Working Smarter With Knowledge

working smarter A shoutout to Harold Jarche for his continuing explorations and advice about working smarter with knowledge. He’s just made available, under a Creative Commons license, his free downloadable field guide for the networked knowledge worker: Working Smarter Field Guide 2020.

All of us require relevant knowledge to work in today’s world. Harold has developed models, frameworks, and practices for creating knowledge management systems that meet our individual unique wants and needs.

“For the past several centuries we have used human labour to do what machines cannot. First the machines caught up with us and surpassed humans with their brute force. Now they are surpassing us with their brute intelligence. There is not much more need for machine-like human work which is routine, standardized, or brute. But certain long-term skills can help us connect with our fellow humans in order to learn and innovate — curiosity, sense-making, cooperation, and novel thinking.”

Harold’s guide covers the value of trusted networks, communities of practice, and increasing insights through informal and social learning. It introduces the concept of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), and his core sensemaking framework: Seek > Sense > Share. Finally, the guide provides concrete examples of PKM approaches developed by various friends and colleagues.

As a original thinker on these topics, as well as leadership and organizational learning, Harold’s writings have influenced many of my posts over the years. A quick read, his free guide is well worth the download!

Share information; don’t hoard it

share information don't hoard

Why would you want to share information, not hoard it? In today’s cutthroat business environment, isn’t exclusive knowledge synonymous with power — and the ability to make money?

Well, if you’re a stock trader or house flipper, maybe. But I’m a consultant who has long subscribed to Jerry Weinberg’s Seventh Law of Marketing: “Give away your best ideas” and Credit Rule: “You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit”, from his invaluable book The Secrets of Consulting. (More of Jerry’s pearls of wisdom can be found here.)

Skeptical? Well, here’s an alternative historical perspective from a completely different source, a 1926 article about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen, uncovered by Jeff Jarvis and described as “…a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.

“Stop. Stop the presses.”

I’ll let quotes from Jeff’s blog post tell the tale:

“‘The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,’ Fuhrmann writes…

‘And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.'”

“And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers.”

“Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.”
—Jeff Jarvis, Stop. Stop the presses.

This is a touching, century-old example of how communities of practice benefit from sharing information.

Share information; don’t hoard it

During my decades as a consultant I’ve followed Jerry’s advice about giving away your ideas. (As I’ve been doing in this blog for ten years now.) As he explains:

“I do everything possible to encourage my clients to take over the work I’ve been doing. They usually give me direct credit, but even if they don’t, they love me for my generosity. This increases the chance they’ll give me future business, or recommend me to others.”
—Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 11, The Secrets of Consulting

Finally, as a meeting designer I’m convinced that using meeting formats that facilitate and support sharing amongst peers of relevant information is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings.

Share information; don’t hoard it. Whether you’re a community of practice, a consultant, or a meeting designer, this simple aphorism applies!

Image attribution: Flickr user ben_grey

Four tools for communities of practice

Four tools for communities of practice
HT Harold Jarche

Today, communities of practice — groups of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common — have become essential sources for productive learning, because they provide crucial bridges for social learning between our work community and our external social networks.

Here are four tools for creating, supporting, and enriching communities of practice.

Peer Conferences

In my post Conferences as Communities of Practice I explain how peer conferences can support communities of practice. (In 1992, the first peer conference I ever designed created a community of practice that has endured to this day.)


Listservs are an old but still surprisingly useful technology. They manage a list of subscribers and allows any member to send email to the list. The listserv then sends the message to the other list subscribers. Listserv software is available on multiple platforms and is free for up to ten lists of up to five hundred subscribers which should be sufficient for most communities of practice. Yes, it’s true that numerous commercial alternatives exist. But self-hosted listservs don’t rely on commercial providers who may close down or change services with little notice or recourse.


Slack can be used free for basic support of communities of practice (up to 10,000 messages), though many useful functions are only available in paid versions ($80+ per person annually). All Slack content is searchable. The product, initially targeted at organizations, has been evolving into a community platform. Because of its cost, Slack is probably most useful for communities whose members already have corporate access.


