Communities of Practice in Public Administration: The Case of Catalonia’s Government

Communities of Practice in Public Administration: The Case of Catalonia’s Government

Mario Pérez-Montoro (University of Barcelona, Spain) and Jesús Martínez (Generalitat de Catalunya, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-802-4.ch023


Currently, Knowledge Management (KM) is being received very positively by organisations. Nevertheless, there is a particular type of organisation in which there has been less of a general demand for KM: the public organisations. However, in the last three years, a Knowledge Management project, based in communities of practice (CoPs), has been put into practice in the area of the Justice Department in the Catalan government, the Generalitat of Catalunya. The aim of this work is to present a detailed analysis of this project. To achieve this aim, first of all, we are going to introduce the implementation methodology and the results obtained, as well as the success variables involved in this project. This will allow us to offer a guide for implementing CoPs in public administration. Lastly, by way of conclusion, we will provide a series of conclusions and lessons that can easily be applied to the majority of community of practice projects that are implemented in the Public Administration context.
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1. Introduction

A clear evolution has been occurring over the past years in the discipline of knowledge management. There is a growing tendency to make more intensive use of methodology tools that place the emphasis on people and on maximising and increasing their knowledge base (collaborative work and training, and networking), collective intelligence and collaborative innovation. All of this with the back-up and support of new technology tools that have come about with what is called the New Internet or Web 2.0 (Genís & Fumero, 2007; Cobo & Pardo, 2007). The end result of the conjunction of these variables is what some authors (Roulleaux, 2007) have already come to define as information management for the new generation.

And within this new organisational context communities of practice (CoPs) have reassumed an active role. CoPs were one of the methodological tools that generated the highest expectations. The organisational benefits they can offer have already been amply defined (Wenger, 1998 & 2002; Parcell & Collison, 2001) – among others those that concerning efficiency with knowledge based in the organisation with greater transparency.

Now while we know about the potential benefits they can provide (Juan, 2004), the lack of applied case studies over time within organisations is a matter for concern. Both in the specialised literature as in practice, it is difficult to find this applied experience. And these difficulties become greater again when we switch to the public sector (Juan, 2004). Apart from the few exceptions like IADE (2002, 2005), who launched several projects – the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IEF) and the Spanish Inland Revenue Service (Agencia Tributaria or Hacienda) –no other applied case study experience has been described within the public sector.

Against this backdrop, in 2005 the Centre of Legal Studies and Specialised Training (CEJFE) launched an initiative to structure various CoPs within the Catalan Justice Department. Following the Wenger (1998) early CoP development model consisting in identifying emerging groups among the organisations and subsequent support, over the 2005-2008 period up to 15 CoPs have been set up bringing together more than 2000 professionals. Within these CoPs, evolution has been diverse, as some – two, in fact – have not survived while the remaining thirteen are achieving some excellent results in reaching their objectives.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Life Cycle of Communities Of Practice in the Public Administration: Standard life cycle, more or less generalised, typically shown by communities of practice in public body environments. Usually, according to this cycle, the natural standard evolution of a community of practice in this type of environment goes through the following stages: it begins as a seed community, turning into a developing community, before entering a stage of consolidation, and then finally becomes a mature community of practice.

Platform for Creating and Developing Virtual Communities: Technological platform enabling the community development within a virtual collaboration environment. Normally variable and versatile platform systems that enable communities or work groups to chose what tools to use according to their needs. In a more technical way, this type of computer environment allow the possibility of developing an important part of the main strategies involved in Knowledge Management. So, for example, while they permit us to develop a series of actions for managing explicit knowledge (using systems of presentation and protocol). On the other hand, they also offer the possibility to manage tacit knowledge (suing synchronous and asynchronous socialisation strategies). To offer this range of possibilities, this kind of platform normally incorporates a series of tools that can be activated or not according to the interest of the community: a photo album, blog, calendar, a file container, forum, mailing list, participation process management system, and a wikipedia page.

Knowledge Problems in the Public Administration: Knowledge presents us with a number of problems in this kind of context. On the one hand, it is typical that there exists no clear context that facilitates the creation of new knowledge. On the other hand, the bulk of that knowledge is to exclusively found in the head of the professionals who have developed it from their day-to-day practice, and so typically not to be found in any of the usual types of documentary support (mainly paper or electronic file). This lack of record brings about a situation where this knowledge is scattered geographically, having no real structure, and resistant to any kind of documentary treatment. Nor do training plans reach all members of the collective included in that context in the same way. And lastly, derived from all of the above, this knowledge is to be found encapsulated in an almost exclusive way in the persons who possess it, being instantly accessible only in a fragmentary, hardly exhaustive way.

Best Practices Seminar: Face-to-face meetings held among all community members for the purpose of sharing and transmitting to the entire professional collective whatever available new knowledge has been developed by the community itself. These are normally programmed at the end of each cycle in the Knowledge Management process and normally take place once a year. They are normally completed by including the intervention of an expert in the area that this new knowledge deals with. The expert is asked to comment on the contributions made by the community. And to round off this seminar, suggestions are normally collected for new subjects for future development by that community.

Consolidated Community of Practice: Third stage or phase of the community life cycle in the Public Administration context. In this third stage, the leader or e-moderator has been assigned a clear series of responsibilities, while each member has assumed the role he or she has to play in the discussions, they have a shared calendar of face-to-face meetings and also have the appropriate IT environment for maintaining discussions and the exchange of knowledge by means of virtual strategies. During this phase, obtaining quality results significantly reinforces the proper functioning of the community, and this in turn acts as an self-evident factor in the organisation’s cohesion.

Seed Community of Practice: First stage of the life cycle of a community in the Public Administration context. Strictly speaking, during the initial stage, that of the seedling community of practice, a group of people may well have some trouble in considering themselves a real community of practice. They are rather a proto-community of practice. This refers to a collection of enthusiasts concerned with the problems that arise in their day-to-day work, ones who are willing to find answers in the working practices of their own colleagues, yet which are never articulated, nor do they in any way act so as bring about this transfer of knowledge between one another. And while this is not how they go about it, they posses in their attitude what will later germinate to form a community of practice.

E-Moderator: A person who, within each community of practice and their virtual collaboration environment, is responsible for motivating and supervising interventions made by its members, as well as organising knowledge resulting from these discussions. The professional profile of the e-moderator has to comply with a series f characteristics, among which the following are the most important: an individual that represents the community and has leadership qualities, participates in the institutional project, is respected and has influence in the community, possesses good communication abilities, is familiar with work in technical environments, and who is committed to advancing knowledge in his professional area.

Developing Community of Practice: The second stage in the life cycle of a community in the Public Administration context. This is a genuine community of practice. The people who form this community as a group begin to articulate themselves as a group and start to share problems and solutions derived from their own daily working practice. During this stage a leader figure or internal e-moderator will emerge to coordinate the discussions that open among members, while the knowledge exchange meetings are normally face-to-face and do not correspond with a previously set calendar.

Mature Community of Practice: Fourth and final stage in the life cycle of a community in the Public Administration context. Just as it happens with the seedling community of practice, strictly speaking a mature community of practice cannot be considered as genuine community of practice. In this final stage, the community itself, being now firmly consolidated, becomes invisible and devolves into the daily processes of administration. We are no longer dealing with a separate reference group of people involved in discussion and the creation of knowledge products which then revert to the community in a certain way, in this phase it is the organisation itself that act as a greater community of practice that in the daily development of their processes naturally absorbs strategies spun from the communities of practice. To put t another way, the community of practice ceases to be an internal point of reference within the organisation: it dissolves and is absorbed as a significant part of the DNA of the organisation itself.

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