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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.