28 March 2012

On the Community of Practice

The Community of Practice is a concept that is used in professional and corporate circles to describe a community of people with common areas of interest, mostly in relation to the performance of role oriented tasks, but sometimes more generally. Ideas that underpin the Community of Practice include the concept of self-directed learning and knowledge sharing through storytelling, and collaborative problem solving.

The community of practice is manifested in work environments I attend through activities such as brown bag lunches, CoP monthly meetings, shared online spaces (such as a BA practice Wiki), Social media groups, on-line forums and so on. Communities of practice share many aspects of the master-Apprentice model without the formal hierarchical and power based roles inherent in the guild system. Communities of practice tend to be free and opt-in entities. People are typically free to join and leave when they want.

The community of practice is an idea full of contradictions; for example if it is voluntary and potentially quite ad hoc, how is knowledge on standards and quality developed and maintained? In this idea we find the challenges of creating and sustaining an effective community. People need to find purpose in participation, must find a way to both learn and contribute and must feel a sense of ownership in its success.

A Community of Practice is a difficult thing to make work over the long haul. A worthwhile consideration is; To what degree does this need to be a sustainable community? Is it still valuable if it comes, fulfils a need, and then once the need diminishes, the community disbands? This idea of a temporal organisation stands in contrast to the guild system, which like corporations creates an entity who’s main motivation is to sustain and grow its own power.

Given the CoP’s potentially temporal nature it’s worth considering the contrast with projects; CoPs don’t have a specific goal, and they don’t have a specific end date. While projects are typically led by a client’s vision, communities are led by an emergent vision from the group.

Given this concept fits so well with the idea of managing work in complex domains it’s surprising we don’t hear people talking more about leveraging Communities of Practice as vehicles for getting things done.


  1. Nice post Craig! It is something that I have been thinking about deeply ever since Stoos started up. I have been happy that a community of practice initiated to look at leadership but I can see that the lack of a vision, despite a common purpose, may result in it stagnating.

    It is interesting - you want the CoP to evolve and self-manage but someone (or a v small group) will always have to kick it off and be the admin master.

    We have lots of these CoPs in Linked in, but is it enough?

    1. Hi Renee,

      I like the Linkedin groups myself, although they are not all created equal. I also like the experiences I am having with the meetup communities in Melbourne.

      Not all groups are equal though.

      For example, although there is goodwill among a few where I work (Swinburne Uni) there are not sufficient numbers of people willing to go beyond the day job to make the CoPs we created last year to really fire. It's likely a combination of culture and scale. We are neither big nor sufficiently out of the bureaucratic mindset yet.

      The internet is a fertile ground for CoPs because the world is a big place and enough like minded people can come together despite geography and timing. Similarly, the thirst for knowledge in the agile community means you'll almost always get an engaged community by default.

      The success criteria I described in the post need to be seeded and tended (like in Jurgen's gardening metaphor) until the garden is self sustaining. But not in a guild-like manner.

      The problem we face is that volunteers (like me) have a limited time they'll remain a central facilitator. Eventually you either get bored or run out of energy. Either way you move on. And that is where most groups die a quiet death.

      So - Plan from the beginning to grow a community, not just run a series of events.

      And be aware that for people to want to stay running these things over time they will eventually seek to flip it into a guild like group.

      One last thought that has been in my mind is that we should be seriously considering that groups like these should be temporary by default, rather than assume that we need to make them sustainable. Why, for example, will the local IT community need Intro to Scrum talks in 2020 for instance?

      Thanks again for your comment. Hope my reply wasn't too rambling.