to share experience and skills.
It’s important to take the right approach to leading the practice and provide the right level of support.
The maturity of the practice and its capabilities need to be monitored so that effective and relevant training can be provided at the right time and the level of support required by the practice be maintained at a level to sustain the practice.
Having a diverse team that reflects the people we’re building services for is one of the most important elements of a community of practice.
This is because a more diverse team that considers all aspects of society within its design is going to be better at designing for users. It’s the key to building services that really meet our users’ needs.
Continuous development is not only something we do when building our services – it’s important to keep developing ourselves in order to help each other. And don’t be afraid to try out new things.
A community of practice is about coming together with like-minded people, learning together, sharing together, making things better together, having fun together, so it shouldn’t all be work-focused.
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