The term “Communities of Practice” (CoP) was first mentioned by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991. Both describe CoP as “… 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.” (Etienne Wenger, www.evenger.com, June 2006). The three main characteristics of CoP are:
- Domain: A CoP has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest (e.g. radiologists, Star Trek fans, middle school history teachers, Seahawks football fans, etc.); it’s not just a network of people or club of friends. Membership implies a commitment to the domain.
- Practice: A necessary component is that members of a specific domain interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, and share information with each other. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other. In this way, merely sharing the same job does not necessitate a CoP. A static website on hunting in itself is not a community of practice. There needs to be people who interact and learn together in order for a CoP to be formed. Note that members do not necessarily work together daily, however. Wenger points to the example of Impressionist painters who sometimes met in cafes to discuss their painting styles. He indicates that even though these men normally painted alone, these kinds of interactions were essential to making them a CoP.
- Community: A CoP is not just people who have an interest in something (e.g. sports or agriculture practices). The third requirement for a CoP is that the members are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources which can include stories, helpful tools, experiences, stories, ways of handling typical problems, etc. This kind of interaction needs to be developed over time. A conversation with a random stranger who happens to be an expert on a subject matter that interests you does not in itself make a CoP. Informal conversations held by people of the same profession (e.g. office assistants or graduate students) help people share and develop a set of cases and stories that can become a shared repertoire for their practice, whether they realize it or not. (Source: Learning Theories)
In my recent blogs about recommendations and success factors for a comprehensive Knowledge Management Strategy (KM), I discussed how to build and implement KM methodologies. When considering the three key characteristics of CoP (domain, practice, community) there is a natural fit between both, or being more precisely an interdependency.
Obviously, your CoP are creating tons of great content and Best Practices that might be also relevant for other parts of the organization, e.g. Sales, Marketing or Product Management.
To ensure these outcomes and knowledge is shared beyond the borders of a respective CoP, integrate these groups at an early stage of your KM infrastructure discussion. Make sure collaboration across the organization is enabled; people outside the CoP are able to contribute, comment and provide feedback on content.