Communities of Practice

Many businesses today are building virtual communities using collaboration technologies centered on the worldwide web. A "Community of Practice" (CoP) is an informal network of people engaged in a particular profession, occupation, or job function who actively seek to work more effectively and to understand their work more fully. Communities of practice are important contributors to employee performance improvement.

CoP Components

Members of these communities communicate with each other through a complicated web of "personal networks" - smaller, frequently overlapping groups comprised of people who know, have worked with, and trust each other. The key to the success of these communities, and the formal organizations within which they operate, is that they are helpful. Members share their hard-won, practical knowledge with other members because the results are useful and personally gratifying. There is no abstract philanthropy at work here; the motivation is practical benefit.

In his book TALKING ABOUT MACHINES, Julian Orr (1996) discusses the forces that animate and inform the "occupational community" of Xerox copier repairmen that he studied in the early 1980's:

    They are focused on the work, not the organization, and the only valued status is that of full member of the community, that is, being considered a competent technician. In pursuit of this goal, they share information, assist in each other's diagnoses, and compete in terms of their relative expertise. Promotion out of the community is thought not to be worthwhile.

And concerning the wide geographical range that such communities can cover, he wrote:

    The occupational community shares few cultural values with the corporation; technicians from all over the country are much more alike than a technician and a salesperson from the same district.

CoP Orientation Diagram Communities are not the same as organizations. Depending on how a company is organized, communities of practice may closely parallel formal divisions (vertical ellipse at right) or, as is more common, they may cut laterally or even perpendicularly across several divisions (horizontal ellipse).

Current research indicates that active and healthy communities of practice are essential contributors to individual learning and organizational performance. As a primary conduit for knowledge and skill transfer, communities directly influence improved job performance and customer satisfaction. In a 1996 article in FORTUNE magazine author Thomas A. Stewart stated, "Shadowy groups called communities of practice are where learning and growth happen." Yet that same article went on to warn, "You can't control them - but they're easy to kill."

Over the years ROI Learning has developed techniques to help client organizations identify and assess existing communities within their organizations and foster new communities that encourage increased knowledge sharing in key areas of their companys' businesses. This kind of community facilitation is increasingly important for companies with mobile, international workforces. Using advanced communication technologies based on the Worldwide Web, we can provide new methods of interaction for communities composed of sales and service employees. A typical engagement would follow these steps.

  1. Community identification
  2. Community assessment
  3. Community support strategies
  4. Support implementation and monitoring

©D. Verne Morland, 2016.