11.3.2 Where and why to develop Communities of Practice

Communities develop their practice through a variety of activities. Let’s have a look at the table 1 that provides a few typical examples:1

 Table1: few typical examples

The concept of communities of practice has found a number of practical applications such as in business, organisational design, government, education, professional associations, development projects and civic life. Have you heard any of them? Does a CoP exist in your business or social environment?

The concept has been adopted most readily by people in business because of the recognition that knowledge is a critical asset that needs to be managed strategically. Initial efforts at managing knowledge had focused on information systems with disappointing results. CoP provided a new approach, which focused on people and on the social structures that enable them to learn from each other. Today, there is hardly any organisation of a reasonable size that does not have some form communities-of-practice initiative. But why this rush of interest in CoP as a vehicle for developing strategic capabilities in organisations?

  • CoP enable practitioners to take collective responsibility for managing the knowledge they need, recognizing that they are in the best position to do this.
  • Communities among practitioners create a direct link between learning and performance, because the same people participate in communities of practice and in teams and business units.
  • Practitioners can address the tacit and dynamic aspects of knowledge creation and sharing, as well as the more explicit aspects.
  • Communities are not limited by formal structures: they create connections among people across organisational and geographic boundaries.

Like businesses, government organisations face complex knowledge challenges. They have adopted CoP for much the same reasons, though the formality of bureaucracy can come in the way of open knowledge sharing. Beyond internal communities, there are typical government problems such as education, health and security that require coordination and knowledge sharing across all levels of government.

Schools and districts are organisations in their own right and they face increasing knowledge challenges. The first applications of communities of practice have been in teacher training and in providing isolated administrators with access to colleagues. CoP affects educational practices along 3 dimensions:

  1. Internally: How to organise educational experiences that ground school learning in practice through participation in communities around subject matters?
  2. Externally: How to connect the experience of students to actual practice through participation in broader communities beyond the walls of the school?
  3. Over lifetime of students: How to serve the lifelong learning needs of students by organizing CoP focused on topics of continuing interest to students beyond the initial schooling period?2

A growing number of associations are seeking ways to focus on learning through reflection on practice. Their members are restless and their allegiance is fragile. They need to offer high-value learning activities. The peer-to-peer learning activities typical of communities of practice offer a complementary alternative to more traditional course offerings and publications.3

Social Sector:
In the civic domain, there is an emergent interest in building communities among practitioners. In the non-profit world, for instance, foundations are recognizing that philanthropy needs focus on learning systems in order to fully leverage funded projects.  But practitioners are seeking peer-to-peer connections and learning opportunities. This includes regional economic development, with intra-regional communities on various domains.4

International development:
There is increasing recognition that the challenge of developing nations is as much knowledge as a financial challenge. A number of people believe that a communities-of-practice approach can provide a new paradigm for development work. It emphasizes knowledge building among practitioners. Some development agencies now see their role as conveners of such communities, rather than as providers of knowledge.5

The web:
New technologies such as the internet have extended the reach of our interactions beyond the geographical limitations of traditional communities, but the increase in flow of information does not obviate the need for community. In fact, it expands the possibilities for community and calls for new kind of communities shared practice.6

But we should state that a community of practice development and maintenance is not limited to the fields mentioned above. It can be developed in every field of interest regardless of whether it is an academic, a business sector or even a hobby.

Now it’s your turn to take approximately fifteen minutes and write down two communities of practice that you are aware of or imagine could exist and describe them in brief (domain, community and practice).

1 http://www.ewenger.com/theory/
3 Ibid
4 Ibid
5 Ibid
6 Ibid