Great engineering cultures are built on social learning

Stack Overflow is named as a Sample Vendor in the 2022 Gartner® Hype Cycle™ for Agile and DevOps for Communities of Practice. We believe this is a powerful step forward in enabling organizations of all sizes to build strong internal communities that foster collective learning.  

But before we get into too much detail, here’s why this matters…

Great engineering cultures

Great engineering cultures enable autonomy without creating silos that prevent cross-team collaboration and learning. To put it simply, people can share what they know, find what they don’t know, and discover what others know.

These are also the characteristics of a community of practice (CoP). These are employee-led, self-directed, always-on communities that enable individuals to collaborate, share knowledge and collectively learn and grow their skills. Or, a more formal definition from Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner is “Communities of practice are 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.”

For a successful Agile and DevOps practice, organizations must think beyond tooling. Engineering organizations need a strong community of practice culture that supports the collecting and distributing of knowledge, greater cross-organizational collaboration, and breaks down the silos that can happen in companies of all sizes.

The Hype Cycle

DevOps and Agile have both become ubiquitous in software engineering organizations of all sizes, but at one point, they were new and shiny, the subjects of wonder, promotion, and misinformation. The Hype Cycle takes innovative new technologies and inflates expectations to where they can’t possibly be met. Once enough organizations see what that technology can actually do, they get over their disappointment and start getting to a point where that technology becomes a productive part of organizations everywhere. 

The success of DevOps and Agile has led to a whole slew of technologies entering the hype cycle: value stream management platforms, observability, container management, chaos engineering, and more. While many of these technologies are innovative and solve significant problems, they might not be right for every organization. 

Tool adoption can sometimes be driven by individual teams within a larger organization. Vendors will be more than happy to sell a company solutions, but they won’t actually solve anything if they are siloed. For an organization to implement Agile and DevOps practices effectively, tools alone will not cut it.

Agile and DevOps require more than tools

When most people discuss DevOps, they talk about CI/CD pipelines, automation, observability, and other categories of tooling. But the best tools won’t improve processes on their own. People are what make DevOps work. 

In The DevOps Handbook by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, John Willis, and Nicole Forsgren, PhD, the authors explain the principles underpinning DevOps: flow, feedback, and continual learning and experimentation. 

In summary: The first way (flow) is about the process. The end-to-end process must be continuously improved. The second way (feedback) is about communication. The people involved in the process need to be able to communicate, and that communication needs to be continuously improved. The third way is about experimenting and learning. To make big improvements, people need to be able to experiment, learn from failures, and keep the experiments that succeed.

Think of the culture created when business processes are ad hoc, the people involved don’t or can’t communicate, and/or failure is punished until nobody risked trying anything new. 

To make DevOps a success, processes must be defined, visible, and always improving; communication must be encouraged, captured, and discoverable; and the ability to experiment and learn must drive innovation through an empirical and scientific process.

Tools can facilitate some elements of flow, feedback, and continual learning and experimentation, but it’s the people and the culture that underpins everything.

All the tools in the world won’t fix a culture that encourages knowledge hoarding, punishes people for not knowing, or isolates teams from working together and learning from each other.

The culture won’t be fixed by ad hoc or management-defined timeboxed initiatives meant to build collaboration within set boundaries and around set agendas or thinking that knowledge sharing will happen by just putting something into a wiki or a document. Changing company culture requires a movement, not a mandate.   

Creating a community of practice

Because communities of practice are employee-led and voluntary, anyone within an organization can start one.

The first step to creating a community of practice is finding your people. Who are the people who have a common passion or focus? Think beyond the people who have a specific title or a specific role. With the rise of T-shaped teams, people will likely have an interest or desire to learn in areas outside their core focus. Ask around for recommendations or suggestions for people who may be interested. 

At this point, you all can decide if you want it to be an informal community or if you want to build it out using a structured approach. 

A structured approach involves: 

  • creating a joint vision of the goal of the community 
  • defining how/where people openly collaborate (what platforms will people use, regular hangouts/meetings)
  • knowing how individuals will benefit from the community – what will people get out of the time they put in
  • identifying how the community will benefit the business    

At the end of the blog post, we’ve provided a few resources for you to read more about launching a community of practice, what to expect around participation, how to maintain momentum once you get started, and getting executive sponsorship.

Here at Stack Overflow, a couple of analysts in different groups realized they were trying to solve similar problems and started informally working together. They wanted to build standard approaches and definitions that would be used across teams. They shared what they were learning, collaborated on possible approaches, and brainstormed ways to solve cross-team analytic challenges. When they heard about analysts in other groups or people who just had a passion for analytics, they invited them to join their weekly hangouts. Working this way, the group came up with innovative solutions across the board. Projects moved along faster, they received buy-in with less struggle, and the business value of what each individual delivered increased.       

Stack Overflow itself is a community of practice (actually, it’s several!). Coders of all skill levels and types come to our sites to better their skills and share the knowledge they’ve gained in the field. The result is that coders as a whole are more efficient—if you have a question, chances are someone else has already asked it and a solution is there for you. We’ve taken that community framework and the knowledge sharing and collaboration needs that enterprises have and built Stack Overflow for Teams so that organizations can easily start their own internal community of practices. 

Communities of practice have business value

Communities of practice reduce the distance (real and virtual) between people and collective knowledge and learning. 

What business value does it offer when employees spend time collaborating, contributing, participating, learning, and consuming all that the community of practice offers? Does it justify the time taken away from their day-to-day activities? The answer is resoundingly yes.

The Gartner® Hype Cycle™ for Agile and DevOps lists the business impact of communities of practice as:  

  • Shorten the learning curve for employees
  • Provide higher levels of employee satisfaction, leading to higher motivation and innovation
  • Respond more rapidly to customer needs and inquiries
  • Reduce duplication of effort
  • Spawn new ideas for products and services
  • Help members develop capabilities that align with organizational needs

In short, communities of practice enable organizations to see improvements in:

  • Onboarding, retaining, and upskilling talent 
  • Improving productivity
  • Accelerating innovation

Read more

We’re proud that Stack Overflow is named a Sample Vendor in the 2022 Gartner Hype Cycle for Agile and DevOps for Communities of Practice. Click here to receive complimentary access to the Gartner research report.

Other resources:

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Tags: agile, coding community, culture, devops, hype