Do Communities of Practice Work? 7 Tips to Start it in Your Company
Do communities of practice work? If you’re not sure if it’s going to work for your company, here are seven mind-shifts to have to make it work.
The concept of communities of practice has been around for a long time already.
Men, being a social animal that we are, have always had the tendency to group together, cooperate, and exchange information; probably the secret why we thrive as a race compared to other species.
It was only 25 years ago that we structured these tendencies into a working learning principle that we now call “community of practice”.
Primarily used as a collaborative learning tool for education, this concept has found its way to the everyday language of the corporate world.
In a nutshell, communities of practice (CoP) refers to a group of people who interact regularly for the purpose of gaining and sharing knowledge.
Modern CoPs are more structured – having a set of rules and systems that make them more like an organised body (formal association or group).
Nearly every company these days have some sort of CoPs aimed at tackling problems and solutions, and enhancing employees’ knowledge and skills, among others.
However, the operationalisation of CoPs in the organisational setting is not without any challenges.
Do communities of practice work? If yes, how you, as an executive and a leader of your company, can maximise its result?
This article answers these very important questions and provides more clarity on what is needed to make communities of practice impactful to your company and how what you can do as an executive to harness its true power.
Communities of Practice in the Organisational Context
In San Francisco, a group of media tech enthusiasts and professionals come together at least twice a month to talk about all things related to film production, AR and VR.
They call it ‘meetup’ where they invite a media tech expert to give a talk on a certain topic, such as the trends in animation, the future of VR, lighting techniques, etc. Members also take advantage of these events to socialise and build connections.
This group of people share the same interests and domain. They make a perfect example of a community of practice.
In order to understand how communities of practice can be cultivated in your company and make it work, it is important to learn about the learning processes that lead to CoP development.
The foundation of all communities of practice is knowledge and social formation. This concept rests on the idea that learning happens when people ‘think together’.
According to Wenger, CoPs has three structural elements: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire.
Mutual engagement refers to what and how members of the community do together as part of the practice. Joint enterprise refers to the topics or issues they talk about or which concern them, and shared repertoire – the concepts they create.
In today’s world, organisations capitalise on ‘knowledge’ as the most powerful tool to stay ahead of their competition.
Companies invest in creating cross-functional teams, workgroups, business units and other organisational forms where people can work together to share ideas, learn from each other, and ultimately find ways to achieve the organisational goals.
Communities of practice promise to complement these existing structures to develop creative ways to approach everyday challenges that their organisation faces.
Imagine the things your team can accomplish if you go full throttle in nurturing your communities of practice. It’s like sifting golden nuggets from sand and stones!
In recent years, we’ve seen the use of communities of practice in the business and health care sectors.
In business, some groups are even encouraged by their employers to connect on and off the job, others are given communication tools to enable networking.
In other companies, communities of practice involved formal face-to-face meetings and after-work social activities of employees from different work sites.
A perfect example of how communities of practice work in the business sector is the World Bank. The bank has several CoPs which they fully support and fund.
They were mostly small and fragmented, but they supplied the organisation with high-quality information and know-hows about economic development, money lending, and other topics.
All these have enabled the World Bank to solve problems quickly, generate new lines of business, develop professional skills, transfer best practices, and recruit the best talents.
Communities of practice can benefit your company in so many ways. Basically, they help drive strategy, solve problems, promote best practices, find and retain talent, and even generate new lines of business.
CoPs can also take place between organisations, not just within. An example would be CEOs or executives like you who regularly engage in a roundtable meeting to share best industry practices or tackle business and public policy.
Cultivating Communities of Practice
To make it work, CoP has to be cultivated within your organisation. And most of the time, you as the leader of your company should initiate, design, and nurture these communities.
In the excerpt of the book “Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge”, which appeared in Harvard Business School website, the authors outlined the seven design principles for cultivating communities:
Design for evolution
CoPs are groups that aren’t built from scratch. They take place in a more natural manner (mutual engagement).
Thus, the approach should be more like ‘shepherding’ the community so they become more effective at facilitating activities and knowledge sharing, and adaptable to change.
Foster internal and external perspectives
Only insiders have a greater understanding of the company’s issues, but it also takes an outsider’s perspective to help members see more possibilities.
Invite different levels of participation
Members of the community of practice should be diverse.
Some might take on leadership roles, others like it more to actively participate in discussions and take on community projects, while some attend meetings regularly and participate in discussions occasionally.
Hold private and public events
Dynamic communities are rich in connections. More than the structured calendar of events, the heart of CoP is the relationships that members build and the day-to-day interactions where most of the learning and knowledge sharing occur.
Focus on value
The reason why CoPs thrive is that of the value they bring to an organisation. Value is the key to their existence because participation in most communities is voluntary.
Rather than determining their value in advance, members have to create activities and events that help emerge their potential value.
Combine familiarity and excitement
As CoPs mature, they become more familiar and comfortable with a certain pattern of events, meetings, discussions and projects wherein they develop candid participation.
But in order to keep their interests, there should be challenging initiatives and fun that promote divergent thinking and creativity.
Create a rhythm for the community
There should be a continuous flow of activities to keep members of the community engaged. There is no single beat that suits all communities, but finding the right beat is the key to the community’s development.
So, do communities of practice work in an organisational context? The answer is a resounding yes. But in order for them to make a significant impact, you in the executive position should set your mind in nourishing these goldmines.