Communities of Practice

Knowledge management is a key enabler for quality, and should firmly be part of our standards of practice and competencies. There is a host of practices, and one tool that should be in our toolboxes as quality professionals is the Community of Practice (COP).

What is a Community of Practice?

Wenger, Trayner, and de Laat (2011) defined a Community of Practice as a “learning partnership among people who find it useful to learn from and with each other about a particular domain. They use each other’s experience of practice as a learning resource.” Etienne Wagner is the theoretical origin of the idea of a Community of Practice, as well as a great deal of the subsequent development of the concept.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better. As such, they are a great tool for continuous improvement.

These communities can be defined by disciplines, by problems, or by situations. They can be internal or external. A group of deviation investigators who want to perform better investigations, contamination control experts sharing across sites, the list is probably endless for whenever there is a shared problem to be solved.

The idea is to enable practitioners to manage knowledge. Practitioners have a special connection with each other because they share actual experiences. They understand each other’s stories, difficulties, and insights. This allows them to learn from each other and build on each other’s expertise.

There are three fundamental characteristics of communities:

  • Domain: the area of knowledge that brings the community together, gives it its identity, and defines the key issues that members need to address. A community of practice is not just a personal network: it is about something. Its identity is defined not just by a task, as it would be for a team, but by an “area” of knowledge that needs to be explored and developed.
  • Community: the group of people for whom the domain is relevant, the quality of the relationships among members, and the definition of the boundary between the inside and the outside. A community of practice is not just a Web site or a library; it involves people who interact and who develop relationships that enable them to address problems and share knowledge.
  • Practice: the body of knowledge, methods, tools, stories, cases, documents, which members share and develop together. A community of practice is not merely a community of interest. It brings together practitioners who are involved in doing something. Over time, they accumulate practical knowledge in their domain, which makes a difference to their ability to act individually and collectively.

The combination of domain, community, and practice is what enables communities of practice to manage knowledge. Domain provides a common focus; community builds relationships that enable collective learning; and practice anchors the learning in what people do. Cultivating communities of practice requires paying attention to all three elements.

Communities of Practice are different than workgroups or project teams.

What’s the purpose?Who belongs?What holds it together?How long does it last?
Community of PracticeTo develop members’ capabilities. To build and exchange knowledgeMembers who share domain and communityCommitment from the organization. Identification with the group’s expertise. PassionAs long as there is interest in maintaining the group
Formal work groupTo deliver a product or serviceEveryone who reports to the group’s managerJob requirements and common goalsUntil the next reorganization
Project teamTo accomplish a specific taskEmployee’s assigned by managementThe project’s milestones and goalsUntil the project has been completed
Informal networkTo collect and pass on business informationFriends and business acquantaincesMutual needsAs long as people have a reason to connect
Types of organizing blocks

Establishing a Community of Practice

Sponsorship

For a Community of Practice to thrive it is crucial for the organization to provide adequate
sponsorship. Sponsorship are those leaders who sees that a community can deliver value and therefore makes sure that the community has the resources it needs to function and that its ideas and proposals find their way into the organization. While there is often one specific sponsor, it is more useful to think about the sponsorship structure that enables the communities to thrive and have an impact on the performance of the organization. This includes high-level executive sponsorship as well as the sponsorship of line managers who control the time usage of employees. The role of sponsorship includes:

  • Translating strategic imperatives into a knowledge-centric vision of the organization
  • Legitimizing the work of communities in terms of strategic priorities
  • Channeling appropriate resources to ensure sustained success
  • Giving a voice to the insights and proposals of communities so they affect the way business is conducted
  • Negotiating accountability between line operations and communities (e.g., who decides which “best practices” to adopt)

Support Structure

Communities of Practice need organizational support to function. This support includes:

  • A few explicit roles, some of which are recognized by the formal organization and resourced with dedicated time
  • Direct resources for the nurturing of the community infrastructure including meeting places, travel funds, and money for specific projects
  • Technological infrastructure that enables members to communicate regularly and to accumulate documents

It pays when you use communities of practice in a systematic way to put together a small “support team” of internal
consultants who provide logistic and process advice for communities, including coaching community leaders, educational activities to raise awareness and skills, facilitation services, communication with management, and
coordination across the various community of practices. But this is certainly not needed.

Process Owners and Communities of Practice go hand-in-hand. Often it is either the Process Owner in a governance or organizing role; or the community of practice is made up of process owners across the network.

Recognition Structure

Communities of Practice allows its participants to build reputation, a crucial asset in the knowledge economy. Such reputation building depends on both peer and organizational recognition.

  • Peer recognition: community-based feedback and acknowledgement mechanisms that celebrate community participation
  • Organizational recognition: rubric in performance appraisal for community contributions and career paths for people who take on community leadership

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