Communities of Practice

Communities of practice are one of the main building blocks of a Knowledge Management Framework. Communities of Practice are peer networks of practitioners within an organization, who help each other perform better by sharing their knowledge. For example, a Community of Practice might be set up for electrical engineers, so that engineers can raise issues and problems, and see if anyone in the community can provide insights and suggest solutions. Many of the larger organisations have set up dozens of communities of practice, some of which may have over a thousand members.

A company wishing to introduce communities of practice as a best practice sharing mechanism needs to know where to start and how to start. Which communities do you need to establish? How do you choose which communities to promote? Do you only work with existing communities, or can you start off communities in a particular knowledge area? All these questions should be answered by your Knowledge Management Strategy.

It should be recognized that there is more than one type of community. These operate in different ways, are different sizes, have different areas of focus, and address knowledge in different levels of maturity. Four types of community are described here.

There are a few discreate roles to be played in the community, the key role being the community leader - the person who is accountable for ensuring the community functions as a knowledge sharing mechanism. This person is involved in the start-up and growth of the community, and in developing and maintaining the community processes. The choice of a good leader is crucial to the effective operation of the community. The leader often reports to a community sponsor.

in some cases, the leader appoints a facilitator (in other cases, the leader also take the facilitator role). This recognised networker within the community facilitates the linkages and relationships between the members, as well as potentially stewarding any community output. A good facilitator leads from within, energises the community, and builds a feeling of trust and ownership among the community members. The main tasks of the facilitator include -

A community of practice thrives on communication. Without good communication, rapid exchange of knowledge and best practice within the community will be difficult or impossible. The best and easiest communication comes if the community is co-located, although the normal case is that the community is dispersed in many teams, many offices or even many countries. A community may choose a range of communications methods and tools depending on whether it needs to communicate synchronously (same-time communication) or asynchronously, and whether the community can meet at a given time, or not. Some of the communication tools and methods are discussed here.

There is generally no formal structure in a community of practice apart from the appointment of a leader and/or a community facilitator although sub groups can be used to work on allocated tasks. There is no particular structure that will necessarily suit a community of practice. You will undoubtedly see many levels of participation within the community, including

Communities of practice are often described as going through a life cycle of four or more stages - start-up, growth, plateau and decline. The maintenance levels and maintenance activity vary depending on the life-cycle stage of the community.

In real life, however, community life cycles are seldom as simple as this, and rather than a simple cycle, they go through multiple cycles of activity, together with seasonal highs and lows. One of the keys to managing a community through its life cycle is to measure the activity. Consider tracking the following measures;

It may be necessary to demonstrate the value of the first few communities of practice in any organisation. Business people are often sceptical about any new initiative, even one that costs as little as a community of practice, and would like to be convinced of the value. Special consideration should therefore be given to measuring and hence demonstrating the value delivered. Success stories need to be captured and shared to illustrate community value delivery. Even if you can demonstrate effective communication within the community, and an increase in the effectiveness in the area of practice, it is still good to have anecdotes that link the two. Try and get members of the community to tell the anecdotes - record them if possible. These stories are a powerful way of demonstrating the way the community works and that best practice has been shared and implemented.

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