Communities of practice the ultimate guide for leaders
If you are building a company that has a ‘culture of sharing’ where people regardless of their roles and tenure are willing to help one another; value learning as an inevitable tool to growth and success; and have the attitude of ‘making each other better’; you are undoubtedly building the right culture of your company.
Not only does this culture of knowledge transfer benefits the organization as a whole (as people share their best practices to achieve a common goal), it also benefits every individual in the organization through the continuous inflow of knowledge and ideas. It’s the power of Communities of Practice.
What are Communities of Practice?
In whatever kind of organization – may it be in business, education, or government – in one way or another people come together to collaborate, share ideas and know-how, and solve problems as a group.
It’s an age-old phenomenon. But it was not until in the early 1990s that it was put together in one learning concept that is used in many organizational settings today.
First introduced by Etienne Wenger (educational theorist) and Jean Lave (cognitive anthropologist) in 1991, the communities of practice (CoP) refers to any group “of people who share a common interest” and learn how to “do it better through regular interaction”.
They can be any group of people – a group of engineers learning a new process, a network of medical practitioners exploring the effectiveness of certain drugs, or diplomats learning about how a new form of technology can benefit their nations.
Note, however, that not all communities can be considered communities of practices. There are three important elements that set CoPs apart from the rest:
Shared domain of interest (Domain) – CoPs are not simple ‘networks’ of people sharing one or two commonalities. A community of practice can be created with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field. Domain refers to the group’s identity defined based on the common goals or interests of the people in the group. Members imply a commitment to that domain with a shared competence that distinguishes them from other people.
The community – to achieve their common goals, people in a CoP engages in activities and discussions, sharing their own expertise and learning from others. Imagine a regular meetup of visual effects professionals in a certain location. Each month, they come together for a half-day of forum, inviting senior VFX directors or industry leaders to give a talk on certain topics. Regardless of the organizations, they’re part of, these people do share an identity and common goal, which is, most probably, to expand their skills and knowledge. Over time, through collaboration done over coffee and some pizzas, relationships are built, which in turn enable mutual learning.
The practice – members of CoPs are practitioners who share resources, tools, techniques, and ideas. They develop ways of addressing problems which often lead to innovation. Members apply their newly learned practices to their individual careers. Simply exchanging ideas about a certain topic through some random conversations is not enough. In CoPs, the ‘sharing culture’ is more or less self-conscious.
Communities of practice evolve and cultivate through these essential elements. Without one of these three, a CoP cannot exist.
CoPs in Organizational Settings
Communities of practices can collaborate practically anywhere. They can exist in physical settings, for example, in the lunchroom at work or in a field setting. But members need not meet face-to-face. They can collaborate virtually and share their best practices. Think about webinars and online meetups. Some groups meet on a regular basis, some infrequently.
Some CoPs are highly organized, with codes of conducts, standard roles and responsibilities, strategic plans, even budgets.
What makes CoPs successful over time is their ability to generate enough value, relevance and excitement among members. As people are bound by their desire to learn, grow, and help their colleagues, communities of practices continue to attract and engage members.
Despite the differences in the setup, size, and number, communities of practices always involve learning. Learning is the major reason why people meet together or the unintentional outcome of the members’ regular interaction.
Thinking Together: Learning Within Communities of Practice
We all are part of a CoP in one way or another, maybe through our profession or trade, leisure or interest, or within our respective organizations. While individuals learn from their participation in the activities and discussions, the most important benefit of communities of practice is the development of newer or deeper levels of knowledge that result from the regular interaction and activities.
The second definition of the communities of practice, according to Lave and Wenger, is the process of generating, applying and reproducing knowledge. They call it “legitimate peripheral participation” (LPP). Based on this concept, learning takes place as people make their way towards full participation in the community. Initially, they may participate in simple low-risk tasks. But over time, they become more acquainted with the tasks, language, and organizing principles of the community.
As novice members turn into old timers and gain more mastery of their profession, their level of participation becomes even more central to the smooth functioning of the community.
Another key concept within LPP is that learners must have access to experts. They should either be members or aspire membership to the community wherein the experts’ practices are central. Otherwise, they will have less access to the tools and resources of the community, and therefore, have limited growth.
Communities of Practice vs. Teams
CoPs are often confused with other types of groups or functional teams. However, there are key differences that should be noted, according to the “Creating and Facilitating Communities of Practice” article published by the Queen’s University School of Business.
Objective – in CoPs, the main goal is to share knowledge and promote learning within their domain. In teams, however, members are more concerned about completing a task.
Membership – people join communities of practice voluntarily. In teams, members are selected based on their ability to contribute to the team’s goals.
