Employees at one of Canada’s manufacturing giants are about to tell their bosses what to do with their ERP, advanced planning and scheduling programs — and the bosses can’t wait to hear it.

On day three of the annual Information

Highways Conference in Toronto, Hamilton, Ont.-based steel producer Dofasco Inc. discussed its experience with a so-called “”communities of practice”” initiative. Communities of Practice are essentially internal committee-like organizations, which allow employees with expertise and interest in a particular business issue to exchange information and arrive at suggestions for best practices.

Dofasco got involved in a CoP pilot project in 2001. Since then, it has not only seen the number of these communities within the company grow from three to eight, but is now looking to make them a formal part of its business practices, said manager of Dofasco’s Library Resource Centre Linda Pauloski.

Pauloski says that Dofasco’s foray into introducing these communities to its organization was largely a result of employee requests for better information sharing tools. Employees of one Dofasco division would run into employees of anther Dofasco division at trade shows and for the first time hear about solutions they’d developed.

“”It would often be a case of: ‘We could have used that solution nine months ago when we were having a problem.’ People were not happy to have to go outside of the company to hear what was going on in their own workplace,”” she said.

In response, Dofasco decided to introduce CoPs to its organization on a pilot-project basis. Groups of employees from Dofasco’s technology sector would meet on a regular basis to discuss trends in the steel industry and business practices that could provide the company with a competitive advantage, said communities of practice coordinating leader Victor Chupil.

Today the company is getting its technology department to focus on improving the enterprise resource planning, advanced planning and scheduling systems. Chupil said that the important thing to remember is that even though these communities are working on improving IT systems, the role IT plays in the CoP is secondary.

“”The most important thing here is the interaction between people,”” he said. “”It’s what they can learn from each other and we can learn from them that matters.””

The comunities are quite informal, with most members not tied to a schedule or a specific time commitment, Chupil said. The pilot project did reveal that even these voluntary organizations needed structure and support. Roles, like that of a coordinator, facilitator and administrator have to be clearly defined. Expectations of what is to be accomplished by each community also have to be very clearly stated or the project is in serious danger of getting bogge

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