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*Parallel Learning Structures.
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* What It Is.
Parallel Learning Structures (also known as Communities of Practice) promote innovation and change in large bureaucratic organizations while retaining the advantages of bureaucratic design. Groups representing various levels and functions work to open new channels of communication outside of and parallel to the normal, hierarchical structure. Parallel Learning Structures may be a form of Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management involves capturing the organization's collective expertise wherever it resides (in databases, on paper, or in people's heads) and distributing it to the people who need it in a timely and efficient way.

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* When To Use It.
* To develop and implement organization-wide innovations.
* To foster innovation and creativity within a bureaucratic system.
* To support the exchange of knowledge and expertise among performers.
* To capture the organization's collective expertise.

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* *
* Look for existing, informal exchanges that naturally occur among staff members.
* Have interested parties convene and develop a mission statement or list the outcomes.
* Determine what support (e.g., time, facilities, and technology) would facilitate the information exchange and learning.
* Publicize when and where the exchanges take place.
* Establish a process for organizing and recording the corporate knowledge.

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* Relationship To Other Learning Strategies.
As described below, learning strategies are often used in combination with one another or may be closely linked to one another.

Learning Groups (Teams): Learning Groups are formed for the specific purpose of gaining individual knowledge and expertise in a particular area. In contrast, Parallel Learning Structures focus on organizational learning rather than individual learning.

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* Examples.
Xerox Corporation

Xerox found that its technical representatives (tech reps) often made it a point to spend time not with customers but with each other. The tech reps would gather in common areas (the local parts warehouse or coffee pot) and swap stories from the field. Rather than trying to discourage this practice to improve productivity, Xerox decided to formalize the knowledge exchange.

These technicians were knowledge workers in the truest sense. The tech reps were not just repairing machines; they were also coproducing insights about how to repair machines better. Rich knowledge transfer took place through these conversations that were not a step in any formal "business process" or a box in any official "org chart."

So Xerox turned conventional wisdom on its head. Rather than eliminate the informal conversations in pursuit of corporate efficiency, the corporation decided to expand them in the name of learning and innovation.

Xerox uses a system called Eureka. Eureka is an electronic "knowledge refinery" that organizes and categorizes a database of tips generated by the field staff. Technically, Eureka is a relational database of hypertext documents. In practice, it's an electronic version of war stories told around the coffee pot. Eureka has the added benefits of an institutional memory, expert validation, and a search engine.

Eureka operates as a free-flowing knowledge democracy, much like the natural, informal collaborations among tech reps. The system relies on voluntary information exchanges. All tech reps, regardless of rank, can submit a tip, but they are neither required to nor are they explicitly rewarded. In Eureka, the incentive is to be a good colleague, to contribute and receive knowledge as a member of the community.

This example was summarized from an online article titled, "The People Are the Company".

National Semiconductor

At National Semiconductor, an informal community of engineers who specialize in one critical technology began conducting joint reviews of new chip designs. As word spread within the company, other product groups started bringing designs to this group (on a strictly "off-the-org-chart basis") to solicit its advice. The more reviews this group has done, the more effective it has become-earning a company-wide reputation for excellence.

What these engineers found is that they cannot simply publish their "rules" and teach the rest of organization how to do design reviews. The practice and knowledge is embedded in the community that created it. The only way to learn the practice is to become a member. The best way to access the knowledge is to interact with the community. Therefore, National Semiconductor encourages and supports the formation of Communities of Practice (CoPs). (CoPs is their name for Parallel Learning Structures.)

CoPs are a small group of people (in this case, about 20) who have worked together over a period of time. At National Semiconductor, a CoP is not a team, not a task force, not necessarily an authorized or identified group. People in CoPs can perform the same job or collaborate on a shared task or work together on a product. They are peers in the execution of "real work." What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows.

This example was summarized from an online article titled, "The People Are the Company."

Anderson Consulting Education

Anderson Consulting managers believe that groups of people can collectively address issues of importance to the organization as a whole. By doing so, they could learn something new and valuable that would contribute directly to their own professional development and indirectly to the success of the organization. Anderson Consulting supported the formation of Communities of Practice (Parallel Learning Structures). The organization set aside resources to allow each employee to spend about 2 hours per week in Community of Practice activities. Participation is purely voluntary. Leadership does not pressure employees to join particular groups because they want the community's culture to develop and mature on its own. The Community of Practice charter calls the program a "professional self-development association" and features a statement of mission and goals: "The community's success depends primarily on participants working together effectively for a common purpose-learning."

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* Where To Go For More Information.
Web Resources

Buckman Labs Is Nothing but Net

Strategy as if Knowledge Mattered Online Article


Prokesch, S. Unleashing the Power of Learning: An Interview with British Petroleum's John Browne, Harvard Business Review. Sep-Oct 1997, pp. 147-168.

Sushe, G. & A. B. Shani. Parallel Learning Structures: Creating Innovations in Bureaucracies. Addison-Wesley, 1990.

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* Other Organizational Learning Stategies.
Following are links to the other Organizational Learning Strategies:
* Meetings
* Action Learning
* Cross-Functional Teams
* Work-Outs
* Strategic Planning
* Corporate Scorecard
* Benchmarking
* Groupware
* Distance Conferencing

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