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CIO-turned-executive coach Steve Heckler explains why Communities of Practice, or COPs, can be a critical resource for busy IT leaders who want to connect with their peers, share lessons learned, and improve their performance.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.”
- African proverb


Nearly two thirds of executives do not receive outside leadership advice, but nearly all want it. As IT leaders, who do you turn to when you need some help, advice or just want to kick around some new ideas; or want to find out about experiences with a particular vendor or consultant?

Peer groups, or Communities of Practice (COP), are the perfect solution for decreasing your isolation and creating a feeling of community. Whether it is the public or private sector, regardless of industry, peers are all facing similar challenges. It is important to realize as an executive that you are not alone in the obstacles your face on a day-to-day basis.

COPs create a circle of peers with whom you can share ideas, experiences, fears, concerns, successes and much more. Because these communities consist of the same people meeting together each month or quarter, the sharing is deeper and the camaraderie stronger. These groups are like Las Vegas: What happens in the COP stays in the COP (completely confidential; everything discussed stays in the room).

Members feel safe to express themselves in a safe environment where they are not judged, and peers are there to help each other. COP groups make you better informed, expose you to more options and keep you grounded in the realities of the business world.

Peer-to-peer networking can work for executives at any level of an organization. We all learn better, trust more, and gravitate to the shared experiences of people at our level and in circumstances similar to ours. There is incredible value in being able to tap into the collective experience of a group of trusted peers.

Why Network?

The benefits of networking with your peers are undeniable. You face similar challenges so you can quickly gain from their thinking and experiences. In the safety of a peer group you can share challenges and get honest feedback and ideas. Participants find these exchanges invaluable. They realize that they are not alone; that others have gone through, or are going through, similar experiences.

Being promoted into a greater role with more responsibility doesn’t mean that you suddenly have all the answers. The savvy executive realizes that there is room for growth and much that can be learned from others whose experience exceeds one’s own.

A beneficial aspect of peer-to-peer networking is the exchange of information concerning what is going on in the business technology landscape. Participants get to hear first-hand experiences from peers about new technologies, products and companies. This information can directly influence a decision whether to adopt a certain technology, utilize a particular vendor, implement a business practice, and meet other unforeseen challenges.

When presenting to your Board of Directors or Audit Committee, it’s powerful to be able to say, “I have talked to six other CIOs with the same challenges, and they’re dealing with it in this way.” It makes your story more believable, and your key recommendations more compelling.

Even the best of the best have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance by taking advantage of outside perspective.

Peer Networking through Communities of Practice

In a COP you have the ability to query members for advice regarding vendors, leadership practices, strategies, new technologies, or other pressing questions. The more informed you are, the more quickly you can make good decisions.

You will hear first-hand from others about the products and services actually being used in their businesses. You can work through business issues with a group of trusted advisors and professionals in similar roles, all of whom are there to share and to help you to do a better job. Getting assistance in problem solving, having other executives examining and suggesting alternative solutions is the benefit that comes from engaging in a community of your peers. It’s not about competition in these groups; it’s about sharing.

The experiences of your peers in mentoring and developing internal talent and the sharing of leadership and delegation skills are some key benefits of participating in a COP. You can also hear how others deal with upper management and how they partner with peers within their organization. Participants walk away with information and advice they can quickly apply to their own situations.

Time Spent vs. Time Invested vs. Time Saved

What makes a successful COP? The willingness of people to prepare for meetings, show up, engage at a high level of openness, exchange ideas, ask for help, and receive it in a safe environment with peers they have come to know, trust and respect. One executive recently stated that the direction for four of his current year objectives were facilitated through information received in the COP; directions that he would not have otherwise considered. Market trends and influences are often discussed within a group when talking business strategies. In one group, an executive expressed frustration over his high telecom costs and asked for help. The group suggested several alternative vendors to him that he later acted on, resulting in annual savings in excess of $250K.

An executive’s time is at a premium, so making time for a monthly meeting is the biggest concern for many when it comes to joining a COP. After joining, members find that making the time for the meeting pays quick dividends. Those who have made the investment usually come away from each session with several nuggets that prove to be invaluable.

Facilitators and Group Size

The role of the facilitator is important. The best facilitators should not take up a lot of airtime but can still offer input to the group that adds  value and perspective. As well, the facilitator establishes the group norms and keeps the meeting moving, engaging the “quieter” members. He or she also and handles administrative aspects of the meeting and solicits inputs for topics for discussion and handles much of the meeting logistics.

The initial thinking in forming groups was that a minimum of six, and a maximum of 10 people seemed optimal. But experience has revealed that an excellent meeting can occur with as few as three people. This can be attributed to the fact that within a small group, people have more opportunities to actively participate. A group of 12 or larger runs the risk of being less effective as some people have a tendency to hold back in larger groups. But larger COPs can be successful when well-managed. This is when the facilitator role becomes even more important. Not everybody in the group shows up in any given month due to other business or personal commitments. As a result, the optimal group size should be 12-15, recognizing that seldom would all 15 people attend in a given month.

Conclusion

COPs are fast becoming a critical component for busy leaders who need to connect with their peers more regularly and more deeply in order to help improve performance. It is more important than ever to keep abreast of the latest thinking, best practices, innovations and breakthroughs in your field of expertise. It would be criminal to waste your organization’s precious resources by reinventing the wheel.

With a membership in a COP, you can easily find out how other leading organizations have already solved the same problem, or created an innovative process or system similar to what you need. The diversity of the group, coupled with rich dialogue, fosters a safe environment for building trust and addressing complex issues. Belonging to a Community of Practice is a valuable addition to the toolkit of the successful executive.

Rowers, crew on river, teamwork, COP

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