Launching and Supporting Communities of Practice

Communities of practice have joined cross-functional teams, customer- or product-focused business units and work groups as dynamic and innovative organizational forms that can be used to collect and disseminate ideas and information throughout organizations.   Wenger and Snyder defined and illustrated communities of practice as being “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise—engineers engaged in deep-water drilling, for example, consultants who specialize in strategic marketing or frontline managers in charge of check processing at a large commercial bank”.   In general, a community of practice can be viewed as a group of professionals working in a common field who come together on a relatively informal basis to gather and share information, pass on knowledge and contribute to the development of their field of expertise.  The end product of this process, which has become easier to achieve due to the development of communications technologies, is innovative solutions that can be deployed and commercialized within the formal organizations where the community members work.

While communities of practice thrive relatively autonomously on the individual passions of their members, something which cannot be artificially created or maintained, communities nonetheless need some level of support and nurturing from their organizations and should adopt certain key operational features such as the following:

  • In general, the members of a community of practice select and organize themselves based on shared passion, commitment and identification with the expertise of the membership; however, even though some of the members may already be communicating and sharing informally through social networks, it is often necessary for their organizations to establish processes that help support the formation and launch of new communities. For example, some organizations may hire consultants with experienced in identifying, designing and working with networks and communities and practice.
  • Communities are often launched through a series of initial meetings and interviews with prospective members that serve as the foundation for the development of plans for the activities of the community. At this stage it is important to reach out across organizational and geographic boundaries to broaden the scope of the community members and, at the same time, expand the various points of views that will be represented within the community.
  • Undoubtedly the members of the community will share a range of common interests; however, in order to be effective the members must define the domain of the community, taking care to be sure that it is not too broad and thus not immediately applicable to the day-to-day tasks that must be carried out in the individual practices of the members.
  • While members are drawn to communities of practice as vehicles for sharing and acquiring existing knowledge, the overall goals of the community should be to discover new knowledge and invent new practices and innovative solutions to problems encountered in practice. Communities of practice should also seek to develop a collective and strategic voice that drives change within their organizations.
  • Absence of hierarchy, with the status of each member being based on expertise and contribution to the development of leading ideas rather than any formal position or authority, is a hallmark of communities of practice; however, there must be a core or nucleus of people who assume responsibility for creating and sustaining the community’s collective memory, often with technical and administrative support provided by the organization.
  • Communities of practice should develop and rely on both formal and informal processes for building and exchanging knowledge and skills development and learning. Organizations should consider providing communities with support teams that can help with development of the communities, coordinate a regular schedule of community events such as conferences, set up and maintain community libraries and provide technical support.
  • Senior executives should be prepared to invest time and money to launch the communities and integrate them into the organization in ways that will allow them to have the most positive impact. Organizations should serious consider providing their new communities of practice with official sponsors composed of small groups of senior managers and should ensure that time spent participating in communities is acknowledged as having value to the organization.  Organizations often taken steps to recognize the efforts of community members and emphasize that participation in communities is a privilege that carries both status and obligations.
  • While members will undoubtedly enjoy exchanging information, anecdotes, tips and grievances with their colleagues, the value of their participation in the community lies in enhancing their ability to achieve both individual and collective goals should be assessed. Improvements in individual skills are relatively easy to measure; however, members also want to see that these improvements are having a positive impact on their relationship with the organization.
  • Like any initiative that calls for investment of organizational resources, it is necessary to determine the value of nurturing communities of practices. The problem, of course, is that all of the benefits of the communities are generally not observed in the communities themselves but in the actions of the members as they engage in their practices in their individual groups and teams throughout the organization.  Anecdotal evidence of the diversity and range of activities engaged in by the communities should be systematically gathered and organized into a database and published in newsletters and reports.  An organized database of evidence makes it easier to conduct analyses that can be turned into more traditional performance measures, such as quantifying savings enjoyed by the organization and/or increased revenues and identifying ways in which organizations are changing their processes and practices.
  • A community of practice should last only as long as there is interest in maintaining the group and the members believe they have something to contribute and something to learn from remaining connected. Core members of the community should monitor the level of interest and activity and ensure that if and when the community is no longer sustainable that the artifacts of the knowledge created within the community are collected, organized and stored so that they can still be accessed when necessary.

Sources: E. Wenger and W. Snyder, “Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier”, Harvard Business Review (January-February 2000), 139, https://hbr.org/2000/01/communities-of-practice-the-organizational-frontier; A. Griffeths and J. Petrick, “Corporate architectures for sustainability”, International Journal of Operations and Production Management, 21(12) (2001), 1573; and E. and B. Wenger-Trayner, Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction (April 15, 2015).

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Alan Gutterman is the Founding Director of the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Project and more materials on organizational design are available from the Project by clicking here.

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