Filed under: Knowledge management
Over the last few decades, knowledge management has produced many theories and methodologies. Of these, communities of practice (CoPs) are perhaps the most successful and effective. They connect staff, share knowledge, and help to break silos.
To achieve these benefits, however, communities of practice must be tackled in a structured and well-resourced way; they are much more than just a few discussion spaces in a collaboration or social tool!
This article explores the structure and purpose of communities of practice, and how to make the most of them in today’s organisations.
What is a community of practice?
A community of practice (CoP) is a gathering of people who share a common work activity (their ‘practice’), or a shared problem. They choose to come together to share knowledge, solve problems, and to generate new knowledge resources.
What makes CoPs different from any other group using collaboration and social tools is their structure, purpose and behaviours.
Note that in addition to communities of practice that focus on work-related topics, there are also looser communities of interest. These can be on any topic, from jogging to cooking and everything in between. They don’t have a formal structure, and are not generally considered as a ‘work tool’ by organisations.
When most people talk of ‘communities’ in social tools such as Yammer, they’re actually referring to communities of interest. This doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable in their own right — particularly to support staff engagement objectives — but they won’t deliver the same business benefits.
A real community of practice
One of the very early winners of Step Two’s yearly Awards was Perkins Eastman, for what they called their ‘practice area communities’ (PACs). A successful architectural firm headquartered in New York, Perkins Eastman worked across multiple offices and on many different projects.
As they worked in small teams, but sometimes on similar projects, there was a clear need to uncover and share best practices. This was achieved via the PACs, which in addition to fostering discussions, also helped to create reusable assets, such as the following:
Perkins Eastman found the PACs to be highly effective, as have other similar firms across all types of professional services. Hear directly from the Perkins Eastman team (apologies in advance for the cheesy music!):
Making the most of CoPs
Communities of practice deliver benefits by adding a layer of structure, expectations and behaviours on top of general discussions in collaboration and social tools.
Over time, a set of best practices have emerged.
- Define a clear purpose for the CoP, typically relating to the formalisation of knowledge in a specific field.
- Set expectations that the community will gather and surface knowledge over its lifetime, beyond just supporting questions and discussions.
- Encourage broad membership, to ensure that there are sufficient numbers for long-term sustainability.
- Assign a community leader, who has responsibility for fostering and growing participation and knowledge sharing. (See Enterprise collaboration needs community management for more on this.)
- Foster a sense of community, ideally by kicking off the CoP with a face-to-face gathering to quickly build shared trust.
- Acknowledge multiple levels of participation, from a core group of highly active members to a majority of listeners and learners.
- Give staff time to participate in the CoP, and ensure that managers and leaders are comfortable with their staff being community members.
- Provide technology support, such as collaboration and social tools (noting that each community may require different tools).
- Ensure visibility of the CoP to the wider organisation, so staff know who to contact if they have questions (or where to go if they want to join the community).
- Sustain communities beyond the initial launch, to enable them to mature and grow over time.
Formalise communities of practice
The greatest benefits are achieved when communities of practice are baked into formal ways of working within organisations. This helps them to be sustainable over a long period of time, ensures they are adequately resourced, and encourages broad participation.
Aspects to consider:
- Provide senior leader endorsement of communities of practice, throughout their life, not just when they are initially established.
- Make a team responsible for managing CoPs at an organisational level, including overall community management (this often sits in either a collaboration or KM team).
- Include CoPs within broader KM strategies, often as a central element of knowledge sharing practices.
- Allocate corporate funding to ongoing growth and refinement of communities of practice.
- Set the expectation that most staff should be members of at least one CoP relating to their work (this is crucial in knowledge-centric organisations such as professional services firms).
Knowledge sharing that works!
There is now over a decade of experience with communities of practice to demonstrate that they work in real organisations. More than just another KM theory, they’ve been shown to effectively create and share knowledge, and to improve how organisations work.
Take the next step beyond unfocused collaboration and social tools, and formalise communities of practice to start delivering much-needed knowledge management benefits.