Communities of Practice

What is a community of practice?

Communities of practice have been much on our minds over the last 12 months, and in the course of our own investigations and experiences, we’ve come across information we think might be useful to others.  As a starting point, we want to share some of the research we’ve come across into the world of communities of practice.

 “Communities of practice 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.” 

We’ve drawn on the work of Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner for much of our understanding:

Wenger – Trayner talk about 3 characteristics: 

1.    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.(You could belong to the same network as someone and never know it.) The domain is not necessarily something recognized as “expertise” outside the community. A youth gang may have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with their domain: surviving on the street and maintaining some kind of identity they can live with. They value their collective competence and learn from each other, even though few people outside the group may value or even recognize their expertise.

2.    The community: In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other; they care about their standing with each other. A website in itself is not a community of practice. Having the same job or the same title does not make for a community of practice unless members interact and learn together. The claims processors in a large insurance company or students in American high schools may have much in common, yet unless they interact and learn together, they do not form a community of practice. But members of a community of practice do not necessarily work together on a daily basis. The Impressionists, for instance, used to meet in cafes and studios to discuss the style of painting they were inventing together. These interactions were essential to making them a community of practice even though they often painted alone.

3.    The practice: A community of practice is 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. A good conversation with a stranger on an airplane may give you all sorts of interesting insights, but it does not in itself make for a community of practice. The development of a shared practice may be more or less self-conscious. The “windshield wipers” engineers at an auto manufacturer make a concerted effort to collect and document the tricks and lessons they have learned into a knowledge base. By contrast, nurses who meet regularly for lunch in a hospital cafeteria may not realize that their lunch discussions are one of their main sources of knowledge about how to care for patients. Still, in the course of all these conversations, they have developed a set of stories and cases that have become a shared repertoire for their practice.

Why do we think they are interesting?

 Our view is that communities of practice could be important because:

  •  Working more and more in a “knowledge economy” where what your people know will determine how successful your organization will be

  • People learn far more and far more frequently informally rather than formally

  • Collaboration and mutual support increase motivation and morale

It’s worth noting the difference between networks and a community (Wenger – Trayner)

The network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants, viewed as a set of nodes and links, with its affordances for information flows and helpful linkages.

The community aspect refers to the development of a shared identity around a topic that represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.

So we can all be part of great networks, but they might not function as communities of practice.

 What are the first steps to setting one up?

 Communities develop their practice through a variety of activities. The following are a few typical examples:

  • Problem solving

  • Requests for information

  • Seeking experience

  • Reusing assets

  • Co-ordination and synergy

  • Growing confidence

  • Discussing developments

  • Visits

  • Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps

So how can you set up or organise communities of practice?

You cannot start a community by yourself. In fact you cannot start a community at all, to be quite honest about it. The only people who can form a community are the members themselves as a collectivity. But this does not mean that you cannot do anything if you see the need for a community that does not exist yet.

The first step is to have a series of conversations with potential members. What issues and challenges are they facing? Do they interact with others facing similar issues and challenges? Do they think it would help to make such interactions more sustained and systematic?

The second step, which often happens in the context of the first one, is to find some potential members who are willing to join you in your vision of a community of practice and to invest their own identities as practitioners in making this happen.

The third step, assuming the first two have yielded positive results, is to engage a dedicated core group from the second step in designing a process by which the community can get going. Often this will entail organizing a launch event. But in some cases, it could just entail starting working on an issue and letting the process attract others. The level of visibility of the launch process will depend on the degree to which it can build on existing identities associated with the domain of the community.

We are going to be exploring our communities, and sharing our findings over the coming months and would welcome your thoughts and comments.