The ability to converse with community members via audio/video/chat on a scheduled or ad hoc basis is an important tool for maintaining and growing community connections online. For many years the free Google Hangouts was my go to tool for this purpose, but the service has become almost impossible to use on an ad hoc basis and Zoom seems to be the most popular replacement. For short meetings (up to a maximum of 100 participants for 40 minutes) the free Zoom Basic will suffice, but most communities will be well served by Zoom Pro (unlimited duration and participants; $180/year). Any community member who has a paid Zoom plan can host a video/web conference. So this tool can be a cost-effective way for communities of practice to keep in touch.

Do you use other tools to create, support, and enrich your communities of practice? If so, share them in the comments below!

Conferences as communities of practice

Conferences as communities of practice how-work-gets-done-in-network-era-520x369

COP on the beat

One of the reasons I love facilitating peer conferences that use the Conferences That Work format is my enjoyment in experiencing the wonderful support and development they provide for communities of practice (COPs). What are COPs? Why are they important? How do peer conferences support them? Read on!

Communities of practice

Communities of practice—a term coined by educational theorist Etienne Wenger—are a group of people who share a common interest, profession, or passion and actively engage around what they have in common. COPs include three key elements: a shared domain of interest; a group whose members interact and learn together; and the development of a shared body of practice, knowledge, and resources.

While the term is relatively new, communities of practice have existed in human societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Systems of apprenticeship and professional guilds, developed in the Late Middle Ages, all incorporate the three COP elements. In fact, COPs have been the predominant modality for professional learning for most of human history!

Why are COPs important?

The Middle Ages are long gone and today we can learn in many new ways. Does this mean that COPs have outlived their usefulness? By no means. Here’s what Harold Jarche thinks about the role of communities of practice in creating effective working environments:

My recommendation has been to support workplace activities that are both cooperative and collaborative and also to provide the necessary support structures. However, my observations to date show that a third piece is required, and that is the fostering of communities of practice to connect the two. These communities, internal and external, are a safe place between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. I also see the support of communities of practice, through skill development and structural support, as a primary role for learning & development staff.
First structure the work system, Harold Jarche

In other words, as shown in Jarche’s diagram above, COPs provide an essential link between the work performed by individuals and teams in organizations (where the rubber meets the road) and the rich possibilities for interaction and learning now available from our social networks, both face-to-face and online.

How do peer conferences support communities of practice?

So where do communities of practice reside today? In Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I argue that participation-rich and participant-led peer conference formats like Conferences That Work provide a wonderfully rich environment for communities of practice. At a (well-planned) traditional conference, conference planners invest significant time and effort before the event attempting to determine who can potentially provide an “above average” contribution on the conference subject, but peer conferences make no such a priori assumptions about who is a teacher and who is a learner. Rather, they promote an environment in which teaching and learning are ever-fluid activities; the teacher at one moment is a learner the next. Sometimes, everyone in an interaction is learning simultaneously as social knowledge is discovered, constructed, and shared.

Peer conferences don’t assume that every attendee will significantly contribute to the event. Rather, peer conference process provides the opportunity for anyone to contribute, perhaps unexpectedly, but ultimately, usefully.

In my experience, peer conferences are high-quality incubators for communities of practice. They provide a wonderful way for a group of people to explore the potential for creating an ongoing community. The majority of peer conferences that I have facilitated have turned into regular events, but, even when this does not happen, a peer conference inevitably leads to new long-term relationships and communal projects of one kind or another. Conversely, communities of practice can use regular peer conferences to effectively explore and deepen their collective learning and intragroup relationships.

Essential tools

In conclusion, I think of peer conferences as being essential tools—like the radios and scanners used by the other kinds of cops—that support the construction of social knowledge and appropriate learning for communities of practice. Add them to your workplace and conference toolkit and your COPs will reap the benefits!