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Communities of Practice

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

"Not so long ago, companies were reinvented by teams. Communities of practice and commitment may reinvent them yet again - if managers learn to cultivate these fertile organizational forms without destroying them"

-Etienne C. Wenger and William M. Snyder

In today's economy, knowledge is king and most "winning" companies are doing what ever they can to cultivate and capitalize on that fact. The purpose of this article is to report on a new organizational form that is emerging that promises to leverage existing structures and radically improve knowledge sharing, learning, and adaptation in the new economy. This new form comes in two flavors: communities of practice and communities of commitment.

What are Communities of Practice?

Communities of practice are groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise. At most major corporations, the implementation of quality improvement programs, health and safety programs, and leader development efforts offer many of the benefits of practice communities. While these group probably would not describe themselves as a "community," if you observe their drive at mutual purpose (quality improvement, health and safety reps), their informal bond (all are assigned to sponsoring organizations formally but belong to this group informally), and the knowledge sharing practices that are evolving in this group, it would suggest that they are a community of practice working towards their individual growth and development and the contribution of this growth to evolving the quality of technical and social processes within the sponsoring organization.

Forming Communities of Practice

In a desirable future, newly forming communities of practice may meet on a formal schedule with predictable periodicity while others may remain connected to one another by email networks or threaded discussion groups. These meetings may have a structured agenda or may be free-flowing handling issues that are deemed mutually important to the members assembled at that moment. One of the artifacts of this kind of community is that even though it may generate structured agendas, it may not follow them very closely as it yields to emergent needs and issues within the group. Even so, people within communities of practice share their knowledge and experiences in free-flowing creative ways that foster new approaches to problem solving and innovation.

With regard to "fast companies" pushing for higher levels of productivity and performance, I am thinking of the newly emerging leader-manager. With a new set of expectations driven by a new set of competencies, organizations on the cutting-edge need a way of formally and informally developing new skills, attitudes, and knowledge in their leaders to meet the challenge of creating and sustaining a winning and inclusive culture. My suggestion is to develop leadership communities of practice where individuals can learn from each other, share best practices, and focus expert intervention to improve both transformational and transactional leadership.

In a world-class manufacturing organization client system I work with, there has been some experimentation with this organizational form that shows promise. This organization has provided the resources for people in designated leadership positions (and others who impact the quality of work-life of individual contributors) to come together on a weekly basis for one hour to discuss the issue leadership. Sometimes this group is lead by its Unit Manager, other times by one of the members of the group, and sometimes by experts on a particular subject. The issues discussed are the ones defined by the group as meaningful to their day-to-day leadership experience. While not always satisfying to all members, most people report that this one-hour, so-called leadership academy, is the high point of their week and cite numerous ways the community helps them define themselves as well-rounded leaders.

Supporting Communities of Practice

In my view, it is likely that newly emerging leader-managers in most organizations can benefit from this kind of community building activity. Each company would have to provide resources and structure to foster the ongoing discussion of the meaning of "winning" and "inclusion," and to freely explore their strengths and growing edges on the issues of transformational and transactional leadership. Simply by taking one hour for every thirty-nine hours worked, leadership teams from all over the company can further extend the learning process initiated in more formal educational settings.

The form is simple. Take an hour and make the first fifteen minutes a time for structure input by a discussion leader or subject matter expert brought in for this purpose. The next thirty minutes should be used to discuss the material, share ideas and best practices and attend member needs on the presenting issue. The last fifteen minutes should address other needs and plan for the next gathering. An "Open Space" process that elicits the expertise of members and fosters the sharing of knowledge immediately useful to the membership could also drive these meetings. This one-hour could be a part of existing leadership team meetings or as a designated time for ongoing meetings.

Since there are potential members throughout the organization working various shifts and on a wide variety of project teams, it is highly recommend that the community fully embrace electronic forums where information, best practices, project updates and innovative ideas can be explored. The key here is knowledge management. From my vantage point, the creation, capture and application of knowledge and innovation are hallmarks of evolving high performing organizations. By fostering this level of interaction and knowledge creation, you will quickly see a need to provide a structure for managing and applying this knowledge and gain an irrepressible and incomparable strategic competitive advantage.

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