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Communities of people inspiring each other

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: GDS team, People and skills

Group of 'product people' from the DWP digital academy #transformingtogether

Over the last few years across government, we have collectively learnt a huge amount about how to create products and services that truly meet user needs.

We’ve taken best practises from outside government, adapting them where we’ve needed to, and we’ve created our own principles and techniques. Wherever possible, we share this knowledge in the form of talks, blog posts like this one and the Government Service Design Manual.

There is also a whole heap of knowledge still hidden away in the heads of product managers, service managers, and others performing similar roles.

This is the kind of experience that a healthy community of practice can unlock and share.

Helping the community to establish itself

I’ve recently joined GDS with the somewhat grand title of ‘Product and Service Management Community Lead’. I think it’s a bit of a misnomer, though.

For a start, there are plenty of product-minded people across government, but not all of them have the job titles of product manager or service manager. Our community needs to be a broad church, not an exclusive club with a strict door policy.

I also don’t believe that leading is what the community really needs me to do. Rather, the things a community lead should provide are support, encouragement, and facilitation. The ‘leading’ bit will emerge later from the community as a whole as it matures.

My main task right now is to help the community to establish itself, not just in GDS, but across government.

That might seem a little odd, particularly to the hundreds of people already managing products and services. The thing is, just because there are lots of people performing a role, it doesn’t mean they’re collaborating as an established community yet.

A community of practice

Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Treyner define communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”.

At the moment in government, we certainly do have a large group of people who share the concern of managing products and services. I’m sure that most of those people have a passion for what they’re doing.

I’d also guess that a proportion of those people are learning how to manage products and services better in some way. Perhaps they’re learning through formal study or from their peers in government and beyond.

There are also a few people who are going out of their way to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues.

A healthy community of practice needs a mixture of all of these people. Right now, what I particularly want to encourage is more sharing of knowledge and experience.

Where to start

So how do we establish a healthy community of practice? To begin with, it can be as simple as finding all these people working in product and service management and helping them to contact each other.

I’ve already discovered that even relatively small organisations find it difficult to discover all the people performing these roles. One of my motives for writing this blog post is for it to act as a beacon: if you manage products or services in government, join our #prodmgmt channel on Slack.

Once everyone in the community knows of each other’s existence and can communicate more easily, the next step is to encourage more interaction: to get people talking and sharing. Some of that will be online in our cross-government Slack channel and email list, some will be in the form of face-to-face meetups.

Meeting face-to-face

In the last few weeks, members of the product and service management community have been meeting up with their colleagues from across government.

Service managers from across government met up recently for the first time at the Land Registry. The host and organiser Eddie Davies has already published his write-up of the day.

Another was an evening cross-government show and tell followed by some healthy socialising in a local pub. Product people from the Department of Work and Pensions (@DigitalDWP), Ministry of Justice (@Justice_Digital) and CESG (@CESG_HMG) showcased their products and services to participants from many other departments and organisations.

The third was ProductCamp London. This was a free, all-day ‘unconference’ in which the agenda starts empty and the attendees themselves volunteer to speak, facilitate discussions or ask for people’s help. Sounds chaotic, but the speaking tracks filled up quickly.

Watching product and service managers from different government departments sharing with and learning from their colleagues in the private and third sectors was tremendous. It was like watching arcs of electricity leaping from person to person.

This is how I envisage our community of practice will be: passionate and knowledgeable people inspiring each other. Let’s make it happen.

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