Organization – CoPs can be either formal or informal, collaborating through coffee meetings or meetups. They are self-organizing and leaders might be selected depending on the issue being discussed. Teams are hierarchical in nature, with a lead or project manager supervising the entire group.
Management – CoPs are built on mutual relationships between members whereas, in teams, members coordinate with each other for many interdependent tasks.
Termination – the communities of practices evolve. It is terminated only when there is no more interest. Teams end when the project is completed, although in some cases, they may evolve into a community.
How to Build a Community of Practice within Your Organization
There are many benefits of cultivating a community of practice in corporate settings. Not only does it help expand the professional knowledge and skills of the members, it also helps the company develop strategies to address various challenges. Since communities of practice can exist online and offline. They are ideal for all types of organizations, from brick-and-mortar companies to web-based companies.
- Create a clear set of objectives.
Because in organizations, the members have different backgrounds, probably coming from varying professions and skill sets, it is important to determine the specific goals of the community. Whether it’s developing a training strategy, changing processes, addressing a pressing issue, or improving the performance of a particular department, it is important for the members of a community of practice to understand what their goals for collaborating are.
- Know each member.
Ideally, you want a diverse group of people who will each present something unique to the table. Since in corporate settings, the number of members can be limited (could be employees from just one department), you want to be sure that a wide range of employees is represented. If the intention of the CoP affects the organization as a whole, all departments or teams must have their own representatives.
- Collaboration should be free-flowing.
Communities of practices aren’t like typical workshops or forums. In CoPs, members learn from each other. Discussions are lively, highly interactive, and targeted to a common interest or domain. Holding regular meetings are important not only for the purpose of sharing knowledge but also in establishing relationships and better communication – keys to a successful collaboration.
- Utilize technology for better collaboration.
Project management software tools can boost the community’s effort to share resources and knowledge despite geographical boundaries. Through these platforms, members can share documents, assign tasks, communicate, and stay up-to-date with the group’s calendar of activities. In addition to these, social media platforms are also a great venue for forums, exchange of ideas, and other forms of communication. Creating innovative solutions is much quicker through these networking platforms.
- Focus on value.
As mentioned earlier, communities of practices differ from teams because they focus on the value they deliver to one another, or in this case, their organization. Value is the key because CoPs are voluntary. At earlier stage of a CoP, the value comes from the current problems and needs of the community. As it grows and develops, the value is derived from creating a systematic body of knowledge that can be easily accessed by the members.
- Encourage different levels of participation.
Members’ level of participation varies. It’s normal that some would participate regularly sharing insights to everyone in the group. Others follow the discussions but do not take leading roles in making contributions. Some may not be as active until some parts of the discussion has engaged them fully. All levels of participation should be accepted and encouraged within the community.
- Offer support and resources to the community.
The success of communities of practice within the organization hinges greatly upon the support that the organization itself provides. The CoP must have access to the tools, resources, fund (if needed) that are necessary for them to continue their collaboration and activities, especially in the beginning stages. With the strong support from the organization, particularly its leaders, communities of practices are likely to develop better strategies to address the pressing needs of the entire organization.
Despite the undeniable benefits of nurturing communities of practices within organizations, not all companies are able to effectively implement and sustain CoPs. Aside from the fact that the concept was just recently introduced, the informal and spontaneous nature of these communities make it difficult for most organizations to monitor and support their growth.
Takeaways . . .
The idea of sharing and collaboration as a means of obtaining knowledge has long been practised by individuals around the world. However, it was not until about thirty years ago since that the idea became more standardized through the concept known as “communities of practice”.
Communities develop their practice through a variety of activities. These include access to information, sharing experiences, problem-solving, coordination and strategy, building arguments, discussing projects and developments, and many more.
There isn’t a highly defined structural framework for a community of practice unlike most types of organized communities. The setup can be anywhere from a formal to informal networks designed specifically for efficient knowledge-sharing and exploration. CoPs can be role-based too.
For instance, developers need to talk to other developers, quality auditors need to talk to other quality specialists, and project managers need to collaborate with other managers across teams. This is necessary for continuous learning and mastery of their roles, and for adopting new methods and techniques.
Forming communities of practice within your organization is one way to promote high-level of learning and development. Apart from helping the entire organization develop new strategies and solve company-wide challenges, CoP helps individual members expand their professional knowledge base. CoP members exhibit different levels of participation and move freely across these levels as their needs and interest evolve.
Regardless of the size and nature of your organization, tapping into the collective skill sets of your members is a powerful approach to scale up your organization as what I’ve always recommended long time ago in my previous blog post. Whether you’re exploring a new process or developing strategies, a community of practice provides room for creating a culture of sharing where members collaborate to share and obtain knowledge and form innovative ideas that lead to groundbreaking outcomes.