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Communities of Practice

Gary Lane

Scrum Master

describes how Aquila Heywood has implemented the principles of Communities of Practice

25 October 2017

In any Agile transformation, one of the most important steps is to get people engaged and then empower them to drive it forward throughout the business. Classroom-style learning is certainly necessary in the early days but, after a while, excessive formal training directed from the top down can become stale and does not necessarily target specific problem areas. Entrusting employees to build and share their knowledge base through Communities of Practice will add value to your Agile transformation, allowing you to target problem areas, increase efficiency and improve your Agile processes.

Starting Up

In the Scaled Agile world, tells us that Communities of Practice are 'groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis'. This makes obvious sense at a high level, but at what point do you bring it in to your transformation and how do you kick it off?

When this was introduced to our organisation just before we scaled up our Agile practice, there were numerous blank faces as to what this actually meant, even those who volunteered to co-ordinate it! We didn't realise it at the time, but all we really needed to get started was:

  • A 'starter set' of communities and co-ordinators
  • A commitment from the business to provide time out from our business as usual (BAU) - one day per month
  • Free Pizza!

In the early days of adopting Agile, it is natural for Community Days to focus on the Development teams to gain a deeper understanding of the Scrum framework and obtain knowledge of new tools and practices. Importantly, Scrum teams also need to develop the way they interact with each other. The first few Community Days at Aquila Heywood were more focused on learning from our Agile coaches to get us moving in Agile, Development, Testing, Product, Analysis and Infrastructure communities. As Community Leaders, it was initially difficult to foresee how we were going to grow interest and content when left to our own devices, but by encouraging participants to feedback and tell us what they wanted we inspected and adapted each time, and a backlog of subjects soon started to form.

Our Communities of Practice sessions take place once a month. This provides people with enough time to prepare sessions and inspect afterwards without focusing too much on the detail during preparation. This is vital, as the innovation should come from your participants on the day.

Early Benefits

Community Days are a great opportunity for people to 'down tools' on BAU for a day, creating a relaxed informal environment for your participants. Transforming to Agile is ultimately rewarding, but it can be a stressful experience in the first few months. Therefore sessions were planned to be informal, fun, activity-based and, most importantly, voluntary. You can't gauge the success of a session if you make it compulsory. If people want to come, you know you are running a session that people are interested in for their own personal development and so, ultimately, the business could benefit.

In the early days, participants generally attend sessions relevant to the communities to which they naturally belong. This enabled learning to be accelerated outside a formal training and assessment environment, which gave people more confidence in their own abilities for the transformation ahead. The informal environment also gave people a chance to practise and develop softer skills such as presentation and communication skills in a low-pressure situation. The purpose of Community Days is to give your teams a platform to express themselves without fear of failure. This then provides a positive shift in your organisation's culture. Our experience has been that people leave a Community Day feeling energised about their contribution to the day, giving them a renewed enthusiasm for their role when they return to BAU.

Gary Lane is a Scrum Master at Aquila Heywood, the largest supplier of life and pensions administration software solutions in the UK.

Further Reading