Collaborating for a More Sustainable Supply Chain in Public Procurement, Pt. 2


Read the first part in our series on sustainability.

Building a Community of Practice

The concept of a community of practice can be traced back to the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), a 1986 spin off from the Palo Alto Research Center. IRL was a nonprofit research organization of linguists, anthropologists, computer scientists and professional teachers who believed that people learn less through formal instruction and more through social interactions. Etienne Wenger, a teacher and PhD in artificial intelligence, joined IRL along with anthropologist Jean Lave and they developed the theory of “Situated Learning,” which they published in a 1991 book of the same name. Their concept, in a nutshell, was that 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.

According to Wenger, there are three elements that are crucial in distinguishing a community of practice from other groups and communities:

  1. The domain. A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.
  2. The community. In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other. Having the same job or the same title does not make for a community of practice, and members of a community of practice do not necessarily work together on a daily basis.
  3. The practice. A community of practice is not merely a community of interest—people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction.

The March White House meeting to launch the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice sought to touch upon all three of these elements. At the meeting, representatives from industry, academia, non-profits and associations—all of whom were invited because of their organizations’ commitment to and active engagement in supply chain sustainability, as well as their own expertise in the topic—sat clustered around small tables. Most had not met before and found that the quickest way to engage was on the topic they all knew about—supply chains.

The U.S. government spends approximately $535 billion each year on contracts for products and services. Not surprisingly, federal procurement speakers spent the first part of the meeting making the case that increasing the federal supply chain’s sustainability offers huge value to the taxpayer. In the latter half of the meeting, participants broke into small groups to discuss the necessary characteristics of an online community of practice that would entice the participants to share best practices and otherwise engage. While the March meeting offered an in-person form of engagement, moving forward the website will play an increasingly central role for the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice.

Established by the government to provide data sets for use by any person who registers to gain access to the site, already serves as the home to a number of other communities—including Manufacturing, Safety, Energy, and Health. The Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice differs from the other hosted communities because it seeks to share best practices from all who are active in supply chain sustainability, not just the typical government data sets. Examples of relevant practices include supplier codes of conducts, checklists, tutorials, and other supplier engagement tools, especially ones that small and medium sized businesses could use to cost effectively improve the sustainability of their operations.

The community of practice also provides focus on specific market sectors. In late 2011, GSA completed a federal spend input/output Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) study, termed the “hotspots” study, to prioritize market sectors by federal spend and broadly identify the pri- mary environmental impacts within that market sector. Based upon this research, GSA identified the following seven market sectors that could have the greatest impact on the sustainability of the federal supply chain (not in order of importance):

  1. Information Technology
  2. Professional Services
  3. Waste Management
  4. Food Concession Services
  5. Building Materials
  6. Apparel
  7. Furniture

At the March launch meeting several existing sustainable supply chain community of practices were identified, including ones supported by organizations such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), United Nations Global Compact, and others. While some of these existing communities address the seven market sectors of greatest interest to the federal government, no one addresses all.

Replicating these existing communities would create little value; instead, the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice seeks to serve as a platform to highlight the existence of these existing communities to a broader audience, as well as the best practices that they have to share. In essence, the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice on seeks to serve as an “Über community” for sustainable supply chain practices and data sets. Thanks to the backing of the federal government and its $535 billion in annual contract spending, the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice has the scale and reach beyond any community of practice currently in existence.

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