In today's world, organizations are re-structured, business units are reorganized, projects are completed, and cross-functional teams are assembled and then dispersed again. And on each occasion knowledge, common experience and lessons learnt can be lost.
Set against this, a community of practice can provide a domain of knowledge that is more stable and enduring than any individual project, task or challenge. Communities of practice are neutral zones - separate from the pressures of everyday work. They are a place where members can offer advice on a project without any risk of becoming embroiled in it, where members can read someone's advice and choose to ignore it without causing offence. It is a place to think, reflect, learn and have ideas. For individuals who may not know which team they will join next, such a community - populated by like-minded professionals - can act as an anchor. An identifiable space where they can connect with other practitioners, refresh their thinking and continue their professional development.
Organizations that create or join a community of practice have a new arena for solving problems and gain access to a much wider range of perspectives on those issues. They also have a quick source of answers to questions, all of which reduce time and costs and improve the quality of decisions made. In the longer term, they increase their ability to build and retain talent and find they have newfound capacity for starting or participating in knowledge-development projects. They have a means to benchmark how their own processes and skills base compare with others and are able to tap into new capabilities and ensure that they stay at the forefront of relevant developments.
Individuals find that they have help with new or unfamiliar challenges, access to expertise, and the reassurance that comes from finding that others have wrestled with the same or similar problems. They also find they have a new and meaningful way to participate, as well as a sense of belonging to a field of growing expertise. In the long term they have a forum in which they can go on developing their skills and knowledge, benefit from others' experience, network to stay abreast of new ideas and enhance their own professional reputation.
Organizations that invest in a community of practice and individuals who participate in them get a return on their investment of both time and money that can be provided by few other opportunities. Communities of practice offer ways to manage and create knowledge that surpass static document databases and open the door to many of the ideals inherent in becoming a learning organization. Participation fosters an environment that is conducive to learning, opens up organizational boundaries and provides stimulus for the exchange of ideas. It develops authoritative and legitimate ways to question conventional wisdom and long-standing assumptions. It encourages experimentation by providing the means for people to come across new ideas and fresh thinking, to learn from others' experience and to share and transfer knowledge.
All of which means that both the organization's and the individual's capacity to
find and introduce new, better, faster, more efficient and effective ways of doing
things is significantly enhanced. Quite apart, that is, from the fact that both will
find that they are no longer tilting at windmills on their own! If you are interested
in a living example of a Community of Practice, try http://www.apmg-icp.com.