What’s the difference between a community of practice and a helpdesk?
I’m currently looking at what type of tools we have and need to help support UN co-ordination work and I was reminded of something I was working on back in 2008 to explain the difference between a help desk and a community of practice and what each approach might be good for. This was useful because the idea of communities and a decentralized approach to knowledge sharing was new, and people’s natural inclination was to concentrate technical support through a central help function. In fact both help desks and communities are two valuable complementary approaches to supporting programme managers with knowledge with different characteristics and uses.
Here is a brief table that highlights the characteristics and uses of each approach:
|Help Desk||Community of Practice|
|How do they work?||Question comes into a single focal point and is forwarded to designated person(s) for response.
Question generally not shared while in process – finalized responses *might* be shared with a broader group after completion as an FAQ or might be added to a system to help future expert responses, but not shared beyond the expert group.
|Question comes to a discussion forum open to all community members, a facilitator may intervene to point out relevant existing materials, to stimulate response from the community, and to synthesize responses.
Responses summarized and shared widely.
|Where is the expertise?||Small group of designated “experts” most likely in Headquarters/Regional Centres||The community membership at large including HQ/Region/field– contributors depending on interest and expertise.|
|What type of questions do they address?||
In a recent blog poss Nick Milton has highlighted an additional idea that the demographics of an organization can affect whether you might want to use a help-desk type approach (centralized knowledge) or a community (decentralized approach). In it he mentions how this depends on how well expertise and experience is distributed within the organization, and that in “older” organizations knowledge is more widely distributed so communities might be a better approach whereas in younger organizations experience/expertise more likely sits with the few “old-timers” and so a help desk of experts is the way to go. But to counter this, from my own experience it also seems that that “younger” organizations also seem more willing to share knowledge with each other in a communitarian or non-hierarchical way, whereas organizations with an older demographic seem to prefer a more centralized command and control approach (or maybe that’s just the UN :-)).