Communities of Practice
Although the widespread use of the term "community of practice" is a recent phenomenon, mankind has belonged to such communities for millennia - since our hunter-gatherer forebears shared knowledge with each other on how to make flint tools, what roots and berries were edible and how to hunt wild animals in groups. In the Middle Ages, craft guilds, with their elaborate apprenticeship rules, became carefully constructed communities of practice. In more recent times the medical and legal professions were obvious proponents of the concept. Indeed all of us, without consciously realizing it, belong to communities of practice through the sports we play, the hobbies we enjoy or the type of work we do. Whether we are at the golf club or in a gardening club, we improve what we do and how we do it by learning from others. We exchange ideas and share knowledge.
In terms of its present use in the knowledge management field, there are many definitions for what constitutes a community of practice, but they generally share the same common elements:
- Common language - the group has some sort of language of its own (typically its own jargon)
- Shared background - the members have some shared background or baseline knowledge
- Common purpose - the group has a broad common purpose, which gives it a continuing impetus
- Creation of new knowledge - through the work of the group and the interaction of its member's new knowledge is created and shared
- Interaction - there needs to be some form of social interaction
- Dynamism - because of differential levels of knowledge and experience within the group there is a dynamic interplay between members as this is shared and recombined
- Evolution - there is continuing, evolutionary development within the group
- Voluntary - membership is generally voluntary
- Narration - swapping "stories" is a key way in which members share their knowledge
- Informal - the group is informal, with no official hierarchy
- Fluidity - newcomers arrive and old-timers leave
- Self perpetuating - as communities generate knowledge they reinforce and renew themselves
Because they are voluntary and informal, communities of practice benefit from cultivation but not from control. However, to thrive they need support and a wide variety of tools to enable the easy exchange and sharing of tips, ideas, knowledge and experience. Above all, they need a common, shared sense of purpose and understanding of what they are trying to achieve.
Good communities of practice collaborate directly, with members using one another as sounding boards, imparting knowledge and learning from each other. They are usually comprised of a diverse group of people with a variety of backgrounds and experience who find common cause in building best practice, solving problems, learning and coming up with new ideas. In the process, participants come to recognize that knowledge is "sticky". It can be shared without being lost and that in the process of sharing it, knowledge actually multiples. Innovation is, after all, no more and no less than the recombination of existing knowledge - but in new, better and different ways!
There are now many forms of communities of practice - they may be a group of engineers working in different divisions of a manufacturing company, they may be a mix of designers and engineers or members of an R&D function spread out internationally. They may be scientists or academics that stay in contact and meet annually or a company's sales staff who share selling pitches and problems from around the globe. People who are co-located or distributed in tens or hundreds of different locations may form them. They may communicate by physical meetings, emails, intranet or Internet or any combination of means. They may be created as a strategic initiative or grow organically. They may stay within divisional or organizational boundaries or be cross boundary and international is scale and scope. However, they do share certain fundamentals.