What Do Communities of Practice Look Like in Organisations
Here’s a bird’s eye view on what communities of practice look like in action if you’re going to initiate one for your company.
Being someone who has an executive position, you’ve probably joined several clubs, communities, and networking opportunities before. Having a community of practice in your company is similar to that. The difference is barely noticeable except that a CoP is nurtured within your company and hosted with a different purpose and context.
The early proponents of CoPs believe that learning takes place in a social context. This is the very principle that serves as the basic foundation of communities of practice.
For companies to remain competitive in the market, learning is one of the key foundations to be ahead of the curve.
Your company probably invest in hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in research and data gathering to be ahead of the game.
However, many companies fail to utilise an innovation-generating asset that doesn’t require a hefty investment – the hidden genius within your workforce. This is how you can take advantage of CoPs.
Communities of practice (CoP) is just among the many learning frameworks that organisations use today. What makes it unique is that it provides a rather informal, spontaneous flow of knowledge, and sharing among the employees.
Because there is a voluntary desire to learn and share knowledge, CoPs are a very effective tool for learning.
So effective that leading companies like the World Bank, American Management System (AMS), and the Hewlett-Packard (HP) have all benefited from it in many different ways.
How Should Communities of Practice Look Like?
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for what they know and interact regularly so they could learn how to do it better.
This simple definition by Wenger gives us a clear idea of what CoPs look like. From this definition, we derive three important points:
CoPs are not just clubs or a mere network of people. There must be something that binds members together, and that is their common interest.
It doesn’t have to be something deemed as “expertise” outside the community, rather a collective competence. For example, a company may have communities focused on human resource, product development, market study, and so on.
They could also have communities for sports and hobbies that promote socialisation and personal development.
There has to be a community
One of the key characteristics of CoPs is the ongoing activities and discussions which are designed by members so they can help each other and share information relevant to their shared domain or passion, which all highlight “social interaction”.
Communities of practice don’t actually work together on a daily basis. They interact during their free time inside the premises of the company, or at studios or cafes.
Members of a CoP are practitioners who have a shared repertoire of resources – tools, experiences, stories, goals and problems. They focus on a substantive topic, not just building relationships.
Thus, knowledge sharing and interaction exist because participants find value from them.
In a company, for example, employees take care of projects in their respective teams, in their networks, they cultivate relationships, and in their CoPs, they gain knowledge that let them do such other tasks.
In addition to these, communities of practice also have the following unique characteristics:
Commitment to learn
The main reason why communities of practice are formed is that of the members’ desire to learn. They come together voluntarily because they all are hungry for knowledge.
There are many ways, tools and strategies that a CoP can explore to drive learning and ensure that the knowledge is shared and preserved. They could pull out information from their own experiences, roles, tasks performed in the past, or even external sources.
Commitment to interact regularly
Regardless of the approach or platform, communities of practice are committed to interacting with each other regularly. In addition to meetings, they may also hold events for socialisation.
Basic Structure of a Community of Practice
The exact structure of communities of practice varies among organisations. However, they all follow a more generalised structure, consisting of three components:
The Core Group
The core group is composed of the people who have a very good understanding of the domain.
They are considered community leaders because they are the ones who decide on the agenda or topics to be discussed during interactions. They also set the direction of meetings and activities.
They basically are the backbone of a community of practice. They provide secretarial support as necessary, such as keeping records of the members, experts to contact, etc.
The core group is widely respected by all members of the community because of their deep knowledge about the domain and their contributions.
The Inner Circle
These are the community members in general. They have a more informal structure, meeting less often.
They participate in activities and discussions, actively bringing their concerns, knowledge and problems to the community. They may tap the core group from time to time, as necessary.
The Outer Circle
These are the interested members, readers and contributors in a loose network. They provide support to the community in various ways (sharing resources) as they know that the knowledge obtained through the CoP will benefit the organisation as a whole.
Communities develop their practice through various activities.
Members obtain and share knowledge by trying to solve problems, requesting information, seeking experience (relatable experience with other members), validation, discussing developments, coordinating with other practitioners, and mapping knowledge and identifying gaps.
Unlike typical project teams in an organisation, communities of practice don’t get dissolved once they deliver a set of specific output. They grow and evolve, and can last as long as the members are still engaged.
Despite having a less formal structure (far from the hierarchical nature of organisations), CoPs tend to have creative approaches to problems. This makes them a valuable resource for any organisation.
It is important to know that communities of practice are not called that in your company. They could be created under various names, such as learning networks or thematic clubs.
They also come in a variety of forms. Some meet face to face, most interact online. Some CoPs are very large, others only have the core group and a few inner circles.
Some communities are local, some are composed of members from various parts of the world.
And as long as your CoP possesses the key elements mentioned above, your imagination is the limit as to how it should look like. You can fashion it into a semi-toastmaster club or even a debating team. It’s all up to you.
Communities of practice have existed for decades and have proven to be of great value to many organisations, particularly in the business world.
Being a key driver of learning, nurturing these communities by providing them with support and resources can enable them to thrive and deliver impactful results for your company.