A community of practice is a way of organizing in a specialized field so people with the same interests can broaden their professional knowledge, learn and interact with others. Web technologies in the last 10-15 years have greatly extended the opportunities millions of people have to network, participate and experience professional growth. Capital and VeSys have gone there too and have a well established site
The way we give now.
For the Capital and VeSys product families Mentor Graphics through the IESD (Integrated Electrical Services Division) organization started some time ago a Web community presence, which is open to any registrant customer with a support contract running for their company. You can register under a pseudonym if that makes you more comfortable (so your competitors don’t get to see the competitive advantage your have in the tool). This has been a resource for customers for over 4 years, it is mature and well thought of.
One of the key advantages to customers using the Electrical System Design and Harness Engineering community is that the Capital and VeSys Product Managers are expected to check frequently for topics and contributions in their area. If you wonder what it is a software vendor’s “Product Manager” does and what’s in it for you – I wrote a post here http://blogs.mentor.com/paul_johnston/blog/2010/02/15/latent-hero-series-277-the-product-manager/ explaining why these people are your friends. Like most of us, these people are busy, so email alerts are provided for them – the subject line of new posts will be presented in alerts and the emails are predicated also on tags assigned to posting. So here’s the first tip, construct a good title if you are posting, and make generous use of tags. Mentor’s responses in these communities are moderated, managed and and tracked. Generally the monitors are happy with the speed of responses, and they believe that making this “behind the scenes” expertise available kind of directly to customers carries a lot of benefit.
There’s not a service level agreement stopwatch running on answering questions or responding, in this informal environment there is no undertaking to respond within “x” hours to any question. But as well as the development people there are also the worldwide practice of Consultants, Customer Support engineers, and the field application engineers attached to the sales force reviewing this community of practice. Here in Mentor Graphics we feel that this hang-out is beyond a critical mass of participants, and the organism “just ticks over by itself” in the words of one custodian.
Types of Participation in the Community of Practitioners
For some communities of practice revolving around software the most active contributors may be skewed to the customer side rather than the vendor side. This happens sometimes because it is a simpler product in which it is easy to become an expert “front-to-back” and then share your enthusiasm and interests with other people. With Capital, deployed workflows tend to be unique to customers so that your customer experience is not guaranteed to be transferrable to another workplace in whole, though certainly in large part it will be. I know this because I have seen people work for different customers re-using their knowledge of best tool practice.
Most of us who speak regularly with users of Capital get the impression there is a positive reaction to the Community site. Analytics can be done with a site like this and there are around 200 customer users with an upward trend on the IESD site I am told. More are welcome, each new registrant will find something to interest them.
The 3 most popular areas of the Community of Practice site:
Electrical Design through to Harness Manufacturing Process including Electrical Analysis – For practitioner issues in the core workflows of customers
Integration area – For plug-in code downloads using the Application Programming Interface (API) of Capital.
General Discussion – this is where people start off posting documents and asking questions when the category is uncertain
An area where there are proportionally more customer staff active than their representation at large in the community is in API work. This makes sense because programmers are much more used in their daily work to reaching out and collaborating to arrive at potential solutions for technical challenges they have.
The more technical the area – we can infer, the more useful you as a user are likely to find the community spirit helpful.
Getting Started and getting benefit – joining the community.
On http://communities.mentor.com/mgcx/community/harness?view=overview – the communities site there is a really good search facility so you can find readily all material on a particular topic of interest to you. Most people who join spend some time finding their way around before progressing to making their own posting. If you are feeling bold don’t be inhibited – plunge straight into debates and open discussion threads. You can choose to register and interact under a pseudonym so that competitor companies who may also be using the Capital or VeSys software cannot identify your activity or topics of interest and work out how you are deriving competitive advantage out of using the Mentor Graphics software
A typical starter use case for a customer joining Mentor Communities for Integrated Electrical Systems Design is to pose a question where Customer Support isn’t a place you would expect an answer. That’s why there are so many “How To” postings on the site. In fact, the answer to the question you have may already be out there – so search before you post is usually a good idea.
Worth your time
For new and upcoming customers I make a point of mentioning the Community as an additional resource in Mentor’s good reputation for supporting Capital and VeSys. It is your direct line to the experts, plus a searchable library of resources of best practices and advice, concept guides and approximately 150 plugin examples (and growing) examples being a drawing Part ID table and advanced design compare. You can post a question and you can answer a question – both give and receive advice as a practitioner of Capital or VeSys.
What next after you first join – types of interaction?
The key challenge for the future is to keep the site content relevant to user experience and foster participation by satisfying personal customer goals for interacting and on a collective level meeting the community need. We see at Mentor customers who have the Capital software being deeply ingrained in their business processes and that is when the community participants go “deep” in their interaction and share their advice with other practicioners. We notice these because they seem to show us what we always thought would happen: the software let out in the world would be liked just as much as we like it!
We at Mentor also need to get disciplined to go a little against our human natures and also remember to be inspired by the most frequent customer interactions to the Communities site, where there is a steady stream of readers coming to the library of best practice documentation. It is a place where it is perfectly ok to be a consumer of the material. It is more than ok. Providing a place to access useful information and interact with experts and other customers is one of the main goals. Libraries are quiet places. You don’t have to interact with experts, it is not compulsory, reading the material and satisfying your need for a deeper understanding of the practical ways in which Capital software can deliver value to your business situation may be enough.
Getting more involved, giving something back to the group.
Beyond a mode of participation consuming the collective knowledge, there are some easy ways to participate actively in small ways and do it very fast and conveniently. You can rate the documents and code examples you download and read. You can leave a short note providing feedback. And you can ask questions, have the moderators and seasoned posters to the community transfer some of their knowledge to a specific purpose. It is good to do this, it encourages your fellow members, and fosters further interaction.
The way it works with most community members is that after a time period where they read material and become connected with the community, you become comfortable with the idea of posting original material which you have created which return the favor to the community for the help you got.
I don’t know culturally whether this will make sense to some of the Capital users from different parts of the world, but the process is a lot like becoming a “Pub Regular” – you don’t ask to be part of the atmosphere of the bar, don’t follow a set series of tasks, you don’t have to pass any entrance exam, but after a while it is your Pub and you are part of the scenery there and you are a “Regular.” Pretty soon new visitors to the community will be looking to you for advice and pointers about things you know through and through.
In the future there may be different ways come into the Community to foster inclusion and participation, possibly around some special events being organized. It will continue to be a valuable and growing archive of expertise, receptive to new ideas and new discussions, convivial and polite, open into the night hours – people visiting all the time, some staying for just a few minutes, others relaxing into the ambiance of the place, some approachable, some aloof – some garrulous and some politely declining to enter into lengthy interactions. Yes, definitely a bit like the village pub.