Communities of practice: crafting the brand


Alex Radu

Alex Radu

In this session from DevRelCon London 2019, Alex Radu of JP MOrgan Chase looks at how holistic brand management in your communities can have a big effect on their success and longevity.


Alex: Hello, really glad to be here. We’ve heard a lot about open source communities, and student communities, and online communities, I’m here to talk a bit about communities of practice internally in corporations or other tech companies.  I work for J.P. Morgan, I’m based in Bournemouth. We have about 4500 people working for us and a third are developers, or software engineers, all technologists. And we have communities of practice. We’re going to cover a couple of different points. We’re going to start with some definitions of how we see communities of practice in brands. We’re going to tell you a bit about our story, crafting the brand, and then a survival kit for how you can manage your internal communities of practice. We look at our communities of practice from a domain, community, and practice perspective.

Basically, who cares about it? What is it that we care about? And what we do together about it. The main bit is the community, but then also that you have a share of struggle. You’re there to learn about the same thing. This is a definition, there are a lot of definitions. But the key things you’re going to recognize are the domain, the community, and the practice. You have the collection of individuals coming together to share any knowledge, ideas, content, workshops, anything, around the particular topic. In our case we have things like Kubernetes communities of practice, we have Python, we have user experience, we have front end development, we have product management, we have production owners, we have a lot of different communities on a lot of different topics.

Now, the brand side is that we’ve decided to take them all together and put them under a framework, and we call it Ignite. This is our brand. And we have it in about 20 different tech centers around the world. We don’t only collaborate locally, we also collaborate globally. But we do put a big emphasis on in-person interactions. I liked the previous talk because it’s iterated the importance of meeting people, physically. We encourage online sharing of information, we encourage virtual chat rooms, but we always want you to supplement that with in-person meetings. There’s really nothing quite like coming together with people in your area, or that are interested in the same subjects, to actually engage at the same time, in the same atmosphere, in the same room. We are strong strong advocates of in-person meetings, or in-person workshops, in-person sessions. Obviously because we’re a global company we share a lot of this cross-location, so we have cyber security communities throughout the globe. They meet together to share content, best practices, within themselves, but we take that back to our in-person, local communities. I really like this description of a brand as the essence of one’s own unique story. And obviously a lot of people associate a brand with a logo, but actually the brand goes way beyond that. The brand is basically why people trust you, and what they trust you to do, and what you promise you’re going to do. Brand and trust go hand-in-hand because it’s really important for your brand to build trust in the people that you’re addressing. But then if you lose that trust, your brand suffers. And I can think of a couple of examples of companies that had that recently.

I’m going to talk a little bit about our story, where we started, where we’re at now, and then we’re going to move on to the practical applications, and things that we think are important when you’re building your communities of practice. Before I start, I will say that we had communities of practice that were disbursed in about 2017, 18. They didn’t get the support, or the funding, or exposure that they wanted, and they needed. Ignite brought all of them together, and we were able to support them, manage them, and offer them more resources this way. How many people work here in organizations that are more than let’s say 5,000 people? I think you understand my pain of trying to get budget allocated for these things, like the community side, and not something that’s directly related to a business value. And the amount of paperwork and processes and approvals that you need to go through is really, really hard.

In 2017 in our Glasgow office, Ignite was born. In February 2018 we started getting awareness of it in Bournemouth, and I reached out to our friends in Glasgow, and I was like “Hey, we’d really like to start this in Bournemouth as well!” We already had some communities, three, and we wanted them to go forward and we wanted people to come to us and be like “Do you know what, we’re really passionate about Python. We really want to start a community. We really want to make this a center of excellence in our hub where people can come and ask questions, “earn more, start their journey on learning Python.” And then in April 2018 we officially on-boarded the existing communities, after we had a talk and asked how do you want us to proceed with us? What do you need from us? What are your struggles? How can we make this work together? And then, something amazing happened.

In June 2018 after we soft launched and people started coming to us and being like “Hey, we heard that you can help us with this, we’ve really wanted to start this community, how can we make this happen?” We do have a framework and a process for how you can start a community, things that you need to think about if people that are interested. We also have a portal when people can upvote topics of communities that they want to start, or that they’re interested in. And then we take the process and reach out. Who would like to lead it? How many people would like to join it? More of the admin side of running it. Now we’re at 15 communities. We did reach a peak of 20, but I’ll talk a bit about that as well. And we have seven core team members. The core team members are not necessarily community leads, but they look after all of the communities. We’ve run over 300 sessions. We have 100 exciting brand assets because we like to keep our brand consistent, so we share it among all of the locations. And if anyone makes a new brand asset they put it in a repo and we all have access to it.

