The Three Elements
Communities of practice consist of three fundamental elements: a domain of knowledge that creates common ground, a community of people who care about that domain and the shared practice that they develop within that domain.
It is through the domain that a sense of identity is created and the purpose of the community is defined. The domain inspires members of the community to participate and contribute because it is their common interest, the link between them. And, because it is common to all it allows members to focus on the issues of most interest and value and to exchange knowledge, ideas and tips in a common language. But a domain is not a fixed set of problems, it evolves as solutions are found and new issues present themselves or new members bring new problems along with their own fresh suggestions and approaches.
Large communities interested in a broad domain naturally break down into a number of smaller communities working on and contributing to a series of smaller, more tightly defined domains. These nested sub-communities enable members to become deeply engaged in a particular area when its relevance is high and then to move on when new subjects become important - all the while with a sense of belonging to the wider community. Communities where members' interests are readily engaged generate interactions based on mutual respect and trust and encourage a willingness to share ideas, expose one's lack of knowledge or understanding, ask difficult questions and learn from others. Having others who share your interest in the subject and yet bring their own personal perspectives and ideas to an identified problem creates a virtuous circle that is more than the sum of its parts. In a healthy community, members recognize that they are not directly trading their knowledge but that their contributions make the community more valuable for everyone and that in due course, in whatever form, they will benefit too.
Practice is the term applied to the ideas, tools, documents, case studies or frameworks that the members of the community develop, share and maintain. A community's practice should explore and improve on existing bodies of knowledge or ways of doing things and result in new resources in the form of models, principles, processes, articles, lessons learnt and new best practice. Throughout, the method of communicating and capturing knowledge should match the actual needs of practitioners. Successful practice development depends on a balance between the exchanges of tacit knowledge, as ideas are explored together, and on the codification of explicit knowledge into useable tools and documents. Participating in the creation of such codified knowledge is one of the strongest learning opportunities that can be found.
So, a community may undertake specific tasks and projects in the course of developing its practice, but it is not defined by these tasks, rather it is defined by its commitment to its domain and the exploration, development and sharing of knowledge within that field.