Community of Practice
A Community of Practice (CoP) is the name used to describe a group of people who have a collective passion for something they do, and who decide to get together for the purpose of learning from each other to increase their understanding of, and expertise in, the subject.
Every organization has communities of experts, or those interested in a particular topic, but not all of them will formalize these communities into actual CoP. In fact, the term “Community of Practice” has only been used in the business world for the last 15 years or so, although the concept it refers to, the grouping together of people with a shared interest, is as old as business itself. However, the newfound interest in communities is based on a sound business proposition: that collective intelligence can be a powerful source of organizational knowledge, and can help organizations to improve their operational performance.
Communities of one form or another exist in every type of environment: in business; in government; on the Internet; in the education sector; and particularly in the social sector; and, they may be of a regional, national or even international nature. However, the CoP is somewhat different from other communities because it is usually more structured, and may even be formalized, and has a well-defined and understood business rationale for existing, although the original drivers for its creation may be of a purely personal nature. According to Etienne Wenger, who many consider to be the foremost authority on CoP, a CoP consists of three key elements: The Domain – the area of interest which members focus on, and which they have expertise in; The Community – the trust and relationships which get built between the members, and which help form them into a unique and self-supporting group; and, The Practice – the outcomes of the inter-actions between the group, which are then built into a number of shareable resources, such as: tools; techniques; experiences; best practices; and, lessons learnt.
Of course there are many variations on a theme where CoP are concerned. They will invariably be of different sizes, some small, some large, but all focused on one specific domain. Equally, their composition, and even geographic location, will vary enormously, with some being contained within one organization, or even business unit, while some may contain members from a variety of organizations and in a variety of locations around the world. Some CoP will be high on the radar of their organization, given senior management attention and possibly funding, while others may be completely under the organizational radar and left to their own devices to manage as best they can. However, all CoP have one common component, and that is they exist because their members are prepared to take on the responsibility for managing their own individual knowledge needs, while at the same time creating an environment for the sharing and re-use of knowledge, both individually as well as organizationally.
Successful CoP are those which have a clear understanding of the purpose for their existence, as well as having a basic operational infrastructure which will support the community and enable it to be most effective. One of the primary elements of this operational infrastructure is that of having pre-defined set of roles and responsibilities which will enable the community to function effectively and which will ensure it is well positioned to be a productive environment for its members. Among these roles and responsibilities are the following (the names that people may use for these roles will vary, but the actual responsibilities themselves should be consistent in any CoP, whatever they call the role):
The Functional Sponsor – who acts as the community’s organizational champion; The Community Convener – who energizes and connects the community and serves as a subject expert in the domain; Community Members – whoensure new knowledge is captured and shared in the community; The Core Group – who ensure community sustainability in support of members knowledge needs; The Group Facilitator –who helps establish a collaborative mindset in the community and a working group-dynamic; The Logistics Coordinator –who provides functional support and coordination services.
Once these roles are put in place, any CoP should be ready to operate efficiently and productively, and produce an operational payback to the host organization. In particular, CoP members (and the wider organization) will expand their personal and organizational competence and benefit from the following CoP outputs:
- The development of new knowledge.
- The finding of solutions to day-to-day work issues and problems.
- The transferring of beneficial knowledge, such as successful work practices
- The increase in sharing and collaboration opportunities.
- The collection and promotion of individual and organizational knowledge.
Finally, for those who would like to study the dynamics of a CoP in a little more detail, this URL http://www.eprep.org/projets/palette/Emergence_ePrep_CoP_Paper.pdf will connect them to a case study of a CoP, where they can get a good idea of what works and why, and what the individual and organizational pay-back from creating a CoP can be. This case study looks at the emergence of a CoP in the higher education domain in France.