COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
- Our world is getting more complex as everything gets connected.
- Complex problems require more implicit knowledge, which cannot be codified.
- Implicit knowledge can only be shared through conversations & observation.
- Collaborative and distributed work is becoming the norm.
- Knowledge-sharing and narration of work make implicit knowledge more visible, especially in distributed work teams.
- Transparent work processes foster innovation.
- New ideas come from diverse networks, often outside the organization.
- Learning is part of work, not separate from it.
- Communities of practice enable the integration of work & learning.
So what is a community of practice? Maybe we should start with what it is not:
- It is not a help desk filled with subject matter experts.
- It is not a work group, or even task focused.
- One is not appointed by management to join a community of practice.
Some characteristics of communities of practice:
- People want to join them.
- They usually have a higher purpose, that one person alone cannot achieve.
- People feel affinity for their communities of practice.
- There are both strong and weak social ties.
- You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.
This is the most succinct description of a community of practice I’ve come across in a very long time. Thanks for this, Harold.
I’m a huge proponent of communities of practice (CoPs). They help us access the knowledge that will help us improve our practice. They help us share our own knowledge and even discover what implicit knowledge lies within us. Ultimately, they help us make sense out of what we do and how we improve what we do. CoPs are a fantastic way to connect in an increasingly connected world where finding knowledge of value can be a challenge.
I completely agree with your point that CoPs are not compulsory and we ought not be appointed by management to join and participate in them. In my view, hanging out in the periphery is just as valuable as contributing in the core of a CoP. Once we are mandated to participate this is no longer an option.
I think CoPs can be effective within a corporate environment and are often successful when supported by the corporation’s management; however, once they are mandated, I feel CoPs then become something else. The benefit of a CoP is natural learning and, in my opinion, once we are mandated to participate in a CoP the natural evolution of how we learn and what learn is changed. We are no longer part of a CoP, but we are part of something else.
So, the value of a CoP is that they are a comprised of a group of people with a common purpose and allow participants to contribute to and access a body of knowledge at levels they are comfortable with. Value is driven by a desire and need to share problems, challenges, experiences, insights, templates, tools, and best practices (the list can go on). We deepen our knowledge through interaction in order to improve our understanding and our practice.
I’m left with these questions: Can this be possible if we are mandated to participate? Do we receive the full value of what CoPs truly offer? Should management merely support the learning process rather than trying to control it?
* I’ve found this fact sheet, by Etienne Wenger, very helpful when thinking about the value I obtain from belonging to a CoP: http://www.ewenger.com/theory/start-up_guide_PDF.pdf
Thanks, Bonnie, the start up guide from Etienne is quite useful.
CoPs can in fact be a powerful construct in organizations. A lot of research was already done by the Institute of Knowledge Management (a member organization led by IBM from 1999-2003), and of course as you pointed out Etienne is one of the “fathers” of CoPs. I actually met him several times. He is currently running special programs called Be-treats (http://wenger-trayner.com/betreat/) – onsite but also in virtual versions.
Personally I have found that CoPs (no matter if they were instantiated top-down or just formed bottom-up) usually live and die with a proper CoP leadership. Without a certain type of ownership (by one or a few key drivers), they often will fall apart. The leadership needs to put some pulse into the CoP and have an eye on it, so ongoing value is obtained.
As for the questions of mandated, I fully agree, you can’t make somebody think there is value if there isn’t for them. Then it becomes just another traditional organizational struture, but you want the fluency of people moving in and out as they get value from the CoP. I also agree, that those at the border can have a high value, even if they only occasionally contribute or use. Innovation often happens at the border of communities, so you need people that move across (almost like a butterfly).
If it is top down it would be the appointment (and funding) of CoP leadership as well as additional funding for face-2-face events that would help to get it off the ground. And management buy-in for people to get the feeling that CoP participation is something wanted and not something “extra”. If they find value from the CoP they will get involved, but it is a fine line between that and wasting time sometimes, so basic structure and roles are important to have (even if the roles are not all officially assigned and often are only one of many roles a member might play in an organization).
As Etienne once said, communities, the informal, that is where work really gets done (http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/olearning.shtml )