We have started running Colliders, which are basically internal external events where we bring external meetups from the local area to collide with our internal meetups. Internal communities with the external meetups. We also run a conference program for anyone who wants to go on a conference and bring back the knowledge to the community and the hub. And we’re now also running master classes, which are basically day long activities that start with a keynote, and then we have workshops throughout the day for our own internal communities. We’ve learned that it’s very important that you always keep in mind that you are there to serve the people in the communities. They’re mostly self organizing, we are there for support and for help, we’re not there to dictate what they should be talking about, what they should be presenting, the workshops they should be running. We are there to help them, if they need to promote their events, if they need budget, if they need support, if they need someone to talk to, if they need to create a succession plan, anything, we’re there for them.

Crafting the brand. Now, I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but this is after three years on what we’ve seen that works. And it’s our cyclical process. Plant the seed. Bring people together; whether it is one community or 10, you still want to bring them together. Again, that really important bit about physical meetups inside of your company. Yes, it’s fine to supplement with webinars, we do webinars when maybe let’s say Glasgow has a session and we want to have our communities attend, we’re going to offer them webcast to be able to tune in. But that doesn’t replace the fact that we still bring people in one room to watch it, we don’t let them login from their desks. Because we want them to feel like they’re part of the community, we don’t just want them to be like “well, this is a content source for me, but I’m never going to engage.” Help it grow and thrive, make roadmaps. I’ve heard of this in open source before, when you start an open source project, maybe think a bit about the vision, so how will you maintain it, how is it going to grow? What’s going to happen in the future?

We look at helping a community start out, we want them to tell us, what do you think you’re going to be doing in six months? Do you think there’s enough interest and passion to keep on going? Do you have enough time to keep on going? Do you need more people to help you? All of these are really important questions to ask your communities when they’re forming because it will make them shape a little bit the idea of, “Well, actually, I know what I’m doing next week, but I should probably start thinking about what am I going to do the next month, the month after that. Do I want other people to take over? Can I actually dedicate the time for this?” We don’t want you to fail, we want to help you, but you need to be honest with yourself, do you have the commitment and the time to do this? And then don’t forget to prune.

I said that we had at one point 20 communities, communities come and go. People hop on a trend, or have more spare time, and then they hop off. Or community leads leave and they don’t have anyone that wants to pick up after they formed. But we retire the community, we move it to this retired space. And if anyone else, maybe in a year, wants to come back and they’re like “Do you know what, “that Python community was really good. “And I know loads of people who want to learn more, “can I revive that?” Its like, “Yeah, sure! Why not? Everything’s there, if you need us to help you revive it, awesome. But it’s really important because if you have people sign up for the communities internally, and they expect to get updates, invites, whatever they send, and there’s radio silence, people are going to be like “That’s a waste of my time. “They do nothing, why did I even sign up?” It might be that if they signed up for another one they would have got loads of information, loads of opportunities to learn, but they just chose that one that’s not active. If you don’t tell people it’s not active, they’re expecting someone to reach out, and that can affect your brand. Even though it’s an internally offered service, people still expect a really good service.

These are our four C’s for CoP’s. Content is really important. Succession plan is important. Sharing resources is important, because if I create a Kubernetes workshop, and I share it with my counterparts in Dallas, they don’t need to put in 10, 20 hours of work to create it. And we keep our delivery Consistent, we keep our content consistent, and we can help each other if anything goes wrong, because we’re both on the same side. Cross pollination. We’re now having self-organizing communities are coming together and saying “Do you know what, Kubernetes and cybersecurity could go really well together.” And we’re like “Awesome, just throw something together, organize it, and we’re going to support you. Tell us what you need.” And we don’t have to go to them and tell them “Do this.” They just want to do it because it’s a natural coming together of “Oh, you do something really cool, and I do something really cool, and we could do something really cool together.” Consistency, throughout our journey here we have realized that consistency is key in events, in room bookings. If you have your workshop every second Thursday of the month, in the same room, people do it and they show up automatically, it just becomes a reflex. They don’t have to check what room are you in? What time is it? Is it going to be on this month, is it not going to be on next month? It makes it really easy.

