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Building Communities of Practice at FARFETCH

By Hugo Froes
Hugo Froes
At FARFETCH since Jan 2020. Over 20 years of experience in design and improving how teams build products.
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Building Communities of Practice at FARFETCH
Companies evolve and grow. Practices become more complex and harder to handle. At FARFETCH we noticed like minded people coming together to discuss or even tackle some of those issues. In some cases we saw how the work done by those communities could feed back into the teams and become part of their day to day work.

Taking a cue from Emily Webber on Communities of Practice (CoP), we started exploring how we could bring more people together. People that have a common interest on a certain topic and how we could best support them. 

This article explores how we built guidelines and resources for anyone interested in starting a community within FARFETCH. How we support those communities when needed, but leave them alone when they’re ready. 

We hope that others can take from what we’ve learnt and use/adapt to build similar communities within their own company.

Building a Common Language

One of the first things we felt the need to do was define the categories of CoP so that they may be more easily identifiable for those outside that community.

These definitions are particular to the way we have approached communities and are only a guideline. At any time, as a CoP evolves, they can move into another category or divide into two or more communities. 

Communities of Practice (CoP)

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.
The term ‘Community of Practice’ (or CoP) is one of the most common names given to these types of communities, which is why we use CoP as our umbrella term. And so, we’ve established that for us internally a Community of Practice, just by existing, automatically falls into this category. 

Guilds

More formal than a CoP, a Guild has a strong fixed objective, which often has repercussions within the company and teams. Often associated with working towards strong standards of practice and/or aligning objectives across business units.

Work Groups

More integrated with work being done within teams, Work Groups have a direct impact on the company. Usually evolving from a CoP or supporting a Guild, the members of the Work Group are looking at the topic on a ground level. They have Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) associated with this work and it’s part of their objectives.

Clinics

The company has grown very quickly in the last few years and there are many challenges in scaling all the teams to their optimal size. How can some of those teams support all those other teams, without having to grow to an unmanageable size? 

That’s where we’ve found clinics are useful. Usually, a fixed session that is added to the calendar of everyone that might benefit most from feedback or input from a specific discipline. During these sessions, someone can ask for advice for what to do next or feedback on whether they are on the right track. 

Depending on which clinic it is, the advice will be geared towards that subject matter and hopefully helps participants understand what steps to take next.

The User Experience Research clinic, User Interface clinic and Experimentation clinic are examples of some of the existing clinics at Farfetch.

Guiding principles

  • 100% open to everyone
And we mean everyone. Everyone who wants to be part of the conversation may join. If someone feels they can either contribute or be able to extract value from the community for themselves, they may join. 

The communities are not exclusive, members only groups. 

One of the easiest ways to determine whether you really do have a CoP rather than a different form of regular meeting is to ask whether you'd be happy having anyone from the company drop in and observe if they were interested.
  • Global first
Our company is spread across various geographical locations, but we don’t want that to limit participation. In fact, we encourage the communities to diversify and gain a richer amount of knowledge contribution.

We still want to improve the way communities interact across time zones as well, thus removing even more barriers. 
  • Everyone has something to contribute
All voices are valid and should be heard. Even the least experienced or people from other areas of expertise have something to contribute.

If someone hasn’t said anything in an entire session, encourage their participation by asking their opinion on something you know they have knowledge about.
  • Respect each others’ perspective and experience
An open mind is key to achieving great results. We strongly encourage active listening and an openness to try and understand the perspective of others as a way to expand our own ideas.

If someone else’s idea seems strange or out of place, first try and understand the perspective and context. If however, the contribution seems misplaced, try to be encouraging and suggest that it’s a very valid point to remember for later discussion, but it might be a bit off topic in the current discussion.
  • Share ideas and opinions in confidence
Building on the above principle, one of the most important things about the communities is creating a safe space where everyone feels their opinion can be voiced without judgment and we expect everyone to make an effort to adhere to that ideal.

If someone seems less confident, don’t forget to give some encouraging feedback when they contribute, and if some feedback is needed, that it should be constructive. 
  • Build community knowledge wherever you can
Communities are incredible and there is nothing better than a group of people sitting down and discussing a topic they love. The big question is what to do with what is discussed? How do you build on ideas until they are mature enough? How does the value of the communities reach those outside the community?

At FARFETCH, we’ve created an open and transparent space on confluence, where every community can both record or access what is being done.

We want the communities to work together. To learn from each other. This space is open to every Farfetcher and we encourage open sharing. 
  • Avoid absolutist positions
Communities are about sharing and learning. We feel that absolutist points of view will be a blocker to a healthy continuous growth.

Assume that there are other ways of looking at an issue. Every idea or solution might make sense in the now or with what the current members in the community know, but in a few months it might change. 

Supporting the communities

Guild of Communities

As a support mechanism, we created a Guild of Communities. A small group of people who are passionate about CoPs and who can focus on developing the resources and guidelines for the communities.

The Guild works as facilitators. Helping the communities to get off the ground, connecting to the right people and identifying opportunities.

We also made it clear that the Guild is not meant to run the communities and will not dictate how the communities collaborate and approach the practice they want to improve. 

Single hub for everything

One of the first questions we were asked was where do these communities live, since they aren’t owned by any team or business unit?

As mentioned above, we created a Confluence space exclusively for the communities of practice. Within that space, we added all the content and resources available, as well as templates for the CoPs to create their own sub-section.

We now see communities recording everything they discuss and create within those spaces. They may also explore other existing communities to identify opportunities to collaborate or learn from each other.

Where to next?

Much like the way we allow the communities to be created and grow fairly organically we also don’t define a success metric for the specific communities unless they want it.

We measure the success of the communities by the number of initiatives that are developed by these communities, which make their way into the practices of the teams. In how the team members continuously extract the value they themselves expect from that community.

When do we suggest ending a community? When all those involved feel the community no longer makes sense. When the vision each person has of that community isn’t aligned with what the community has become.

Participants should always extract value and for that reason we hope to start helping them set personal OKRs attached to the work they do within the community, giving them the time to contribute positively.

More than anything, we want to give the communities the space and support they need to thrive, extract value and evolve in the direction they need to. 
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