Framework 94 Communities of Practice


It involves a group of people formally bound together by a shared experience, passion and common interest, like consultants who specialise in  strategic marketing. Their ways of meeting can vary from electronic through to face-to-face; formally or informally, etc. They

"...share their experiences and knowledge in free-flowing, creative ways that foster new approaches to problems..."

Etienne C Wenger, et al, 2000

These communities add value to organisations in  several ways

- help drive strategy (eg the World Bank use these communities to develop and expand its knowledge management strategy around lending and providing development expertise; a global source for high quality information on economic development to help eradicate poverty)

- start new lines of business (a community in a consulting firm developed marketing approaches for new products, ie

"... Community acted like a petrie dish for entrepreneurial insights that ultimately generated far more clients, shaped the firm strategy, and enhanced its reputation..."

Etienne C Wenger, et al, 2000

- solve problems quickly (owing to their networks, these communities know who to ask when they need help; they know how to ask the right questions to elicit the best answer)

- transfer best practices (in addition to working through the specific problems, they are ideal for the sharing and spreading of best practices across an organisation, eg Chrysler used them successfully in the early 1990s when it dismantled its functional departments to organise around car platforms like small cars, minivans, etc.. They formed tech clubs which comprised experts from different car platforms to share knowledge, etc.. It is claimed that these reduced R&D costs and car development cycle times by more than 50% (source: Etienee C Wenger et al, 2000). This was expanded to 11 areas of product development like body design, electronics, vehicle development, etc. They have documented this into an Engineering Book of Knowledge (a database that captures information on the compliance standards, supply specifications and best practices.)

- develop professional skills (effective learning means that you can learn from others, not just the experts, eg the apprentices learn from fellow journeymen, more advanced apprentices, master craftsman, etc. Even the experts can learn from others, including those less skilled)

- help recruit and retain talent (the prestige and status of belonging to certain communities attracts and retains talented people)

However, the way organisations are structured, especially hierarchical ones, makes it hard to build and sustain communities of practice and integrate them with the rest of an organisation, ie

"...the organic, spontaneous, and informal nature of communities of practice makes them resistant to supervision and interference......managers cannot mandate communities of practice......Successful managers bring the right people together, provide an infrastructure in which the community can thrive, and measure the communitys' value in non-traditional ways..."

Etienne C Wenger, et al, 2000

They need to be successfully nurtured as they are fundamentally informal and self-organise. They are well worth the effort.

Communities of practice have been around for a while, eg classical Greece, Middle Ages, etc. The major change is that they have moved from primarily for people working on their own, to existing within large organisation.

There is much diversity and flexibility within these communities. Some examples, organisations

- reorganising in a team-based structure, allowing staff with functional expertise to create communities as a way of maintaining connections with peers

- entering e-commerce for the first time

- changing business direction like auto manufacturers going into a  financing business or computer makers offering consulting services, etc.

NB They can exist within a business unit; stretch across divisional boundaries; exist across different companies or industries.

They are group of people whose passion for the topic energises them and they provide intellectual and social leadership.

"...Large communities often subdivide by geographic region or by subject matter to encourage people to take part actively..."

Etienne C Wenger, et al, 2000

Diagrammatical form of communities of practice





Comparing communities of practice with formal workgroups, project teams and informal networks

For example, how do communities differ from teams, ie

"...Teams are created by managers to complete specific projects. Managers select team memThisThisbers on the basis of their ability to contribute to the team's goals, and the group disbands once the project is finished. Communities of practice, on the other hand, are informal - they organise themselves, meaning they set up their own agenda and establish their own leadership. And membership of a community of practice is self-selected......people in such communities tend to know when and if they should join. They know if they have something to give and whether they are likely to take something away..."

Etienne C Wenger, et al, 2000

People can be invited to join based on their appropriateness for the group.


Steps in the establishing a community of practice

It is based on knowledge

i) management needs to understand what these communities are and how they work, ie self-selection, etc

ii) how to expose hidden knowledge

iii) understand informal structures that need managerial support

iv) integrate them within the organisation so their full potential can be realised

NB Within the knowledge economy, communities of practice are becoming more important

The strength of communities of practice are that they are self-perpetuating, ie they generate knowledge, they reinforce it and renew it.

In summary

- members need to feel personally connected to the group's expertise and interest, ie have the opportunity to solve problems, develop new ideas, and build relationships with peers who share a common passion

- they must have managers' support by demonstrated via infrastructure and resource provision (time, expertise, money, etc), integration into the business, reward and recognition systems - including participation in community of practice activities, etc

- challenge of using non-traditional methods to measure value, ie to handle complexity between activities, knowledge and performance; because the benefits from community activities are often intangible, delayed results often appear in unrelated parts of the workplace, eg

"..the idea we pursued at that meeting helped me persuade the customer to continue to buy our service......thanks to advice from the community, I got done in two days what normally takes me two weeks......I took a risk because I was confident I have the backing of my community - and it paid off..."

Etienne C Wenger, et al, 2000

Need to gather this anecdotal evidence systematically, ie capture the diversity and range of activities that communities are involved in

(for more detail, see other parts of the Knowledge Base)


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