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Communities of Practice

Ÿ What is Communities of Practice? 

Origin: Dr. Etienne Wenger and his team of social scientists were one of the early pioneers to establish the concept of Communities of Practice (COPs) through their study on apprenticeship as a learning model. They found that complex set of social relationships in apprenticeship that enabled learning effectively and named them Communities of Practice. COPs became one of the central focuses of knowledge management after their first book on COPs, Communities of Practice –Learning, Meaning, and Identity, was published in 1998. Since then, COPs have been played an important role in the context of KM especially for sharing common knowledge beyond formal divisions/departments, and, indeed, as a tool to break down the barriers of knowledge flow across organizations.


Definition: COPs are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. In the context of knowledge management, COPs are formed –intentionally or spontaneously- to share and create common skills, knowledge and expertise among employees.


Characteristics: COPs can exist in a division or department in an organization, across departments in an organization, or beyond boundaries of multiple organizations, depending upon its objective. COPs are usually for sharing and developing common skills, knowledge and expertise such as group of engineers working on similar problems, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, or a gathering of first-time managers helping each other. There are also some COPs that focus on generating new knowledge and innovation. The size of COPs varies from 2-3 people to thousands of people, and members of expertise could be either homogeneous or heterogeneous. For example, a COP for effective/efficient problem solving on a certain technological domain would have engineers in the same area, whereas a COP for improving quality of a certain product would have members from various areas such as developers, marketers, and maintenance staff. The following three elements are crucial when one designs COPs.


ü  The domain: A community of practice is not merely a club of friends or a network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. The domain is not necessarily something recognized as "expertise" outside the community. They value their collective competence and learn from each other, even though few people outside the group may value or even recognize their expertise.

ü  The community: In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. A Platform that enables such activities is essential for a COP. It is based upon relationship of trust among members that encourage frequent interactions to share and develop common knowledge.

ü  The practice: COPs are not merely a community of interest--people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction.


It is the combination of these three elements that constitutes a community of practice. And it is by developing these three elements in parallel that one cultivates such a community.


Ÿ Why COPs for SMEs?

COPs could have various reasons for SMEs to apply, but the simplest and strongest reason is probably to effectively share and develop skills and knowledge among employees without huge investment, if COPs are designed well. As described in the next chapter, COPs usually does not require significant investment; you can form a COP as long as you have a certain domain and people who have passion on the domain. This is quite appealing for SMEs who usually cannot afford expensive skill development programs for employees. Many companies have COPs in which the company encourage participants help each other; for instance, one raises his/her facing problem and then another advises or shares his/her own experience. Other COPs merely give opportunities to exchange best-practices on a common subject.

In addition, relationship of trust among employees nurtured through COPs would contribute increase employee’s satisfaction and eventually retain valuable workforce that are often key issues for SMEs. You can even form COPs to share common skills and knowledge across your company: among workers at various SMEs to create Knowledge Cluster. Sometimes, COPs are also formed for accelerating innovation. In this case, people from various backgrounds get together to discuss and experiment certain ideas.


Ÿ How to nurture COPs?

Because COPs are essentially gathering of people, vigor among COP particiapnts is very important. However, we cannot force people actively involve or design active communities artificially, indeed. As a practical matter, the largest reason COPs fail is lack of vigor to attract and keep participants actively involved. Many successful COPs, instead, nurture the seedbed of activities through artful and flexible design although COPs themselves are spontaneous and organic. The following step shows basic principles of designing and sustaining active COPs.


1.      Find opportunities around strong needs:
COPs usually work well when strong need for sharing common interest/passion/skills/knowledge exists: for example, common technological expertise among maintenance engineers, or success/failure experiences of designing a common machine among designers. You have to find such key opportunities to connect people and share knowledge that can make a difference. In other words, this is pre-setting of the domain of the COP that attracts people with the common interest/needs.

2.      Invite passionate people and take in their thoughts:
To design a good COP, you need key people (2-3 are quite enough to start) who play a role of steward in the COP. He or she is usually very passionate (and often knowledgeable) on the subject that is a central focus of the COP. Then you discuss the COP design with them with the following focuses:

- What is the strategic context of the COP?

- What is the key knowledge to share and create?

- Who are potential participants benefiting from and contributing to the COP?

- What are key activities that sustain vigor of the COP?

- Where can community members physically (and virtually) interact?

- What are key values for both the organization and participants?

These key questions are closely connected to the three elements of COPs: domain, community, and activities.

3.      Launch the COP with socializing events:
Development of any COP always start at people’s social relationship. If you don’t build trust relationship among participants, the COP will not work even it has rationale for sharing common knowledge. One easy way is to use existing social network, which is often becomes a core group of the COP, and expand it through face-to-face meeting.

4.      Create results through activities and share the stories:
After launching the COP, you need key activities that sustain vigor as well as produce results of the community. The activities vary: could be codifying tacit key knowledge shared among veteran workers or sharing good experience through storytelling sessions. The important part is you need to establish the first small result from the COP that can prove the value of the COP. Then you can expand the activities and attract more people by telling the success story.


Ÿ  Key Enablers

Key enablers of COPs depend upon the three elements of COPs: domain, community, and activities. For instance, if one of the key activities is to share success/failure real experience among engineers across various SMEs, probably passionate stewards and physical space for gathering together become very important. If you want to share daily activities among sales managers in different branches, you may need collaborative virtual workspaces. The followings are distinctive enablers for COPs.

- Stewards: Key people who have passionate for the area and are willing to take care of the COP are the most important component of any COPs.

- Incentives: In general, you do not need artificial incentive such as money or promotion. Instead, spontaneous motivation for continuous participation is essentially needed to sustain active COPs. Answers to problems participants face, growth opportunities, or just intellectual fun would be important.

- Physical/virtual spaces: Since COPs are social, they need spaces where members can interact. It does not necessarily mean that COPs require exclusive rooms. It could be even virtual space if it can meet participants’ needs. Important aspect is that the center of COPs is human relationship built upon trust, and COPs require spaces where they can nurture such relationship.

- Information Technology: Some COPs do not require any IT, whereas IT is key platform to share knowledge and do key activities for other COPs. Again, it depends on the three elements of COPs, domain, community, and activities.

- Management’s support: If a COP has strong strategic purposes for an organization, management’s support is an important enabler. The support not only allows participants to understand the importance of COP activities but gives sufficient resources. If a COP has more spontaneous nature, too strong management support sometimes even harms motivation of members as they might think it is too controlled. In this case, the best support from management would be “hidden sponsorship” that accepts activities of COPs.

Here is a short video from the National Association of Agricultural Educators and it explains what a Community of Practice means for them. But the principles they explain will apply to any COP.

YouTube Video