Formal corporate structures may be good for allocating resources, making
large decisions and aligning accountabilities but they are insufficient to
the development, application and spread of knowledge. The informal nature
of communities is much more conducive to learning, continually increasing
mastery and development of new knowledge.
The idea of "Communities of Practice" is taking hold in this time of increasing awareness of the value of knowledge. While the form of these has changed over the centuries, development of productive capacity has always taken place in communities of practice where the masters are at the core and those wanting to become masters form the community. In much earlier times, the only way to learn was as an apprentice, a "junior member" of such a community.
The advancing levels of knowledge, education and communication in current times have given new life, form and meaning to this idea.
The particular feature of "communities of practice" in corporations is that they are also "communities of commitment". That is, they are formed around shared commitments to have the knowledge and practice be applied, effective and produce results that forward the interests of the whole. The practices are focused on performance in co-operative ventures in a competitive environment.
These combinations of practice and commitment which are at the heart of "Communities of Practice" allow for processes which are dramatically more effective than ordinary work practices. It is only when we feel we are members of a community, together and supporting each other in our endeavors, do we feel secure enough and comfortable enough to challenge and be challenged in ways that move things forward rapidly and can be counted on to produce results. Formal review processes, no matter how "tough", can never match those of a community challenging its own performance and its own thinking.
[An oil company found it had drifted from being a world leader in reliability for drilling and producing results, to a lower quartile performer in that same area. The expertise of the group had not reduced but the processes that they used for review - to challenge each other - had become formal and remote from the daily concerns of those doing the work. The reviews wavered between "tough" and "nice" but failed to capture engagement with the real issues of performance and mastery of an uncertain activity.
Researchers in a biotech company could not effectively challenge each other's programs until they became a community and realized that they were developing their common interests rather than performing against some personal or even corporate standard. This company is now one of the leaders in its broad field.]
To become a marketing master, you must be part of the community of those who have a commitment to continuing learning and increasing effectiveness in marketing. One of the best ways of learning is to be engaged in teaching others and in developing new approaches to old challenges. The other is to continually confront the marketplace, to be tested against reality, and to use that as learning for continued development. Sharing that in a "Community of Practice" increases your ability to learn individually and also increases the knowledge of the whole community.
The challenge is to nurture the development of these communities within the more formal and rigid structures of normal corporate organization. These formal structures provide the environment for the "Communities of Practice" and the resources required for its support. Yet they cannot make it occur nor do more than nurture the conditions that favor their robust development. The formal can only provide conditions like a gardener does to his garden. What grows there cannot be forced or manipulated.
In it's turn, a "Community of Practice" which is part of a corporate requires some resources for its support and, in return for that, can be expected to make commitments for development and delivery of value. These commitments should be not so much promises for which they are held to account but more mutual expressions of commitment with reciprocal supporting structures. These structures will be for the development of the knowledge of the community and the connection between that development and the intentions, interests and commitments of the business that supports it.
It may be that the organization of the future will be an organization of "Communities of Practice". In the interim, fostering the growth and development of such communities will provide the maximum in learning, knowledge development and flexibility of response to the marketplace.
To begin the formation of "Communities of Practice", there needs to be a process which discovers what is wanting to happen, what is natural to existing interests, what will emerge and prosper from the existing interests and commitments of competent and motivated individuals. These communities need to be provided a space to discover themselves and be nurtured in their early formative times.
The communities will turn out to already exist but be relatively ineffective as communities. Many times, they can be discovered by exploring where professionals are frustrated that they do not meet, share or develop enough. They are often discovered where possibility is being frustrated for little apparent reason except those standards of lack of time and resources and, therefor, sustainable interest.
Leadership understanding and commitment is missing within most corporations for this particular idea. That is to say, leaders have not thought in this way, have not appreciated the potential and have not created the environment for growth of "Communities of Practice". The remedy for this is not difficult. What is required is a basic understanding and an expression that these are to be nurtured, some alteration in structure that removes a few barriers and some small investment of resources to support a formulation phase. And, of course, some executive time to nurture by intention and attention.
The informal nature of communities and the possibilities of modern technology make the formation of communities quite easy to accomplish. One of the difficulties with formal organizations that must be overcome is to see that the formal will often kill such initiatives that want to happen naturally. The formal must learn the nature of support that is appropriate and refrain from many of its ordinary practices of management. This is not a call to abdicate but to understand and lead and manage appropriately to the nature of the entity.
[Footnote: Xerox is effective at repairing copiers not primarily because it has good manuals and good training courses. It is effective mainly because it has a group of repair people of varying degrees of mastery who constantly share with each other in ways that promote learning, development and effective work in the field. They use "walkie talkies" to get instant help and to share their "war stories" with each other so that what is developed is a corporate or community knowledge beyond what any individual could master. IBM discovered that the best sales training was to put beginners in their early months on the job physically next to master so that they could learn by observation and intuition as well as by explicit teaching from those masters.]
Community of Practice
Definitions | Issues | Best Practices | Recommended Reading | Resources for Further Learning
Back to the top
© Copyright, 2001, Community Intelligence Labs