More and more, we’ve found that many of our clients are exploring the idea of creating communities of practice in their organizations. With an emphasis on dialogue, sharing, and flexibility, these new groups provide more informal communications tools that help share information across traditional hierarchies.
But what is a community of practice?
A community of practice is a group of people who share concerns or interests, and who build their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis. They’re different from a traditional “community” or “community of interest”, as a community of practice implies the idea of a shared practice. A community of practice is continually renegotiated by its members, creating a constantly evolving dialogue, and adaptive quality that allows members to organically contribute their ideas and change priorities on an ongoing basis.
If you’re interested in starting your own community of practice, here are a few core foundational areas you should keep in mind:
Develop shared understanding: Communities of practice are “nodes for the exchange and interpretation of information.” Employees participate in the creation of shared meaning around key priority concepts and goals, magnifying critical information and reducing the potential for misalignment or disconnects in day-to-day operations. Shared meaning is created over time through the collaborative nature of the community of practice.
Treat knowledge as an asset: Developing the capacity to both create and keep knowledge needs to be encouraged in a community of practice. The group is defined by knowledge rather than by a specific task at hand. When certain tasks and processes are standardized, they are developed in direct response to the needs and circumstances of the group. Knowledge is also kept in “living” ways, through the members of the group, unlike a static database.
Use social participation & collaboration: A primary focus in communities of practice is learning as “social participation”, meaning that individuals are active participants in the social community, and construct their shared identity through the community. Individuals also work to construct the identity of the community over time with a willingness to share and learn. Members have a common interest in a subject area and collaborate over an extended period of time, sharing ideas and strategies, determining solutions, and building innovation.
Maintain permeability: Flexibility lets others learn from those in the community of practice outside of traditional hierarchies, and allows for existing members to continually review the needs of the group with a fluid timeline. The involvement of those in the community can vary in different degrees depending on needs. This permeable structure creates more opportunity for learning, as new members bring in new insights, and “core members” learn from the new lens of other participants.
Focus on integrity and respect. The values of integrity and respect in a community of practice should be reflected in day-to-day behaviours. There is a culture of openness and trust in which employees feel respected through the authenticity of the members of the group. Employees trust their colleagues, leaders, and the organization, generating goodwill and underpinning commitment. This is a vital business outcome, as trust is a pre-condition for collaboration.
When thinking of developing a community of practice, make sure that members of the community have the support of the organization and are legitimized through the actual experience of being in a community of practice. The organization cannot dismiss or impede these communities, but instead should strive to leverage them. And when properly leveraged, the outcomes can be incredibly successful!