Book Review by Gabriel Sim
We have heard how much “Communities of Practice” will revolutionize learning in an organization by helping to unlock tacit knowledge. While it is very easy to understand the theory behind CoPs, implementing the concept can be very challenging.
In this key reference book, Cultivating Communities of Practice, by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder, provides a crystallized perspective by submitting a structural model for the CoP’s based on the experiences culled from the World Bank, Shell Oil and McKinsey & Co. The authors also illustrate design principles to help readers understand and cultivate CoPs in their own organizations.
Overview of Communities of Practice
“Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, 2002)
The value of the Communities of Practice lies in its ability to connect personal development and the professional identity of practitioners to the strategy of the organization. Hence, communities of practice yield short-term and long-term benefits to both the organization and the individual community member.
Basic elements of Communities of Practice are:
1. Domain – What are we about? Here, Domain defines a scope satisfying members of the community and the organization. The issues would range from mundane know-how to highlight specialized professional expertise
2. Community – Who are we? Here, community refers to the people and the environment in which people interact, learn and build relationships.
3. Practice – What do we know? Here, common knowledge needs are identified. These can be a set of framework, ideas, tools and documents community members share
Although Communities of Practice develop organically, a carefully crafted design can drive their evolution. Building communities differs from contemporary organization design which may traditionally focus on creating structure, systems and roles toward achieving specific organization goals. Wenger, McDermott & Snyder set forth seven principles for cultivating Communities of Practice, which are meant to bring out the community’s own internal direction, character and energy. The seven design principles are:
1. Design for evolution: As Cops are dynamic in nature, design should reflect adaptability. The key to this point is to combine design elements that help catalyze community development
2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspective: Good community design requires the perspective of an insider, one that is familiar with the types of activities within. However, the perspective of an outsider may help members see the possibilities within their own mechanism
3. Invite different level of participation: In any community, there exist different levels of participation. All members, regardless of participation levels, should be valued
4. Develop both public and private community spaces: Orchestrate activities in both public and private spaces that use the strength of individual relationships to enrich events and use events to strengthen individual relationships
5. Focus on value: Communities must offer value or there will not be the incentive for participation
6. Combine familiarity and excitement: As communities mature, they settle into familiar ways of meeting and conduct. Yet, communities also nee challenge and spontaneity to provide a break from everyday occurrences
7. Create a rhythm for the community: Vibrant communities have a rhythm. The tempo of their interactions is greatly influenced by the rhythm of community events
Developing the Community of Practice
Communities of Practice go through three life phases, which include five stages that represent the life cycle of a community. They are:
1. Formation (potential and coalescing): This is the early stages of development, relating to the planning and launching Communities of Practices. This is where initial networks are discovered, common ground is formed and relationships are formed
2. Integration (maturing and stewardship): This is the mature stage of development, relating to the growing and sustaining the Communities of Practice
3. Transformation (transformation): At this stage, the community may fade away of officially close
Distributed communities are those that cannot rely on face-to-face meetings and interactions as its primary vehicle for connecting people. Distinctive factors of distribute communities are:
1. Distance: More difficult to connect and members are not visible unless they make a contribution
2. Size: More distance can lead to greater size; cannot know hundreds of members personally
3. Affiliation: Conflicting priorities among senior managers; how to deal with intellectual property rights
4. Culture: Communication behaviour, misinterpretation of behaviour; language differences
Four design principles to design distributed communities:
1. Achieve alignment among all stakeholders
2. Create a structure that promotes both local variations and global connections
3. Build a rhythm strong enough to maintain community visibility through technology-mediated communications and face-to-face meetings
4. Develop private space of the community more systematically, such as personalizing membership by displaying photographs of each member
Potential pitfalls of Communities of Practice
Rather than painting a sanitized picture, the authors warn of the potential downside of Communities of Practice. The problems arise from dysfunctional behaviours in any of the three structural elements. With respect to the domain, community members may either be overly zealous in guarding the domain which leads to imperialistic perspective, or lose ownership over the domain resulting in the community becoming marginalised by the organisation. With respect to the community, members may bond too tightly resulting in egalitarianism. Rigid conformity to the group leads to mediocrity in performance. With respect to practice, members may develop an overly strong sense of competence that leads to dogmatism. The downside is not confined within a single community but also in a constellation of communities as well as the organisation as a whole.
Measurement is necessary for communities of practice to gain visibility and influence as well as guide their own development.
A five-step guide for the measurement process:
1. Identify the addressees and the purpose of the measurement
2. Determine the types of stories and related statistics to collect
3. The choice of the approach to raise the awareness of the measurement
4. Define the scope and time for to carry out the measurement
5. The manner in which the data collected can be combined into an overall picture
Community-based knowledge initiatives
Strategy to design community-based knowledge initiatives:
1. Phase 1: lay the foundation by identifying the capabilities required by the organization; technology could be used as an enabler to connect people as well as serve as a knowledge repository
2. Phase 2: launch the initiative; three tactical choices have to be considered: the high versus low visibility of the launch; the top-down versus bottom-up of identifying viable communities; the parallel versus sequential launch of communities
3. Phase 3: Expand the existing communities as well as to integrate among different communities to streamline communication
4. Phase 4: Consolidate the communities so that they are integrated with other functions and fully aligned with the business strategies and policies of the organization
5. Phase 5: Transformation of the initiative
Broader potential of Communities of Practice
The need to manage knowledge is not merely restricted within the business arena. Communities of Practice may be formed even in society and include areas outside business such as housing, parenting, health, education and areas of practice associated to the human society.
Communities of Practice is relevant to any context so long as there is a domain of knowledge to explore and develop, a community of members who interact and a practice in which they are engaging
This book is highly recommended to anyone keen to get their Communities of Practice off the ground. It is extremely useful in that it explains why Communities of Practice are a key to managing knowledge and provides practical advice on the art of cultivating communities.
While the authors endeavor to provide some examples of actual implementations which could be easily emulated, they are generally not substantiated with specific real-life examples. For example, it would be useful to ‘showcase’ an organization moving through the five stages of development as well as specific live examples of the downsides of Communities of Practice.
About Gabriel Sim:
Gabriel is an information professional with 12 years' experience in the business information and research industry, having worked for an information agency, market research agency and business consulting companies. Currently, he is the Knowledge Manager with Fusion Consulting, a regional business consulting company.
He has a strong interest in the field of information management, particularly in identifying information needs, acquiring information, organising information, and developing information products. He holds a MSc (Information Studies) degree with the Nanyang Technological University.