Why You Should Have Communities of Practice in Business
Communities of practice in business play a very important role in helping companies achieve their goals. It’s a great framework to grow the tacit knowledge.
Picture this, Employee 1 is having a problem operating a machine. During a break, he joined his teammates. While drinking coffee, Employee 1 casually brought up about the issue he’s been having about the machine he uses.
Everybody seems to experience the same problem and they’re all frustrated because they’re spending way too much time fixing the machine rather than doing the real work they ought to do.
Luckily Employee 2 joined the conversation because he knows a work around it. He enthusiastically shared his methods to keep the machine from breaking down.
After that day, no one’s having any problem about the machine anymore! And everyone’s happy because they’re being more productive and hitting their performance scores by a mile from their previous numbers.
What you see here is a successful knowledge transfer in a Community of Practice! Now, imagine the possibilities.
Communities of practice have existed in organisations and businesses for decades. They are considered a major tool for knowledge sharing, which is crucial to the success of any company.
These days, it is not enough that a company nourishes what it knows.
Every day, new products are being launched in the market, as well as new business concepts, strategies, marketing approaches, and technology.
It has become even more important to constantly update business knowledge to keep abreast of the competition in this digital era.
CoP in Business – The Past and Present
The theory behind community of practice was developed by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave in the early 1990s.
In a nutshell, it is defined as a network of people who try to achieve common goals or solve common problems by harnessing knowledge and expertise.
During that time, it was difficult to see how communities of practice (CoPs) benefit businesses due to several reasons.
The first is that CoPs tend to have a more relaxed, free-flowing structure which is the strict opposite of a typical company structure which is hierarchical.
Second, CoPs are based on voluntary participation which is difficult to manage in a corporate environment where staff and employees all comply to predefined rules and expectations.
All these reasons lead to the third one – it has become a challenge for businesses to measure the impact communities of practice have on their organisations.
Upon the arrival of social media however, more companies have started to notice and appreciate the benefits of CoPs.
That’s because through this technology, it has become easier for them to monitor communities, encourage participation, and monitor progress.
The introduction of online forums, wikis, newsgroups and other community tools have all been used to drive performance and facilitate knowledge sharing, which all transformed communities of practice into powerful tools for change management.
How CoPs Benefit a Business
In what ways do communities of practice help businesses achieve their goals?
There have been various studies which assessed the importance of CoPs in the business world. Here are some of them:
Onboarding new employees
While onboarding processes are on place, communities of practice have become a great venue for newcomers to easily learn the skills they need to perform their job.
As explained by Wenger and Lave, communities of practice involve legitimate peripheral participation wherein learning starts with the most basic, gradually evolving into a more complex level, producing members who have developed mastery or expertise of the subject (in most cases, their roles and functions).
In the study of ethnography of Xerox photocopier field technicians conducted by Julian E. Orr.
He found that in one company, the management believed that each technician had an individual job which can be accomplished by simply following the procedures stated on their official service manual.
However, Orr discovered a strong informal community of techs who met daily at breakfast to exchange problem-solving tips. Specifically, the repairment talked about the experienced they had, such as stories on the machines they fixed.
This led to the creation of contextualised actionable knowledge about various aspects that are central to the better performance of their job. And that is exactly the illustration we have above.
Effective Workplace Learning & Innovation
The study by Brown and Duguid (1991) was the first to argue that despite being less known, CoPs were the key to effective workplace learning and innovation which is a critical factor for issue management.
They based their theory on Orr, which suggested that CoPs have a positive contribution to business organisations.
CoPs for Business: Factors for Success
Unlike project teams, special interest groups, or working committees, communities of practice have a very unique structure and processes.
In order to maximise the utilisation of CoPs, there are some factors that are critical for their success:
Opportunity to grow and thrive
Encouraging communities by allowing them to continue their free-flowing nature, with supervision and encouragement from the management, is important.
Businesses should remember that the non-linear and informal nature of communities are central to the production and advancement of knowledge.
Place to meet and interact
Communities have to interact regularly and continuously in order for knowledge sharing to be effective.
Since they operate within the domain of tacit knowledge, they have to be given a venue that is co-located and shared, more like a workspace.
In companies that have locations worldwide, using online tools and communications platforms is essential to enable communities of practice to work together and collaborate.
Since the main purpose of establishing communities of practice is to acquire and share knowledge, encouraging broad participation is the key.
Thus, CoPs must be promoted across your organisation, especially among your employees as a great tool to enhance and develop their skills.
Without the support from you, the executives, it is almost impossible for communities to thrive and make a significant impact on the organisation.
The support from the leadership team should not be restrictive nor coercive. They should allow the informal and spontaneous flow of the community and be less controlling.
Communities of practice are an important addition to your organisational toolkit simply because it promotes one of the most important aspects critical to your business success: knowledge management.
CoPs are a proven framework for acquiring, producing and sharing tacit knowledge, which are all critical to improving employee performance, creating business strategy, and helping an organisation reach its goals.
The impact of CoPs in businesses have long been a subject of research.
As mentioned in the studies like that of Orr, Wenger and Lave, and Brown and Duguid, communities help businesses by enhancing employees’ skills and performance, allowing members to solve problems through regular interaction, and by serving as a tool for effective learning and innovation in the workplace.
Despite their unique nature and structure, communities of practice will not thrive without the intervention of the management.
They have to be given support, encouragement, a place to meet and work together, and an opportunity to grow and thrive. By supporting these communities, companies are likely to achieve their goals.