With the marketing, everyone knows our brand, everyone knows when they receive an email or notification, that it’s from us. And we enforce that in a way with our brand repo, we tell them everyone needs to use this. If you want a new asset and you can’t make it yourself, let us know and we’ll design it. And commitment, we want to ensure that the people in the room are the right people. And we want to make sure that you’re not there because you’re fearing that you’re going to miss out on something, you’re there because it’s something you care about, you learn, and you share. It’s not something that’s mandatory, it’s a passion project. And actually a lot of our members say that they would have never learned the things that they’ve learned if it wasn’t for the connections that they’ve made through those in-person interactions. These are a couple of examples of things that we do.

That’s our brand repo that I was talking about. We have loads of different assets from templates, to banner templates, to logos for different communities, to email templates for events like the Collider. Then we have cross location blogs. We like to keep it consistent with posting. We encourage people if they’re attending an event, if they ran a workshop, if they found something interesting, if they read something interesting, share it with other locations. Because once you post it there, everyone in our global community can see it and everyone can learn from it, and then make it fun. We learned that, we are now doing these cross-community sessions and we’re running some thing called the Leader Summit where we bring all our community leads together and they share their struggles. And sometimes it’s actually really nice to see them being like “Well, do you know what? That happens to me too.” And then trying to solve it together. We are just there as facilitators. We don’t really drive it, we want them to drive it because it’s their community, it’s their project, it’s their passion that they’re putting into it. Why would I tell them no, you should be doing it this way? If they need help and they need guidance, we’re always there, but we don’t want it to be like “But, I told you to do it that way.” Put together a starter kit.

These are four things that we’ve realized are really important for us as a community of practice organization. One is lifecycle support, second is brand assets, third is playbooks, and fourth is strong core team. So, for life cycle and brand support we have written out an entirely cyclical guide on how we expect communities to form, and what we have seen that happens with communities over time. And this is informed from social learning theory, from building successful communities of practice, if anyone’s read the book. And basically we’re adding to our framework to cater for things such as the need to retire a community. Obviously when started this journey everything was new, so there was no need to retire someone. But now, two, three years later, some communities are not active anymore. So you need to put in place a process to deal with what happens when they don’t want to continue. And also we have in our core team, so we’re seven in Bournemouth, we all have two or three communities that we regularly attend, keep in contact, so we’re their first port of call if anything happens, or they need anything. So they know this is your human, if anything happens they’re there for you.

The next bit is playbooks. This is an example of the one that we did for the Collider. This was a joint effort, I started writing it out and laying it out and then we use an open source model. Everything is open for anyone to contribute. I did the draft and the skeleton, and then all of the other locations that have organized Colliders came in and added things that I was missing, or that might not apply to me, but apply to other locations. We don’t want to be reinventing the wheel, we always want to share our skills and knowledge because there’s no point in me spending 20 hours to do something and you spending 20 hours, and then it’s actually almost the same, because we did the same thing. You also want to have a smooth succession planning. And I think someone earlier said “There’s no such thing as too much documentation.” Lyke said that. And I agree, there’s no such thing as having too many assets, too many playbooks, someone at some point will need that, and if you don’t have it they won’t have a way to ask for help. And finally, we have a strong core team. Every six months we talk to our core team and we’re honest and we’re saying “Do you have the time for this?” If someone happens to trail off, and you don’t hear from them, you don’t see them, they don’t really engage in any way, as part of the core team I go to them and I’m like “Hey, do you want to grab a coffee? Are you okay? Do you want to talk about something?” Because I want to make sure that they’re okay. I don’t want to give them more to stress about and think that they’re missing out on providing the effort that we need. I want them to be okay, to be able to support our communities, and be happy with doing that.

We also have a global community. Obviously we meet with our counterparts in all of the other locations as core teams, and we share what our struggles are. Our struggles will be different from our community leads, but we still need to share what we think we could do better. And we have monthly in-person core team meetings. We also meet occasionally for having something fun to do. We also do a charter workshop where we say what we can and can’t do. Any community that goes on to our charter kind of page can see these are the kinds of things we can help with, these are the things that we can’t but you can still ask ask because we might know the answer, and these are the things we definitely don’t do. So they know what our expectations are, and they know what to ask, or what is in our agreement to help with. And, here are some people that I follow in the community space. They’re from various backgrounds. Some of them were, and are in this room. But I find that sometimes just seeing some of their Tweets, or comments, makes me rethink some of the things that we do, and improve the things that we do. So sometimes it’s nice to see people from other community areas, and how do you do things.

And again, crafting a brand of communities of practice, internally or externally, is great. But maintaining a strong brand is the hard part, and maintaining the trust of people is the hard part. Thank you.

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