March 2019

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Communities of Practice in Building Automation

I expand on what I meant by ‘Community of Practice.’
Therese Sullivan Therese Sullivan,
Customer Marketing Leader,

Contributing Editor

Communities of Practice
Graphic illustration by Nitya Wakhlu, produced at the Experience Engagement conference in October 2015

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As part of the 2019 AutomatedBuildings AHR Education Program, I participated in a panel discussion about the evolution of the building automation industry. There, I commented that new technology – even one that is incrementally better in some ways than whatever exists – amounts to little, unless a Community of Practice (CoP) grows around it. Ken Sinclair and a few members of the audience that day asked that I expand on what I meant by ‘Community of Practice.’ Here is that explanation.

Figure 1The pace of technological change in how we operate buildings and the scarcity of building engineering talent is causing many in our industry to consider ways to inspire faster learning. In the early 1990s, just as the internet was starting to enable virtual meet-ups of people with common interests, a team of cognitive anthropologists, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, observed that the learning of enterprise workers accelerated when people with common professional roles formed a community and shared knowledge. They didn’t need to be working in the same company or sitting in proximity to unite around a craft or a toolset and begin improving their collective knowledge and making that domain better in the process. They termed this coming together a Community of Practice (CoP).

Technological fields, particularly software development, picked up quickly on the power of CoPs. As I described in this blog post on Agile and DevOps, there are a lot of parallels between general software development and the development of successful control programming for Smart Buildings. The roles of specifying engineer, systems integrator, building commissioner, facilities manager could be swapped for the roles mentioned in this quote from the Scaled Agile Framework blog.

“Developers need to talk with other developers; testers need to talk with other testers, product owners need to talk with their peers. Healthy CoPs have a culture built on professional networking, personal relationships, shared knowledge and common skills. Combined with voluntary participation, CoPs provide knowledge workers with opportunities to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose beyond their daily tasks.”

As observed by John Troyer, who worked to build technology advocacy communities at VMware, Communities of Practice form naturally to aid in the professional development for all involved and to mitigate the “loneliness” that often accompanies work. Even those with jobs that require arriving at a busy office every morning, once they fire up their computers and enter different software portals, they can find themselves all alone as they struggle to gain mastery over highly specialized tools. A CoP gives them mentors and peers that are likely to be more helpful to them in their workday than the person they are sitting alongside.

It was easy for me to cite two examples of thriving CoP’s in Smart Buildings at AHR in Atlanta because the people that launched and facilitate them were present in the room. First, there was Ken Sinclair, who has been gathering a community around the topic of open-protocol building automation for 20 years. He consistently puts out his digital magazine every month to facilitate conversation among members of this community.  Such consistency and dedication, born more out of interest and passion than financial reward, is what it takes to nurture a CoP.  Also in the room was John Petze, founder of Project Haystack, the open-source organization dedicated to developing the art & science of data modelling for building operational data. Beyond regular, facilitated communication and conversation, the next thing a CoP needs is an opportunity for periodic face-to-face meetings. John is in the final planning stages of Project Haystack’s biennial Haystack Connect conference, which will happen in San Diego in mid-May. Scott Cochrane is a leading facilitating member of another CoP, this one for Master Systems Integrators. And his company, Cochrane Supply, is also hosting a Spring conference, Controls-Con 2019. In my role as Customer Marketing Leader at Tridium, I’m a facilitator of yet another industry CoP—the Niagara Community. To cite another example of what CoP facilitators do, this month my team produced this TridiumTalk webinar about our new online Resource Center that gives members of the Niagara Community a better way to quickly find the right documents to answer their questions about Niagara Framework. A CoP should strive to make it as easy as possible for a newcomer to be autodidactic, learning all they can by delving into the community’s archives of information at their own pace and according to their own interests.  I worked on this interactive timeline as a portal into AutomatedBuildings’ archives with similar goals. Happy 20th Anniversary, AutomatedBuildings!

Niagara is far from the first CoP that grew organically out of a commercial software platform. The path from a software solution to a user group to a user conference to a thriving CoP is well trodden. Salesforce, Adobe, Microsoft are other examples. Members of a CoP are not only advocates and brand ambassadors; they can answer other customers’ questions and can help with the on-boarding of new customers. They can also serve as focus groups or provide the best direction when plotting product road maps.

Affiliation with a healthy Community of Practice is a powerful advantage for a software development company. But, a CoP cannot be taken for granted as a marketing vehicle. The professionals that participate want a real connection with the company and its representatives.  CoPs are about shared values, as Francine Hardaway points out in this article. The company needs to remain aligned with those values and to be constantly at work striving to be the right product or service for the job members of the CoP want to be done. Hardaway, who worked on the Intel Inside campaign —an early example of a tech brand nurturing a community of practice—believes that tech marketing has lost its way in this era when too many in the general ‘Marketing CoP’ are overly focused on digital analytics of web visits and downloads. Members of a CoP are not ‘leads’; they are your partners in learning and making your platform better.  For me, the ‘North Star’ in any interactions with any of our Building Automation CoP’s is to think about how we can make it easier for busy building engineers, systems integrators and facilities managers to get their important work done.

*This editorial is an expression of my ideas and opinions, not those of my employer.


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