I had the pleasure of working with folks from SRI, the US Army, PARC, and other interesting places yesterday. Our topic was Social Information Production. Much of the discussion focused on Communities of Practice (CoPs) & After Action Reviews (AAR).

CoPs are a set of people bound together through common interest and language with the goals of open communication, and exchange and retention of pertinent knowledge. They don’t have to have technology support, but John Sawyer and I have found that CoP technology tools can especially support the development of explicit knowledge related to the CoPs' area. As I’ve discussed before, it’s the combination of technology and organizational practices that is often most powerful.

AARs have a simple set of questions to guide the review:
1. What did we set out to do?
2. What happened?
3. Why did it happen?
4. What are we going to do about it?

LTC Nate Allen, one of the two founders of the Army's well-received CompanyCommander and PlatoonLeader CoPs (see his and LTC Tony Bugess’ book here), gave me some updates on their AAR process:

They are finding good value in looking at "close calls" versus bad outcomes. Close calls don't get people as defensive as they would with a disaster -- better learning environment.

They also now include another agenda item: What did we get away with? For example, the outcome was ok, but in hindsight it could have been a problem and should be considered in the review. I’m going to add this one to my class presentation on AARs. Overall, I like the idea of doing AARs as a matter of course – as part of a milestone process. Emotions may be less likely to cloud the process if it’s a standard tool and the approach is familiar.

I came away from our discussion with a lot to think about.
  1. Key to the ideas of CoPs and AARs was that AARs have to be seen as a process, not an outcome. You don’t do an AAR to generate content (e.g., lessons learned) – though that can be a great outcome – you do an AAR to carefully reflect on what could be done better to help you plan for the future.

  2. To the extent that part of the CoPs’ approach for learning is to integrate with AARs, the CoP can only be more powerful. The CoP can be a platform for the process and the outcomes. Facebook's recent amazing valuation may as much about its growth as a platform, rather than its current capabilities as a "social watering hole."

  3. To the extent that we can use technology to support the AAR, it is more likely to be a living process (e.g., by tracking the workflow in the first place so the AAR can be evidence-based or by capturing the outcomes of the AAR so that the determined changes can be tracked and themselves evaluated).
Both CoPs and AARs are powerful in organizations and well worth the effort. The added power of one supporting the other is also well worth the effort of integration.