The community of practice (CoP) is perhaps the most common type of (online) community. In a CoP colleagues come together to share best practices with each other. Medieval guilds, professional associations and in some instances, school classes are examples of communities of practice.

The community, the practice and the knowledge domain.

Etienne Wenger  is known worldwide as one of the experts in the area of communities of practice. He was the first to come up with a good definition. According to him, every CoP has a community, a practice and a knowledge domain. The ‘community’ speaks for itself and means that members share experiences and build relationships in order to learn from, and with each other. The ‘practice’ states that members from the community are real practitioners from a specific field. As such they develop a shared repertoire of experiences, stories, tools, guidelines and procedures. From here they develop a collective practice. The ‘knowledge domain’ defines the community. Members are characterized by comparable competenties in their field. These three factors continually influence each other. Experiences from the practice provide for shifts in the domain. These shifts in the domain have effects on the community and so forth.         

Knowledge management

Communities of practice have soared in growth with knowledge management in organizations. CoPs fill a crucial role in managing knowledge, because practice and knowledge are not separate from one another.  We learn by doing and research shows that 90% of what we learn originates from informal activity (interactions with others, experience from our practice). Only 10% comes from formal processes (studying). Organisations can facilitate this 90% with a tool such as a CoP.

Much of the knowledge in an organisation is not directly accessible, because it sits in the heads of colleagues as unconscious knowledge (tacit knowledge). Because participants of CoPs are ‘forced’ to make their experiences explicit, this knowledge becomes available. In (online) discussions, stories and wikis, you can discover how you do the work (‘tacit knowledge’).

Examples of communities of practice

CoP’s can be huge (hundreds of members), but they can also consist of a group of 10-20 people. In addition, they can be only online or only offline, but can also exist in a variety of hybrids variants.

Communicatierijk [dutch] is a community meant for communication professional who work in the government. KenMe [dutch] is a community for client managers. This community was established by the Professional Association for Client Managers (BVK) to initiate exchanges between peers. HAweb [dutch] is a community especially for doctors. In the image below you can what sort of activity you see in communities of practice.  

Activity in a community of practice.

Informal

A CoP is more informal than a team or department. Participation of a CoP is not based on function or title, but on an affinity en involvement in the knowledge domain. Because members continue to redefine the domain and practice, the edges of the community of practice are much more porous than a team. Because communities are organic, living things they have to be approached differently to teams. The community manager has the role of constantly coordinating the needs of the community with the needs of organisation. Alongside this they make sure social processes don’t take over and that any knowledge developed is relevant for the organisation.

Role of the community of practice within the organisation

As stated earlier, the CoP fills an important role in managing knowledge and supporting continual learning within the organisation. Alongside this, it can also be used as an instrument for innovation. The investigative nature of the CoP ensures that the members are actively engaged in the latest developments in their discipline. The organisation always then stays up to date too. Communities of practice whose membership covers numerous teams and departments, also make sure people don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time. An approach which works in team A, can be directly utilised by team B. Finally, also importantly: Communities of practice support social capital.   

Success factors for your community of practice.

To guarantee the success of their community of practice, the organisation can facilitate the following activities:

  1. Documentation, guidelines and guidance for CoPs. A good example is her from the  World Bank.
  2. Align the CoP agenda with the organisational goals.
  3. Make tools available such as social intranet with the possibility of discussions, blogs, realtime chat etc.
  4. Development and appoint community managers.
  5. Ensure that the community remains focused on the latest developments in the respective discipline.   
  6. Recognize it’s value by offering time and rewards or recognition for employee participation.
Author

Peter Staal

Community Building Consultant at Bind

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