Communities of Practice – Top Down vs Bottom Up

Recently I attended an online event put on by Corporate University Exchange. The topic was Communities of Practice as done by the folks at Caterpillar. The presenter was Paul Walliker, who runs the Caterpillar University and also oversees the Caterpillar Communities of Practice. Paul was gracious enough to answer some of my questions after the presentation.

What I found interesting is that the Caterpillar communities have no direction from on high. Caterpillar’s communities are self starting, almost entirely virtual and include employees as well as dealers and other non-Caterpillar folks. They exist to serve themselves and help their fellow community members and have varying degrees of active participants vs lurkers. They form because the individual members think that there is a need for one. I think he said there were about 5000 communities at Caterpillar.

At HDS, we’ve taken a much different way of developing a community of practice. We have started out with one, and will soon have two more. Thus far our community participation takes the form of monthly conference calls to share and we also use email. The areas for communities to focus on were selected based on business directives for the company. This is not to say that these areas are unimportant to the community members, quite the contrary.

CoPs have been at Caterpillar for sometime, and most of their 300,000 plus employees are a part of at least one. HDS by comparison is around 3000 employees and communities of practice are very VERY new to us. However, both companies have similar expectations for their communities, to help their fellow employee, share information and encourage use and reuse of knowledge, ultimately to make the company more successful.

I am curious how you selected your communities? Top Down or Bottom Up? And if there is a place for both corporate directed communities and individual initiated communities at the same company?

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