KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

What’s the difference between a community of practice and a helpdesk?

with 9 comments

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?
  • Simple “how to” questions
  • Interpretation of policy and guidance (can I do X, what is the correct procedure for y)
  • Answers needing a quick response
  • Confidential questions
  • Open questions that don’t have a single “correct” answer
  • Policy and guidance formulation (especially for guidance to be based on experience)
  • Identification of lessons learned and good practice
  • Questions that need input from field offices
  • Questions where we don’t have expertise in HQ, or we don’t know where internal expertise is located.
Other characteristics
  • Centralized
  • Needs clear designation of resources, roles,   responsibilities and procedures.
  • Quick
  • Personalized response
  • Decentralized
  • More flexibility in roles and responsibilities and resourcing (although needs facilitator and procedures)
  • Takes more time
  • Response more tailored to needs of community at large (not only question originator)
  • Fostering communication and sense of community between practitioners also an important aim of this approach.

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 :-)).


Written by Ian Thorpe

November 29, 2011 at 8:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the clear “compare and contrast” between these two support vehicles.

    I would highlight one more possible distinction — the cost of inaccurate or incomplete information. In a centralized response, there can/should be checks and balances to verify the “correctness” and “completeness” of the response. I am imagining action being taken based on well-intentioned but incorrect information provided by community members who may not be aware of technical, legal, or other constraints.

    One might argue that someone else in the community would point this out. How much is the organization willing to bet that will happen?

    Larry Solow

    November 29, 2011 at 9:11 am

    • Larry- thanks for the comment. I’d agree that a centralized help desk approach is intended to be authoritative in a way a community isn’t, and that’s why it is used for policy questions, and as you also add for legal purposes. I’m not sure that in practice that this means the answer is more better or more technically accurate though (since it is reviewed by a narrower group of people), it just means that it is in some way “official” as it has been signed off by the organization’s experts. If turns out to be wrong you can at least say that you based your actions on the “official” organizational position.

      Ian Thorpe

      November 29, 2011 at 11:24 am

  2. Yes thanks for the clear comparison. I have been struggling for 10 years to get state government to understand this. In my field the command and control often builds unaccountable centralized bureaucracy, which recently led to staff cuts and now overworked staff, but the alternative is seen as taking power and glory away from middle managers.


    November 29, 2011 at 11:17 am

  3. Excellent analysis Ian. Thanks for sharing. Yes, I guess this confirms how I have always seen this. They both have a problem-solving emphasis but in my eyes remain 2 distinct models – with clear functions many of which you have outlined. In a help desk system – a staff member colleague posts a question to a central help desk system…this refers them to a single point of contact (usually) that acts as an information and assistance resource – and can hopefully either provide a response, escalate it to another expert, and/or gather this into a FAQ for other users of the system.

    I have always seen a CoP as a means of not just asking and answering questions, but stimulating (if functioning as intended) active dialogue and knowledge between members. Also instead of relying on a point of contact, it usually brings together different disciplines and expertise and relies on community knowledge. Finally, this community knowledge is sometimes used to provide a catalyst – a means to drive more innovative ways (versus standard help desk response) to address the policy and development issues many of our agencies face.

    Daka Mohamed

    November 30, 2011 at 1:07 pm

  4. Thanks for this analysis, Ian. Let me add one advantage of the helpdesk in the viewpoint of the service provider. The way we implement helpdesks in our organization enables the service provider to get the statistics in the level and nature of help/knowledge that are being sought. This has the advantage of letting the service provider document the work that it is providing and also be able to analyze what type of help and knowledge are important to many those who were seeking the help.

    Bobby Olarte

    December 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    • @bobby I agree, although in an institutional setting I’d argue that even though CoPs are much less formally structured than help desks the community leaders or facilitators should be doing the same type of thing i.e. tracking what type of questions come up, where do they come from, how quickly and how well they are answered in order to see where are the knowledge gaps and what kins of complementary support might be needed.

      Ian Thorpe

      December 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm

  5. […] is most useful depends to some extent on the type of knowledge you are dealing with (see this previous post on the difference between a community of practice and a help desk which are two specific examples […]

  6. This is a helpful breakdown, but I think incomplete (and perhaps intentionally so). Where I work we use ‘designated’ communities of practice that work as a hybrid of the best of both:
    – the individuals work across teams, but share similar responsibilities, challenges, and experiences
    – they are connected through multiple means of communication, and are able to self-differentiate. An email to a list-serve leads to a quick response, a post on the groups discussion board can take more time (we’ve recently been able to merge the assets so that both are captured in a way that can be analyzed for later retrieval).
    – the members of the community actually meet at least once a year to build strong relationships and increase trust, which goes back to both quality and timeliness of response

    I recognize this isn’t always possible to set up, but represents an interesting juxtaposition of the value-add of both.


    February 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    • Josh – I actually wrote this blog post some time ago to help educate an internal audience of decision makers about when they should consider one or other approach since I noticed some confusion both in their questions and decisions about ways to support the field.

      I fully agree that it can be beneficial to find ways to integrate aspects of both approaches into a single system where possible, which is one of the points I was getting at in my latest blog post on two approaches to knowledge quality i.e. that the two can be used together not just in opposition.

      In the example you mention above though it still looks like a versatile, well developed community to me, rather than a help desk in that decision making about what the “right” answer is comes from the community members (even if via a quick listserv posting or a bilateral conversation) rather than via a centralized “official” response.

      Ian Thorpe

      February 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm

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